The Dan Brown phenomenon Revelation
In 2002, the movie Revelation, directed and written by Stuart Urban, created the prototype of what The Da Vinci Code would later repeat, in book and film.
by Philip Coppens
Though a success, The Da Vinci Code movie could not equal the heroic level that the novel had attained. But before the film’s release, another movie, Revelation, created in the United Kingdom on a much smaller budget, had largely tackled the same themes, and one might say, more imaginatively so. Hence, Revelation might be to The Da Vinci Code, what National Treasure was going to be for Dan Brown’s The Solomon Key – if that remains the title of The Da Vinci Code’s sequel. Revelation opened on April 12, 2002 and was based on a Frank Falco screenplay, which had as central premise a sacred box that was preserved and handed down through time, with an immortal trying to get hold of it. The script was given to director Stuart Urban, who, at the age of thirteen, had been the youngest director to participate at Cannes with his short film, The Virus Of War, and who since had gone on to become a BAFTA – the British Academy Awards – winner.
Urban felt that Falco’s story was written on too small a canvas and had a comedy thriller slant that didn’t deliver the full potential of the idea. Producer Jonathan Woolf invited Urban to rewrite it, and slowly the storyline of Revelation began to emerge.
One new injection into the screenplay was modern technology, especially biochemistry, as well as sprinkling it with alchemical and esoteric symbolism that would be on par with what Dan Brown would soon bring to his book. Urban, together with his wife, read every book on alchemy, sacred geometry, the Knights Templar and mysticism and realised that a whole wealth of amazing material was available that had never been used in movies before. As such, Revelation was a true pioneer in using the themes and theories of “alternative history” and work them into a work of fiction.
The level of research that went into the movie can be gleaned from the opening scene, in which a man and a snake are put in a bag made of raw ox hide and thrown off a cliff. This was an actual Roman death sentence reserved for someone who had murdered their father – and Christians, by denying the divine authority of the emperor, were guilty of parricide. It is not the only parallel with Brown’s book. The script is based around one person breaking a series of codes, leading him from location to location, in the hunt for this box. Whereas Brown loaned from a specific subset of codes, largely linked with Leonardo da Vinci and themes native to the mythology of the Priory of Sion, Revelation used codes from various alchemical and mystical treatises, including the earliest known Christian pictograms denoting the true cross.
The final storyline retained the original sacred box, which was named the Loculus, and which, like the Cryptex of The Da Vinci Code, was the only injection of a fictitious object into the narrative.
The ankh and the caduceus were made into key symbols in the story and the letter t in the title Revelation was displayed as an ankh. The caduceus was the symbol of Mercury and Hermes, the latter who intervened in a fight between two serpents who entwined themselves around his wand. The caduceus is displayed on the Loculus; on the back of the box is a hermaphrodite, said to be the offspring of Hermes and Aphrodite. The other sides of the Loculus are a more random, though nevertheless highly esoteric, collection of images. There is the six-pointed star, today mostly linked with the Jews, but in essence a universal sign. Inside the hexagram is the ankh, which was an early crucifix symbol in the Coptic Church, thus acknowledging the link to previous religions and beliefs of Egypt, in which the symbol represented the hope of future life and resurrection. This and the Chi-Rho are the first known symbols to adorn the Loculus, carved in on the original wood and subsequently inlaid with silver.
In the script, the Loculus is made in ca. 50 AD in the catacombs where the early Christians are in hiding. Over the centuries, various contemporary symbols were added to it. We find it in the possession of a Jewish Kabbalist in South-West France in 1299, when the box falls into the possession of the evil Grand Master and his organisation, the Knights Templar, who will never part with it again.
Fast forward to the 18th century, when the Knights Templar form a secret Masonic order, and bring the Loculus to Sacred Island, where the apparently immortal Grand Master tries to understand and harness its power. For this, he recruits a team of scientists and alchemists, Isaac Newton being chief amongst them. Newton considers the Great Work to be the unleashing of the secret of the Loculus, but he fails, informing the Grand Master that it will require several more centuries before this Great Work can be accomplished: “The underground stream will need to flow several centuries more before the Great Work can be wrought.” As with The Da Vinci Code – and any action movie – there is a fight between the good and the bad, whereby the good are trying to remove the Loculus from the Grand Master’s zone of influence at first, but are then told to destroy it, as it is the only guarantee that it will not fall into the hands of Grand Master who is apparently close to using the Loculus in a grand, evil scheme.
The story begins in 2001, when Jacob “Jake” Martel is released from prison and is reunited with his estranged billionaire-father Magnus, who has already dispatched an ally to hide the Loculus. The possession of a sacred relic that is hunted down by the Vatican, is hence yet another major correspondence to Brown’s novel.
We learn that Magnus Martel is the Knight Commander of the Knights Templar, who has been entrusted with the care of the Loculus by the Grand Master himself, but who is now trying to secrete it away, as he has grown wary of the motives of the Grand Master; alas, his scheming is uncovered by the Grand Master, who sends a search party after Martel and the Loculus.
