Since the first feature films were made by Hollywood in the early 20th century – they have been peddling conspiracy theories. All social media has done is amplify this stuff to an unparalleled degree. Whether it’s faked moon landings or clones of Hitler being created in Latin America – there’s a movie for every conspiracy theory you can imagine!
How about the moon landings never happened? Ever since Neil Armstrong made a giant leap for mankind by stepping to the surface of the moon – there’s been endless speculation that it never happened. One conspiracy theory is that fake filmed footage to fool the public was overseen by Stanley Kubrick who had just directed 2001: A Space Odyssey which included scenes on the moon.
In 1978, James Brolin and O. J. Simpson played astronauts in the conspiracy theory movie Capricorn One. The plot involves a manned mission to Mars that goes wrong due to technical faults with the space module. To avoid embarrassment, the government creates a Mars-like environment in a studio and the astronauts pretend to have landed on the red planet. But in order to keep things totally secret, the astronauts have to be killed. This played to lingering widespread suspicions that nobody had ever been to the moon.
Since the end of the Second World War, there’s been a great deal of speculation about how many of Hitler’s top Nazis secretly fled Germany to Latin America. Was the Vatican involved? Did fascist and military dictators in Latin American countries shelter some of the most evil people in the 20th century? The 1978 movie The Boys from Brazil certainly thought so.
This has to be one of the most absurd conspiracy theory plots ever concocted. Veteran Hollywood actor Gregory Peck (who must have needed the money) plays Dr Josef Mengele, a real-life Nazi doctor who conducted unspeakable experiments in the Auschwitz concentration camp. The movie had him in Brazil decades later developing Hitler clones. The intention was that these little boys would grow up to be Fuhrers and take over the world.
The assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 has been blamed on the CIA, the mafia and of course Lee Harvey Oswald. In 1991, director Oliver Stone brought us JFK – a conspiracy theory laden feast of conjecture and inference. Most controversially, it pointed an accusing finger at Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s immediate successor as President of the United States. Stone came in for a mountain of criticism but the movie was a box office smash.
In 1962, The Manchurian Candidate gave us the story of a US President secretly in the grip of the Soviet Union. The champion of the free world was actually a Communist agent. I know what some of you are thinking – replace the Soviet Union with Russia and we have a Manchurian Candidate in the White House today! In 2004, the film was remade with a president under the control of a multinational corporation. Time for another update then?
FIND OUT MORE: Movies about the Nazis
Forward to 1990 and we have the release of Godfather III – the third of the Godfather gangster trilogy directed by Francis Ford Coppola. It’s arguably the weakest of the three films. The conspiracy theory plot features the murder of a recently elected pope and financial skullduggery within the Vatican. These are heavy references to the real-life scandal at the Vatican controlled Banco Ambrosiano at the end of the 1970s and the sudden death of Pope John Paul I only a month after his election in 1978.
The theme of a murdered pope continues with Angels and Demons – a movie based on the novel by Dan Brown.
Are there any movies you’ve enjoyed that promote crazy or feasible conspiracy theories?
In an early nineteenth century book in my library I came across a fascinating story that I’d like some historical sleuths out there to confirm or deny. The claim in the book is that on the Throne of St Peter in the Vatican – held aloft by the four Doctors of the Church – is inscribed the declaration of faith made by all Muslims (the Shahadah): “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet (or Messenger)”
I came across this because the book is a calendar of holy events during the year and the 18th January, just gone, is The Feast of St Peter’s Chair. The book describes the throne at the end of the nave in St Peter’s basilica – the centre of the Roman Catholic church:
A glory of seraphim, with groups of angels, sheds a brilliant light upon its splendours. This throne enshrines the real, plain, worm-eaten, wooden chair on which St Peter, the prince of the apostles, is said to have pontificated
The chair has not been seen in modern times. It is indeed a worm-eaten relic donated to pope John VIII in the 9th century by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Bald. He gave the pope this present in return for being crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the pontiff, thereby making him the divinely anointed ruler of central Europe. This papal ceremony had been initiated by his grandfather Charlemagne.
Pope John VIII was in terrible trouble. The Muslim Saracens had overrun Sicily and southern Italy and were menacing Rome. He needed the help of the emperor. In the end, Charles couldn’t give the papacy the support it badly needed and the pope turned to the Byzantine empire for assistance. This angered some in Rome and he became the first pope to be assassinated.
Fast forward to the French Revolution and the wars of Napoleon in the early nineteenth century. The French leader took Italy and, as in other places, Napoleon’s soldiers looted religious sites. They were imbued with the anti-clerical ideas of the revolution and not cowed by the holiness of the Vatican. Once they got into the basilica, they had the throne of St Peter in their sights. By now, the ancient relic was encased in seventeenth century statuary – a magnificent ebony and gold construction.
The sacrilegious curiosity of the French broke through all obstacles to their seeing the chair of St Peter. They actually removed its superb casket and discovered the relic. Upon its mouldering and dusty surface were traced carvings, which bore the appearance of letters. The chair was quickly brought into a better light, the dust and cobwebs removed, and the inscription faithfully copied. The writing is in Arabic characters and is the well-known confession of Mahometan faith – “There is but one GOD and MAHOMET is his prophet!”
The book speculates that the chair might have been crusader spoil from the east – though that would be contradicted by the account of it being an earlier donation in the ninth century, 200 years before the First Crusade. The statement inscribed on the chair is known as the “Shahadah” – which only has to be recited three times in order for somebody to become a Muslim. In our time, it’s also the Arabic statement on the flags of Daesh or the so-called Islamic State.
Coincidentally, there is another throne of St Peter held in the church of San Pietro di Castello in Venice – once the seat of the Venetian patriarchs. This church is rarely visited by tourists, though it should be. The throne is clearly modelled from an Islamic gravestone. Historians believe its journey began in the Muslim Fatimid empire. When that collapsed, it was most likely looted by Byzantine troops. Then during the Fourth Crusade in 1204, it would have ended up in Venetian hands after their soldiers ransacked Constantinople.
Back to the throne in Rome – it was exposed again to public view in 1867. This was for the eighteenth centenary of the martyrdom of Saints Peter and Paul. Photos were taken by the Alessandri brothers at the time. The throne is one foot ten inches high and just under three feet wide. With metal rings on the side, it was clearly intended to be carried with poles – presumably with the pope seated in it. Bits had been hacked off for relics to be given away. The “arabesque” motifs were noted by spectators.
And as my book notes:
This story has been since hushed up, the chair replaced, and none but the unhallowed remember the fact, and none but the audacious repeat it. Yet such there are, even at Rome!