In 2001, former Catholic priest James Carroll published the 760-page tome, Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews: A History, in which he lays partial blame for the genocide of six million Jews by the Nazis on anti-Semitism engendered by the Catholic Church. Carroll traces a militant perversion of Jesus Christ's essential message of universal peace and brotherhood to the Christian conversion of Roman general Constantine on the eve of seizing control of the Roman Empire by the sword in 312 A.D. The life symbols of early Christianity - fish, lamb, and shepherd - were superseded by the death symbol of the cross, and blame for Christ's death was affixed on the entire Jewish people. In great detail, Carroll traces actions by Catholic priests, inquisitors, and popes to atrocious violence against Jews.
Directed and co-adapted for the screen by Oren Jackoby, the 2007 documentary, Constantine's Sword, expands the scope of Carroll's pre-9/11 book to include evangelical Christians among the purveyors of religious intolerance, and Muslims among the victims. The film begins in Colorado Springs, Colorado, home of the U.S. Air Force Academy, where a 2004 Yale University study found evidence of a climate of religious intolerance, and pressure by Air Force officers on cadets to join evangelical congregations. Carroll interviews a former Academy chaplain forced out by the Air Force for supporting the Yale study's findings, an Academy graduate who brought suit against the Air Force alleging religious discrimination, and mega-church pastor and National Association of Evangelicals President Ted Haggard, before revelations regarding an affair with a male prostitute compelled him to step down.
Though Carroll and Jackoby do address religious intolerance at the Air Force Academy and President Bush's statement about the "war on terror" being a "crusade", the focus of the documentary, like the book, remains on the Catholic Church's alleged role in perpetuating anti-Semitism. Carroll interviews historians, clergy, and Jews in Germany, Poland, and Italy to paint a picture of a Catholic leadership that historically was at best intermittently tolerant of the Jews. Atrocities partially or wholly attributed to the Church include the forced conversion on pain of death of Jews, the pillaging and burning of Jewish settlements in the Rhineland by crusaders, the ghettoization of Jews in Rome by Pope Paul IV, collaboration between the Church and the Nazis memorialized in a secret formal pact, and the failure of the Church to this day to accept any responsibility for the Holocaust.
Along the way, Carroll interweaves his autobiography. He's the son of an FBI agent commissioned into the Air Force as a general. As a teen, he considered applying to the Air Force Academy, but chose instead to become a Catholic priest. As a priest, he publicly agitated against the American intervention in Vietnam deeply disappointing his father. Though he eventually left the priesthood, went on to marry, have children, and work as a reporter and writer, Carroll has remained a practicing Catholic.
The film's 95-minute runtime is inadequate to the expansive critique and autobiographical essay that Carroll wishes to tell. Accordingly, many of the charges that he has oversimplified some details and ignored some counter-examples are no doubt true. A 95-minute documentary simply cannot do otherwise, but nevertheless, Constantine's Sword is engrossing, and will likley prompt many viewers to explore these issues in greater depth, and that's all makers of a documentary like this can reasonably hope for.
This 1.85:1 widescreen image is letterboxed. This is especially disappointing given that the film otherwise looks very good with sharp focus and rich, consistent colors.
The 2.0 Dolby Digital audio is acceptable with no noticeable dropouts or distortions. Subtitles on non-English dialogue are forced, and no other subtitle options are provided.
The extras include an introduction by actor Gabriel Byrne (>2 min.), extended scenes and outtakes (16 min.), director's notes, biographies for Carroll and Jackoby, and trailers for three other First Run Features releases, but not for this one.
Directed by Oren Jackoby, Constantine's Sword is an engrossing, albeit cursory, critique-cum-personal-essay by author and former priest James Carroll. Carroll deftly blends autobiographical details into his larger narrative of Christian religious intolerance perpetuating violence against non-Christians, especially Jews.