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Making the Crusades Relevant
in KINGDOM OF HEAVEN
By Cathy Schultz
The Holy Land. A place where the very air seems charged
with spiritual power, and the ground is soaked with the blood spilt
to control it.
It's this contradiction in the history of the Middle East--the
holiness with the horror--which Ridley Scott's new Crusades epic,
Kingdom of Heaven, sensitively explores.
Like all good historical films, Kingdom of Heaven immerses
us in the sights and sounds, the prejudices and passions, of a long-past
But it also makes us think. About religion. And honor. About mercy,
and redemption. Here's some background on the real history underlying
its story and its message.
Q. The film has created controversy among both Muslims and Christians
before its release. Who has more cause to be annoyed with the film's
A. Neither, though a few scholars from both sides have already attacked
it (without seeing it, I might add.) Last year Jonathan Riley-Smith,
a leading authority on the Crusades, sparked headlines when he called
the film "Osama bin Laden's version of history," and predicted
it would "fuel Islamic fundamentalists." Yet Khaled Abu
el-Fadl, a UCLA professor of Islam, expected an opposite result.
The film would cause viewers "to hate Muslims," he charged
in The New York Times, and in a different interview even predicted
"hate crimes against Muslims" resulting from it.
Oh, please. Or to quote an exasperated Ridley Scott, "They
haven't seen the bloody movie yet!"
Kingdom of Heaven is an honest and fair treatment of the Holy Land
during the Crusades. While depicting an admittedly dismal era in
Christian/Muslim relations, neither side is painted as the villain.
Chivalry-as well as cruelty-is found in characters of both faiths.
And, yes, I have seen it.
Q. What period of the Crusades is the film's focus?
A. It's set in the 1180s, during a time of relative peace between
the 2nd and 3rd crusades. As the film opens, Jerusalem and its surrounding
territory are controlled by Christians, descendants of the First
Crusaders, who had conquered it in 1099 from Muslims, who had themselves
conquered it in the 7th century from Byzantine Christians. The film
depicts the waning days of Crusader control, as the Muslim armies
have united under Saladin to attempt a reconquest.
Q. Are all the main characters depicted accurately?
A. Most are. King Baldwin of Jerusalem did die young from leprosy,
but served as a respected ruler before that. (The mask he wore to
hide the disease's effects may not be historically accurate, but
hey, it looks cool.) Baldwin's sister Sibylla was unfortunately
less noble than shown. Instead of trying to escape her inept and
nasty husband Guy of Lusignan, she was besotted with him, and connived
to get him more power.
Saladin is accurately portrayed. Though he unified the Muslim world
against the Crusaders, his nobility and fairness were praised even
by contemporary Christians. Also accurate is the depiction of Reynald
of Kerak, who serves as the villain, both in the movie and in history.
Reynald was known for his wanton cruelty to his enemies, and he
particularly delighted in killing Muslims, often in flagrant disregard
of truces. His vicious attack of a caravan carrying Saladin's sister
actually happened, and earned him Saladin's implacable hatred.
The most fictionalized character is the hero, Balian of Ibelin.
A man by that name did lead the defenses of Jerusalem (in the process
knighting many of the city's young men, as shown) but further details
about the actual Balian are scarce. He was an older, married nobleman,
who served as a counselor to King Baldwin. But as Orlando Bloom
plays him, Balian is a poor boy, an illegitimate son suddenly thrust
into nobility. He's gorgeous, humble, an unbeatable swordsman, and
ripe for a relationship with the beautiful Sibylla. Balian is -quite
literally-too good to be true.
Q. The film praises tolerance of other faiths. But how much
of that actually existed in that era?
A. Muslim governments had a pretty good track record for tolerance.
They levied extra taxes on Jews and Christians under their rule,
forbad them to proselytize, but otherwise left them alone to worship.
And under Muslim control, Jerusalem largely stayed open to pilgrims
from all faiths.
The Christian record is far more troubling. The Crusades unleashed
a torrent of hatred directed at non-Christians, spurred by the new
teaching that "killing for Christ" was a virtue rather
than a sin. Crusading armies massacred Jews en route to the Middle
East, and their sack of Jerusalem in 1099 was marked by a horrifying
slaughter of all the Muslim and Jewish inhabitants. By their own
accounts, victorious Crusaders sang praises to God while wading
through streets flowing with their victims' blood.
The religious killing carried on so callously during the Crusades
is monstrous to today's eyes. Why dredge it up? Why open those wounds?
Because the film's message is that one can choose to let go of
the memory of past injustices. To embrace peace, and choose tolerance.
To break the cycle of violence. When, late in the film, one character
opts for mercy over revenge, he is reminded of past atrocities committed
against his people. "I am not those men," he replies.
Nor are we.
Not a bad message for an historical movie.
Q. What's a good source for more information?
A. James Reston's Warriors of God is a great read.
Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor
at the University of St. Francis in Illinois.
It may not have happened in real life, but hey,
every historical epic needs a fictional love story, right?
Orlando Bloom looking bemused in the Holy Land