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Q&A on Kingdom of Heaven

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A Muslim scholar charges Kingdom of Heaven "will cause hate crimes"

An Egyptian actor defends the film

A Jewish scholar weighs in on the Crusades and the film

Time magazine weighs in on Kingdom of Heaven

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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 era.

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 history?
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.

Providence Journal 5/6/05

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

© 2004 History in the Movies