History lessons on a complex period


Ridley Scott's latest film, "Kingdom of Heaven," is about one of the most obscure and complex periods of world history: the Crusades (1096-c.1300). 

"Kingdom of Heaven" is an ambitious portrayal of Europe's emergence from the Dark Ages that established conflict as the way the three monotheistic world religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam would relate to one another from then until now. To understand this fact is perhaps the strongest reason to see this movie.

The film is familiar territory for Sir Ridley who has a reputation for telling stories through battlefield spectacle ("Hannibal," "Black Hawk Down," "Gladiator"). But "Kingdom of Heaven" may be more successful that these epics because it will attract thoughtful movie-goers who prefer the dramatic experience to interest them on many levels. These include the artistic production quality as well as historical accuracy, religious aspects, the faith dimension and current events. 

Through Balian's eyes

The story begins in 1084 with the burial of a lovely young woman (Nathalie Cox) who has committed suicide because her child died during birth. As was the practice of those times, people who committed suicide were not given a Christian burial. The priest (Michael Sheen) who buries the woman steals the crucifix from her neck.

Balian (Orlando Bloom) is the village blacksmith widowed by his wife's suicide. As he works off his despair forging iron at the fire, a strange knight appears at the door. He is Godfrey (Liam Neeson) and he tells Balian that he is his true father. Godfrey invites Balian to come to the Holy Land with him to help King Baldwin of Jerusalem preserve the kingdom. Balian declines. 

His next visitor is the priest who buried his wife. The priest taunts Balian about his wife's suicide. When Balian sees that the priest is wearing his wife's crucifix, Balian kills him. He decides to flee immediately and joins Godfrey, hoping he will find forgiveness for his sin in Jerusalem.

Godfrey is killed on the journey but Balian reaches Jerusalem. He seeks peace there, but is not able to find it. He lives on his father's land and notices how Muslims and Christians live well together. Balian meets Sybilla (Eva Green), the king's sister and wife of Guy de Lusigan, an ambitious and stupid knight. Balian and Sybilla are attracted to one another. King Baldwin the Leper (Edward Norton) wants Jerusalem to be the peaceful kingdom of God promised in the Gospels, but some of the knights, both secular and Templar, headed by Reynald (Brendan Gleeson), conspire against the king to provoke a war with the Muslims. 

The Muslim army is headed by Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), who marches from Damascus to attack Jerusalem. Saladin is an intelligent, just man who lives by the Koran. How he and the reluctant Balian, the heroes of this based-on-fact film, together resolve the terrible conflagration that ensues, is at the heart of "Kingdom of Heaven." 

The question of the meaning of Jerusalem in history, as a holy place and as a symbol, is the climax of the film. At the end, as these two men of conscience gaze up at Jerusalem, Balian asks Saladin, "What does it mean to you?" Saladin starts to walk away and replies, "Nothing." Then he turns back and says, "Everything." 

Making connections

Recent epics such as "Troy," "The Last Samurai," "The Alamo" and "King Arthur" have all been box office disappointments. Like some of these, "Kingdom of Heaven" is based on historical facts although the source for Balian's early story seems that of Conrad of Monferrat who fled to Palestine after murdering someone and his relationship with Sibylla almost certainly did not occur. These are incidental to the overall facts of the film which do respect history.

It is impossible not to make the connection to current events, and frankly, director Scott wants us to. "One of the lessons of the film for today," he told journalists recently, "is that we don't learn anything from history; we just keep doing the same things over and over."

Orlando Bloom acquits himself very well in this, his first lead role, though not his first epic ("Lord of the Rings" trilogy, "Troy"). In an interview, the 28-year-old actor called this film his opportunity to take responsibility for his life and work. "Ultimately," he said, "what screams across the movie is what makes for right action. What you do to your fellow man --- this is what matters. This is godliness." 

Jeremy Irons is Tiberias, a conflicted knight who has sworn to obey the king no matter who he is. We only see Edward Norton's eyes since he must wear a mask to cover the ravages of leprosy on his face. Yet he manages to engage the audience on an emotional level that the rest of the film never quite reaches.