Martel’s aide, who has been entrusted with the security of Loculus, is trying to secure it somewhere where it apparently once belonged. Trying to find out where precisely, he travels to Carcassonne and Rennes-le-Château, whereby each time, in Henry Lincoln pentagon-esque fashion, he tries to divine the next “point” of his quest by using GPS coordinates and a laptop computer. Brown, of course, did not choose the complexity of a pentagram, but instead opted for the simplicity of a line, the Roseline. After Rennes-le-Château, the next stop is Malta, from where he goes to Patmos, where he hides the Loculus in the church where St John was said to have written the Book of Revelations – detailing the Apocalypse. Meanwhile, while the box is being secured, Martel has gathered a team of experts to decode the dozens of images he has taken of the box. They quickly decode the cryptic references as meaning “Palin Genesis”, born again, which they link with Christ: the rebirth of Christ. The Loculus seems to be related with the rebirth- the second coming – of Jesus.
Part of Martel’s team is Mira, a student of alchemy (like Sophie is a cryptology expert), and Jake (like Robert Langdon) escapes with her (not through a toilet window, but a tunnel), having been given a CD-ROM with codes that, if deciphered, will lead them to the hiding place of the Loculus.
They are the only two that escape: Martel and his aides are killed by the Grand Master’s hit squad; Martel himself is de-skinned, his skin nailed to a wall and labelled “traitor”.
Though dead, the “news” is leaked that Martel has actually disappeared, and a covers story is concocted that at a time of his disappearance, the Serious Fraud Office was looking into a “EU corruption scandal”, involving the disappearance of two billion pounds. His son argues it is a tactic of “blame one missing man, and protect the people at the top”. On the run, Jake and Mira decide to enlist the help of prison chaplain Father Ray Connolly, and together they begin to decode the series of ciphers that will lead them across Europe, towards the Loculus’ hiding place in Patmos. Connolly is a soldier, who then turned priest, which, of course, means he is a warrior-monk, a veritable Knights Templar.
Dan Brown’s evil bishop Aringarosa and the monk Silas thus have their counterpart in Urban’s Grand Master and Father Ray, for even though the latter is apparently protecting Jake and Mira, in the end, he will deliver the Loculus – unknowingly, it has to be said – into the hands of the Grand Master, whose “day job” is a Cardinal in the Vatican. . This time, the enemy is therefore once again all-powerful and once again linked to the Vatican – though not Opus Dei specifically. Though predating The Da Vinci Code, the mythical Mary Magdalene and Jesus bloodline is also explored in Revelation. In the section filmed in Rennes-le-Château, the infamous statue of Mary Magdalene is shown in close-up and the tour guide is overheard as saying that there has been a Mary Magdalene chapel in the village since the Knights Templar – a historical error, which does reveal that it was more than likely copied from the pages of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which commits the same error.
In its use of Mary Magdalene, the movie goes one step further than Dan Brown, for whereas he only highlights the blooming romance between Sophie and Robert Langdon, in Revelation, Jake and Mira not only find out their genealogical heritage, they go one step further and create the “divine offspring”, if not the New Messiah.
Mira learns she herself is a descendent of Mary Magdalene (if not the reincarnation, as she has flashbacks), and that the Martels descend from the Merovingians, who themselves descend from Jesus – another loan from Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Of course, in The Da Vinci Code, the profile of Sophie, as an intelligent, educated woman who finds out her heritage, thus finds its predecessor in Revelation. Though this child is produced naturally, the injection of biochemistry into the storyline was indeed paramount to bring about the “Jesus dimension”. The Loculus holds the four nails of the Crucifixion, which retain traces of DNA – Jesus DNA. This DNA is used by the Grand Master to engineer the Antichrist, whereby Jesus’ DNA – said to be unique on the planet – is mixed with his own, to create a foetus that is growing inside a secret laboratory.
The finale of the plot revolves around the birth of the two children. In a secret meeting of several world leaders, the Grand Master outlines his plan that he needs to persuade the Vatican “his” child is actually the New Messiah. He will accomplish this by referring to the (fictional) event that in 1981, there was a prophecy that a baby would be orphaned during the Great Conjunction of the planets, which appears in the sky around the time of birth of both infants. The Grand Master, being a Vatican insider, is able to persuade the Pope that the “baby Antichrist” is indeed the New Messiah and when the Pope proclaims a “Millennium of Peace” and people are writing “Welcome Messiah” on the surface of the Earth, “The Modest Cardinal” – the Grand Master – steps forward as the Cardinal who will raise the New Messiah into adulthood. Meanwhile, in Patmos, Mira gives birth to her child, the true Messiah. With the knowledge that the future will hold a battle between the true Messiah and the Antichrist, the movie ends.
