*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I recently saw 'Dark Side of the Sun' again, and found it as
entertaining, if unsettling (for historical reasons), as ever. One of
several Ægean adventures by Michael J Bird, it makes good use of scenic
locations and local colour on Rhodes, including the castle at Lindos
and the Hospitallers' headquarters. Plot-wise, it is fantasy-thriller
hokum: it inspired fanfic and fun among my fellow mediæval history
student friends when it was first screened at the beginning of our very
first term. But it had the potential to be more than that. The Michael
J Bird Tribute Site says it "ran out of steam at the end, almost as if
Bird had planned eight episodes but partway through had been told it
had to stop at six". I know what the writer means: interesting aspects
of character and story emerge, but are not explored, and ends are tied
up rapidly. Of course, this makes it an ideal inspiration for fanfic!
'Dark Side' was made about the same time that 'The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail' was published, when a-historical, occult notions about the Knights Templar and Masonic conspiracies were becoming fashionable, pre-Dan Brown. The Templars (the far-from-mysterious armed wing of the Cistercians) have been ill-used in fiction from Walter Scott onward, as a result of the dubious charges made against them when the Pope and the King of France decided to seize their money and lands. It was a frame-up: the Grand Master and others died at the stake, proclaiming their innocence, that they had been tortured into confessing. It makes me somewhat uncomfortable, then, when fiction assumes "there's no smoke without fire" (doubtless from the burned knights), even for fantasy purposes. Ironically, the historical back-story owes more to the misdemeanours of the *Hospitaller* Grand Master, Foulques de Villaret, and his deposition.
The plot is pure Gothic: an exotic setting, a mysterious castle, a damsel-in-distress, an outwardly attractive and charming villain, murder, a secret society, and incubus-type supernatural sexual intrigues. There are strong overtones of 'Dracula'. The Jonathan Harker role is split between Don Tierney (Patrick Mower) and David Bascombe (Christopher Scoular). Don's widow, Anne, is both Lucy and Mina, but without Mina's basic strength. She is traumatised, yes; but she was already on the insipid side before her breakdown, and I found her too wet to engage with, although Emily Richard has a likable screen presence elsewhere. Ismini Christoyannis (Betty Arvaniti) makes a far more appealing heroine. She is 'Dark Side''s considerably more glamorous answer to Professor van Helsing: intelligent, interesting, brave. She realises before the others the nature of the powers they are fighting, and is a match for them. I was sorry that we do not get a major verbal confrontation between Ismini and Raoul. The sparks (and more) would have flown. (In fic, they'd make a great pairing!)
Raoul Lavallière (Peter Egan) is an intriguing villain/anti-hero, handsome and with an air of melancholy. However, because we chiefly perceive him through the eyes of the other characters, much about him remain elusive. The seduction plot, reminiscent of Uther and Igraine in Arthurian legend, is ambiguous: a cruel deception, yes yet with both parties getting something they wanted. And what of his past? What has he been doing for nearly 700 years? All we know is that, until 5 years ago, he had been living in Lebanon unless that is a cover-story. Did he really kill Agnès? What does it mean to have lived so long, without ageing, in a changing world? Maturin's 'Melmoth the Wanderer', 'The Flying Dutchman', and vampire literature have explored similar characters. It could have been interesting to see more from his point of view. Also, what happens to him between the last scenes in the castle, and his arrival in Scotland?
Despite his record of murder and seduction, Raoul frightens me far less than David, the drippy young historian. As a fellow historian, his method, attitude and manners alarm me, and I would have grave doubts about letting him loose in an archive. The military orders are not his subject, but he is soon making over-confident assertions about them. He believes, without question, Brother Philibert's account of Thibaut's murderous past and what happened at Saint-Theodore/Hagios Theodoros. Yet he knows that the Hospitallers had an agenda to regain the castle and oust the embarrassing Templar refugees, and he has not had time to check the information against records elsewhere. He shows not even a glimmer of scepticism. Tsk! Unprofessional! I could rap his knuckles with a copy of Barber's 'The Trial of the Templars'! I also wondered at the wisdom of Ismini letting him take the role he did in the séance: surely there was a risk that his own feelings for Anne might interfere? His description of Raoul's 'Brotherhood' as "a neo-Nazi Freemasonry modelled on the Knights Templar" is also questionable: "neo-Nazi", when a Sir Joseph Marcus (surely Jewish) is a member? Indeed, conspiracy theories about Masonic and/or Jewish "cabals" taking over international positions of power tend to find favour with the far-Right. I suspect David isn't a lecturer from Durham (a reputable university!) on sabbatical, just a failed postgrad who has exaggerated his qualifications...
'The Dark Side of the Sun' is spooky fun that does not entirely fulfil its promise. Greater moral and narrative ambiguity could have made it stronger: few things in life are as black-and-white as the Templars' Bauçant banner, and the order's demonisation (literal, in this case) leaves a nasty taste. Anne and David are, at times, too stupid to survive. Possible non-supernatural explanations, which could have given more 'texture' to the plot, were not raised. Could setting up a 'Brotherhood' for prominent businessmen and politicians to network in privacy, while pretending to be knights, be merely a money-spinner to fund the restoration and running of the castle? Even a near-immortal Templar needs to keep his roof repaired!
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