Writer William Monahan has filled "Kingdom of Heaven" with messages for the audience; much of Balian's dialogue is teaching us about a man's character, true chivalry, honor, peace and the absurdity of war. To director Scott, the meaning of the film is: "If Jerusalem is God's kingdom, then let him have it. If this film isn't about humanity, what is it about? It must be about life and the preservation of life." 

Pope John Paul II offered what could be a commentary on a film like "Kingdom of Heaven," when he spoke in Syria in May 2001: "Today, in a world that is increasingly complex and interdependent, there is a need for a new spirit of dialogue and cooperation between Muslims and Christians. Together we acknowledge the one indivisible God, the Creator of all that exists. Together we must proclaim to the world that the name of the one God is a name of peace and a summons to peace." 

In Damascus, on May 6, 2001, John Paul II made the first papal visit to a mosque in the history of the world.

The Crusades

The first Crusade, "to bear the cross," was a holy war against Islam called by Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont in 1095 AD. 

"God wills it!" exclaimed the pope, who told the clergy, knights and peasants present that their goal was twofold: to get back the lands of the Christian empire of Byzantium (Constantinople) in from a band of Turks who had recently converted to Islam and to liberate Jerusalem from the "godless infidels" --- Muslims who had occupied Jerusalem peacefully for hundreds of years. The first Crusade was successful; Jerusalem was occupied and a Christian king enthroned.

By offering this assistance to the Christian empire and church of the East, Pope Urban thought he could help mend the first schism between the church in Rome and Byzantium in 1054. Ultimately, this did not prove to be the case. 

The Crusades were also about protecting trade routes within and between East and West. At no time during the Crusades did any Christian leader understand the faith and culture of Islam. They demonized Muslims through ignorance and greed and created an enemy to be righteously exterminated.

It must be noted that the Crusades were not explicitly against the Jews. They had not inhabited Jerusalem in great numbers since the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. which drove them into exile a second time. Ignorant Christians, however, incited by a terribly misdirected religious fervor, began attacking and killing Jewish people in Europe and the Middle East every time a Crusade was called.

All together, eight Crusades were called over the span of 200 years, though the fighting never stopped. Europeans, in great hordes of poor peasants, knights and whole families, made their way to the East to supposedly liberate Jerusalem. They made the journey because they were promised the kingdom of heaven in return: forgiveness of sins, expiation of all guilt, and a spiritual reward in the kingdom of heaven. Some hoped for material and political gain as well. They died by the tens of thousands on their journey or pilgrimage. 

From the First Crusade until 1184-1187, the time of our story, a European Christian king ruled Jerusalem. And for the most part, Muslims and Christians lived peacefully together.

Ultimately, the Crusades were spurred on by misunderstood religious enthusiasm rather than faith. They were a doomed enterprise from the beginning for civilization; we continue to experience their effects even now.

 

Daughter of St. Paul Sister Rose Pacatte is the director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, and the co-author of "Lights, Camera, Faith: A Movie Lectionary."


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  12 Comments   Comment

  1. Hudd d'Aelia from Canada

    Well, Hollywood exhausted almost all possible themes, except one: Islam! If you follow the most recent Hollywood peliculas are merely repetitive of older movies or borrowed from classics and so forth. They depleted all themes of history all space encounter possibilities and almost all cultures. It's time for Hollywood to explore the so to speak virgin realm of unending stories in Islam as well as other religions and cultures that are not Europeo-American nor extraterrestrial. Great a resource there is! It is about time and this movie appears to me like an ice-breaker, a trial, how will the "world" react to a movie where the Muslim is presented as honourable and charismatic as against the usual stereotype of idiot, blood-thisty and unscrupulous. Let's hope it is a good beginning, insha'Allah.

    Salam Alaykum!