As such, Revelation is indeed the prequel to Revelations – the Apocalypse. Urban stated that to get the action element in the Apocalypse, he loaned from Isaac Newton, listed by the alleged Priory of Sion as one of their Grand Masters, as Newton believed that the Apocalypse could be invoked rather than be waited for in helpless anticipation. Interestingly, though not worked into the movie, the same belief was shared by Vincent Ferrer, a penitent preacher from Spain who created an organisation, La Sanch, in the French town of Perpignan; they were notorious for their flagellant processions through the town, on par with the procession depicted in the movie. Part of the success or failure of any novel, is its setting. For The Da Vinci Code, this was largely confined to Paris, London and Rosslyn Chapel. For Revelation, the locations involved Malta, Rennes-le-Château, Cornwall, London, Rome and Patmos. Furthermore, filming occurred in several of these sites, with on-site filming in Malta and Rennes-le-Château itself. Some scenes were shot in London’s Temple (the legal centre of the City), and Urban noted that it was a sheer coincidence to learn that the site actually had Templar connotations. Of course, the church would soon play an important role in The Da Vinci Code too.
Revelation began principal photography on October 29, 2000, on location in Malta. The eight-week shoot continued in France, Cornwall – where the mediaeval castle on St. Michael’s Mount, complete with its own myths and legend, stood in for Magnus Martel’s Sacred Island – London, Cambridge and at Pinewood and Bray Studios. Urban made two cameo appearances, as did his son and wife.
Permission to film in the famous St John’s Cathedral in Malta’s capital Valletta was refused by church authorities sensitive to the occult aspects of the stunning floor where the Knights of St John lie buried. Fortunately, an alternative cathedral was found in Mdina, where similar graves of the Knights attracted less attention. Imtahleb (near Bahrija) was used for the Crucifixion prologue and was also the site where a full-size Magdalene’s Chapel was built, whereas St. Dominic’s monastery in Rabat doubled as the Patmos convent for the finale. Another success factor for any movie are the actors. Though low budget compared to The Da Vinci Code, it nevertheless used actors that were known and/or actually interested in the script or subject area.
Terence Stamp was always the first choice to play billionaire Magnus Martel. Stamp was an archetypal British success in the 1960s and personally explored Eastern philosophies when he lived in India. Derek Jacobi too has a genuine interest in the subject matter. Udo Kier, who played Praenuntius, i.e. the Grand Master, was chosen more for his acting, but nevertheless argued that “the combination of religion and sadomasochism really appealed to me and when I read the script I thought it was absolutely brilliant. I wondered why nobody had ever had the idea of bringing the Church and genetic engineering together before. I truly believe that if Jesus Christ was reincarnated today, he’d use the Internet because he’d quickly realise it was the most effective way to spread his gospel in the modern era. Plus Praenuntius makes an appearance in numerous time periods including the Crucifixion and the Middle Ages. And how could any actor turn down the chance to play a character responsible for giving the order to kill Jesus?”
The main characters, however, were reserved for largely unknown actors: James D’Arcy played the role of Jake Martel and Mira was played by newcomer Natasha Wightman, who went on to play Valerie in V for Vendetta. Wightman was suggested to Woolf and Urban by Debbie McWilliams, the casting director responsible for discovering James Bond girl Famke Janssen in Goldeneye. Filming subject matter that was laden with premonitions and images of death and driven by the actual savagery of historical persecution gave Stuart Urban and others frequent pause for thought: “I was continually haunted by morbid dreams, intimations of mortality that have never troubled me before. After all we were re-enacting Roman rites of execution – as practised by Praeununtius and his Order – that were grisly in the extreme. And sometimes the locations linked directly with this feeling, such as the day in the Norman House in Mdina, Malta, when we were preparing to film the massacre of the Jewish alchemist and his family by Crusaders, a scene set in 1299. We discovered that our location was not only the original home in mediaeval times of the Grand Master of the Knights of St John, but also that this had been the ninth century synagogue before the pogroms against the Jewish community there. To top it all, a traitor found during the siege of Malta had been held in the pit below where I stood prior to being taken out and burnt alive ‘by the town’s children!’” As mentioned, similar coincidences occurred within the Temple area of London. In the film, Mira turns out to be a card-carrying devotee of the New Age movement, who believes that the “age of dogma” is over and that men and women now have to find salvation within themselves. As such, the movie identified clearly why the following year, The Da Vinci Code would become such a success. In comments, Stuart Urban identified that the appeal of Holy Blood, Holy Grail – which would become a centre of controversy between its authors and Dan Brown – and other books in the same vein, was largely due to dissatisfaction with the present state of religion and a personal voyage of rediscovery.
Another theme of the movie, one that largely played in the background, was the “urban myth” of the limitless power that secret societies allegedly possess. One sequence shows a televised House Select Committee hearing, in which NATO, the CIA and P2 are grilled about the claims that they are apparently “controlled by one Grand Master whose identity remains unknown.” The officer questioned ridicules and laughs away such conspiratorial theories, but by the end of the movie, it has become clear that he is actually the right-hand (hench)man of the Grand Master. Revelation thus not only formed the prequel to Revelations, but was almost an identical twin to The Da Vinci Code. As a film, it is superior to The Da Vinci Code, playing with more themes, symbolism and plotlines. Unfortunately, Revelation also revealed that whereas secret societies might have limitless power and budget, the same is true about movies and the audience they can reach; medium budget films, irrelevant of their scope and theme, will never compete with the likes of The Da Vinci Code.