Demystifying The Saint

Essay by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1997

The Saint Poster

The most recent theatrical incarnation of "The Saint", based on the stories of Leslie Charteris, and the Roger Moore television series of the 1960s, is an interesting examination of the cultural shift occurring in Western society as the Millennium draws to a close. Many of the themes espoused in this film have an actual basis in philosophy and Christian lore, which this essay will examine.

This spy thriller focuses on Simon Templar (Val Kilmer of "Ghost and the Darkness"), a freelance thief relying on technology and disguises to carry out his tasks. He is hired by a former communist-turned billionaire-capitalist Ivan Tretiak (Rade Serbedzija of "Mighty Joe Young") to steal the formula for cold fusion from Professor Emma Russel (Elizabeth Shue of "Palmetto"), as part of an elaborate plot to overthrow the democratically elected government of Russia.

The character of Simon Templar is a post-modern protagonist, representative of the social condition espoused by cultural theorist Frederic Jameson. In his thesis, he writes that in this state, a hallmark of late capitalism, 'moral judgments are irrelevant or inoperative'. At the beginning of the film, Simon Templar is a thief for hire, who subordinates his own moral judgments in the pursuit of monetary compensation. He has no emotional connection to others, and the basis for all his relationships is the transaction of goods and services-- at first he steals from Tretiak, and in the next scene, he is hired by him. This is indicative of the amoral existence in which these characters find themselves in.

The paths taken by Templar and Tretiak serve as a point of contrast. As Templar uses deception to gain the trust of Russel, he finds himself forming an attachement to her, which creates a state of moral contradiction. Having realized the incompatibility of a post-modern existence with the formation of meaningful relationships, he then sets out to outwit Tretiak and break the contract with him-- in fact turning his back on his former capitalist ways. On the other hand, Tretiak, who once represented Marxist idealism in the Soviet Republic (which ideally subjugates personal materialistic pursuits to the betterment of the community), has embraced capitalism, and seeks to accumulate more wealth under the guise of Nationalism. In a speech to his supporters, he calls for a strong Russia, harking back to the halcyon days of strong central government, which despite the Marxist underpinnings, is actually a ruse to solidify his own drive for greed. And so what we have here are the two possible eventualities in the evolution of Western society. On one hand, you have the path taken by Templar, which is to gradually shift away from the pursuit of commodities and to foster the emotional connections and moral frameworks necessary to attain fulfillment in the modern world, thereby finding redemption. Tretiak's path ultimately leads to his downfall-- his relentless pursuit of transaction-based relationships, despite his rhetoric otherwise, is a false goal. In order to thrive, Western society must shift away from such a culturally-sterile state through the cultivation of a viable civilization.

Who are you?
No one has a clue, least of all me.

Another facet of cultural theory in "The Saint" is revealed in examination of the character of Templar. He is a master of disguise, able to switch identities in order to achieve his goals. So in a sense, he adopts the options of others, instead of creating his own. Thus he has no discernible identity, an ambiguous existence that arose with the Industrial Revolution in the late nineteenth century. From a social perspective, this is indicative of how we perceive ourselves. It has been theorized that identity is merely a fabrication imposed by others, and that identity has no meaning outside of a social context. For example, when defining ones' self, it is often easiest to say that "I work for such-and-such a company", "my job is to do such-and-such", or that "I am such-and-such's friend". Hence, we define ourselves and our place in any social organization by our relations to others. Simon Templar's identity is vague at best when we first see him, because the associations he makes, which are bereft of any humanity, do not provide a point of reference for his individuality. In fact, he only begins to have identity after his relationship with Russel, which is not based on a quid-pro-quo. So to perpetuate the post-modern existence is to also perpetuate the loss of identity brought about by the Industrial Revolution.

The character of Russel, who serves as the catalyst of change for Templar, could be construed as the 'noble savage', the pre-industrial human state. She is a scientist, who thrives on the acquisition of knowledge and betterment of society in general, epitomized by her desire to share the secret of cold fusion with the world for free. Her non-academic pursuits also support this observation. She is an avid lover of sculpture, and poetry adorns the walls of her home-- both are forms of shared experience, a method of knowledge dissemination. In his pursuit of her cold fusion formula, Templar adopts these noble pursuits as part of his ruse, yet he finds himself forever changed by the experience, with Russel representing what he aspires to be. It is a glimmer of hope that there is salvation to be had for the isolated existence of post-modernism, in the form of shared experience.