  2. Peter

    Anthony: I'm afraid that you can't compare the wholesale slaughter perpetrated by and the brutal inhmanity of the Crusaders to any conquest made by Muslim nations.

    The Arabs did not exterminate indigenous populations as you say; in fact, the very opposite happened. They converted WILLINGLY for a variety of reasons; and were happy to be free of the oppressive yoke of Byzantine rule (here I am referring to your mention of the lands in the Near East and North Africa).

    Get over it man. The Crusades, now and then, are wrong and are nothing more than a gloss for conquest, empire and tyranny all at the cost of innocent lives.

  3. Bilal from U.K

    Now that I have seen the film, I could say that I am glad to see that it was not biased and it also sheds light on what the crusaders really did.

    Compared to the Christians Muslims were more Honourable and it was nice to see that the truth was reflected in the film.

    When the first Crusaders entered Jerusalem they killed innocent civilians which included children of all ages, Christians of the eastern churches and Jews.

  4. Akbar Khan from Canada

    Anthony Lowry: I know it upsets you that a Hollywood movie showed historical truth about the honourable and noble Muslim armies. You sound a bit upset about that... Too bad, I guess?

    The difference between the spread of Islam through military efforts, consisted of honourable fighting. Wherever Islam came, Jerusalem, Spain, Yugoslavia, Istanbul (Constantinople), the rights of worship for Christians and Jews were wholly upheld, and women and children were not slaughtered. Now compare that to blood running in the streets knee high on horseback when the Templars ransacked Jerusalem, and not only killed every Muslim that was there, but also killed every indigenous Christian and Jew who preferred to live under the rule of the Muslims.

    Syriac was never outlawed by Muslims by the way, don't even try to say that Muslims are crusaders, you're just upset at the fact that Ridley Scott showed America and everywhere else in the world in a blockbuster movie that Muslim armies fought with moral principles.

    Umm...Coptics? They live to this day in Egypt...have Muslims ever been allowed to practice their faith in Christian Spain, the way Coptic Christians in Palestine and Egypt do to this day? No.

    Where did you get American Indians from? I think you are confused sir, they were disturbed by the European,British Colonialists and later almost exterminated by their descendants. What are you talking about???

    The difference between mentally disturbed templars and Muslim militaries is that to this day, Jews and Christians exist all over the Arabian Peninsula and Africa and the Balkans (Yusoslavia, Bosnia, etc.), which you are opinionating about.

    The average person in Andalusia knew somewhere around 5 languages, jew,muslim, christian lived side by side. Then, French crusaders came and said 2 everyone, accept Christ or we will kill u. How nice. How many Muslim families have been living in Spain since the Inquisition? Name one???

  5. Anthony Lowry from USA

    What exactly is the difference in the western crusades and the Arab/Muslims crusades?

    Did NOT Arab Muslims invade and occupy southern Spain 300 years BEFORE the western crusades? How did Constaninople become Istanbul? Muslim crusaders? How did Islam come to the former Yugoslavia? Muslim crusaders?

    Do ONLY western crusades into the Muslim lands count? The Muslim crusades into Europe are NOT counted as crusades, huh?

    How did the Syriac language become extinct? Arab crusaders?

    What exactly is the difference in the fate of the indigenous Copts of Egpyt, descendants of the pyramid builders and keepers of the Pharonic language, at the hands of Arab crusaders, and the American Indians?

    What exactly is the difference in the fate of the indigenous Assyrian and Chadlean ppls, descendants of Babylon, at the hands of Arab crusaders and the American Indians?

    IMO, there is absolutely no difference in the Muslim and western crusades, same thing.

  6. Qaiser Sharif from UK

    Salam,

    A well written article from an unbiased Christian. The writer hit the nail on the head when she exposed the greed of the rich at the expense of the poor.

    I watched the film recently and was impressed by it. Truely, it holds Salah ul-Din which the utmost respect and honour, even more than Balian. I was nearly in tears when I saw just how great a man he was, Masha-Allah, and that was just in a movie. I wish I could've met this guy in real life. May I will, Insha-Allah, in Jannah.

  7. Akbar Khan from Canada

    The point of this movie was clear cut. Balian was struggling amongst the extremists in his midsts (The Templar Crusaders),

    and the great and honourable leader of the Muslim army Salah ud-Din Ayyubi was holding off the calls of the extremist-minded generals in his midsts.

    Ridley Scott did a fantastic job. After seeing this movie, something struck me. It is that we Muslims have come to the state of needing others to teach us our great history and to show us how the great Muslims before us, fought honourably and bravely. Time to start picking up the Muslim history books.

    Learning the history of Salah ud-din Ayyubi and his journies, is for us Muslims today something to learn from. If we don't learn from it, we are going to be the only losers.

  8. Murtaza Ali from USA

    I have seen the movie. For one moment I felt it is the story of my aka, my mulla Imam Hussain bin Ali bin Abu Talib. The way Balian had a small army defending the might of Salahuddin, similarly my aka was defending Islam from Yezid(may the curse of God be upon him) who had a mighty army. Atleast Balian had an entire city with him, my aka, my mulla and his family were forbidden water and the whole household was matyred mercilessly. The head of my aka was dragged on the ground from one city to another. All of you might be awed by Balian's bravery, than what will happen when you read about my mulla and how he was matyred, show me a sacrifice greater than his for Islam ? You won't be able to not till the day of Judgement. Let us wait than for the one...

    There is no better leadership than peace-Imam Ali bin Abu Talib

  9. ahmed asgher from bahrain

    intersting article. yet stuff that most muslim know, so perhaps this should be read by europeans and americans. it does highlight a couple of things. a) white christians started this crazy notion of going to heaven by attacking muslims, which is not much different from obl's warriors killing themselves to see 70 virgins or whatever they dreeam of. b) everything that the west sees from muslims today is the result of this ongoing ignorance and bigotery which has dogged the west's education system about islam and muslims. they never learnt any lessons, i mean 8 crusades over a 200 years ordered by stupid kings - that is one major war every 25 years - just like what bush/bliar do today. yet not many of the christians have taken upon themselves to read about us and our faith to the extend of villifying us and shoving quran down the toilet as in gitmu. how low one can decend. what happened to respect for another human being? to all christians and jews: try respect for a change and that goes to zealot muslims too. clearly all this killing and hatred has not worked since nobody has seen God yet! there is the challenge let the one who has hatred in his heart and claims to have seen God come forward and enlghiten us all. otherwise let us hold our peace.

  10. Corinne Chipres from U.S.A.

    I know little about the Christian Crusaders, so I hope the review on this movie is correct. What I do know is that the early Christians were corrupted by evil people in the Church, and this did much to cause hatred that still exists today. I say this as a Roman Catholic who has trouble practicing my faith. I share religious liberal views with the liberal American clergy, not the Vatican. Although I do recognize the authority of the pope, I like others wonder if our church can continue to survive in a world that needs changes in how the wealth is distributed throughout the world. The poor peasants have not gone away, and they will once again uprise and kill in their misguided effort to find their 'heaven on earth'. This is history and 'evil' repeating itself because the very rich still haven't learned from their past. Why does the very rich believe they have the right to take the 'lions share' of profit and leave the working poor with very little for all their labor? Is the labor of the wealthy more valuable than the labor of the poor? I believe this is why we have 'holy wars' and 'ethnic cleansing'. People are just tired of the very few, or an elite group getting more for less effort, or an excluded group struggling more for their work effort in the world economy. How can the very rich be about the business of God when their world brethren have less to be thankful for? I'm sure someday we'll get it right without turning to a Marxist economy; that would be a step backwards for the Americas.

  11. Bilal Miah from U.K.

    Not a bad artical, nice to see a unbiased view from an opened minded person.

    I have not seen the film and cannot comment on most of what has been written about it.

  12. Imran from USA

    Good post, just a correction in the beginning "The story begins in 1084" maybe typo, ment to say 1184 i pursume?