Another interesting interpretation can be found through examination of the religious symbolism found throughout the film. The film opens with a flashback to a younger Simon Templar in a strict Catholic school. In addition to his use of disguises, he takes the name of saints for his alter-egos. From these observations, one can derive a commentary on the role of religion in modern society.

Simon's life in the Catholic school is harsh. The head priest is an overbearing fascist who demands unquestioned obedience from his charges and is quick to punish. This is representative of the traditional role of the church, as leader and punisher of the community. However, with this blind obedience comes a discomforting side effect: the death of the innocence. The young Simon desperately wants to pursue his own destiny, but the priest, representative of the church, has other plans for him. They assign Simon a name, a name that he rejects. In order to make Simon accept his given name, the priest first canes him. Failing that, he punishes all the students, barring them from eating until Simon accepts his given name. This culminates in the death of a girl that he is fond of-- and it is this pivotal moment that Simon rejects all emotional connections and pursues a vagrant's existence, starting with his escape from the school. It is quite ironic, that in the attempt to instill a structure on Simon's life, the church's action actually leads to a state of emotional and intellectual paralysis and the subsequent embrace of post-modernism.

However, on the flip side, it is perhaps the ideals of the church that have merit, and "The Saint" suggests that adoption of these ideals, outside of the constraints of a rigid social structure, is essential for the evolution away from the post-modern society. When Simon Templar meets Russel, he says that his name is Thomas More, which is quite significant. Sir Thomas More was canonized as a Saint for his act of passive resistance against King Henry VIII, that resulted in his execution. King Henry VIII sought to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and to marry Anne Boleyn. Of course, this was contrary to Catholic dogma, and so King Henry VIII formed the Anglican Church, naming himself as the head of the Church, supplanting the Pope. He sought approval for his new marriage, and demanded a declaration of loyalty from all his subjects, acknowledging the annulment of his previous marriage and 'blessing' his union with Boleyn. More, being an esteemed advisor to King Henry VIII, stuck with his convictions, and refused to give his blessing. Despite all attempts by King Henry VIII and his allies to convince him otherwise, More was put on trial and beheaded, and not long after, his property was seized and his widow cast out into the streets.

If one examines the literary account of these events, in Robert Bolt's play "A Man for All Seasons", one can find post-modern elements within its narrative. "All men have a price," is a line that is uttered in the play which makes reference to the writings of Niccolo di Bernardo Machiavelli, which were characterized by a cynical view on Man and outlined the means by which he can be manipulated. However, King Henry VIII finds that despite every favor or threat that he offers, More does not have a price-- his moral judgments are intact. More goes to his death, unwilling to take part in a transaction that will save his own life. Is it a coincidence that Simon Templar adopts this name and that he begins his rejecting his post-modern ways not long after?

Another element found in "A Man for All Seasons" is the character of the Common Man. Throughout the play, the Common Man character will 'step out' of the action on the stage and speak directly to the audience, serving as a narrator. He would then reach into a 'property basket' and change his clothing to become a peripheral character in the play. This is representative of the 'alienation effect' that Bolt was striving for, allowing the audience to remain critically detached from the events on the stage, thereby retaining their full analytical faculties to interpret the subtleties of dialogue and theme. It is through the Common Man that we see the nobility of More's decision the protest the King's actions, and we gain an insight to the perspective of society to the moral dilemma presented. "The Saint" has its own Common Man, in the form of Simon Templar. As mentioned before, he slips into various disguises, and it is his journey of redemption that the audience identifies with. Simon Templar is a metaphor for the displaced 'noble savages' that we all are, and only by following his rejection of post-modern values can we all find salvation.

In conclusion, "The Saint" is a compelling examination into the social underpinnings in the society begat by capitalism and the Industrial Revolution. Many of the thematic elements of "The Saint" have a basis in modern philosophy and point to the necessity of a cultural shift in order for society, let alone individuals, to thrive. "The Saint" also suggests that one of the means to achieve this is to adopt the ideals espoused by the church, but outside of the traditional infrastructure that has dominated for hundreds of years.

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