An Absence of Chivalry in ‘Kingdom of Heaven’
by Manuel L. Quezon III
There is a German word, Weltanschauung, which people like to throw about. It means “world view,” or more precisely, “The overall perspective from which one sees and interprets the world,” or “A collection of beliefs about life and the universe held by an individual or a group.” The word comes to mind as a battle of sorts, has emerged concerning the Christian crusades in the Middle East: or to be precise, the crusades as portrayed in the Hollywood epic, “The Kingdom of Heaven,” which stars Orlando Bloom as Balian, a bastard turned knight, who eventually surrenders Jerusalem to Saladin, played by Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud, after putting up such a stiff fight that he gains Saladin’s grudging respect.
The debate is best summarized by quoting a line from the movie. At one point, a craven Catholic bishop blurts out, “Convert to Islam! Repent later!” American Catholic bishops, for one, are unamused, although the line is hilariously effective in the film. Others have vented their fury at the film, proclaiming it a slur not only on Christianity, but on Western civilization. Professor Jonathan Riley-Smith, Britain’s leading historian of the crusades, has led the criticism, saying the film presents “Osama bin Laden’s version of history,” adding perhaps the most quotable quote concerning the movie: “It sounds absolute balls. It’s rubbish. It’s not historically accurate at all…It has nothing to do with reality.”
What has surprised many observers is that, after initial threats during the filming, which led to the King of Morocco posting a guard of 1,000 troops to protect the film crew, Arab reactions have been generally positive. An exception quoted around the world is the view of Khaled Abou El-Fadl, a renowned Islamic jurist at the University of California in Los Angeles, who said he believes the film promotes the idea of “a civilizational showdown between Islamic and Christian culture”, which, in his view, means “that there will be hate crimes committed directly because of it”.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, on the other hand, declared the film to be “a balanced and positive depiction of Islamic culture during the Crusades” a view that seems to be representative of the Arab view, at least as reported in the media.
The positive Arab view stems from the portrayal of Saladin as sophisticated, valorous, and honorable. Ridley Scott, the film’s director, says his extremely positive portrayal of Saladin was due to the fact that “The characters portrayed in the film are so important in Muslim culture that I knew we had to do it absolutely properly and correctly…Saladin fights battles, but he also enters into dialogue. We want to show that dialogue can be much better than war.” Well, of course. Make dialogue, not war. What Western observers seem to be upset about then, is that the film makers went out of their way to give a flattering portrayal of Muslims while representing the Crusaders as bestial, bloodthirsty, and stupid. All the arguing, however, is over a particular portrayal of a specific period, ignoring the larger history of Jerusalem.
The Roman Empire demolished the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, and it was Byzantium, the Eastern Roman Empire, that ruled Jerusalem until 614, when the Persians conquered it; it fell, in turn, to the Arabs in 638. Since, according to Islamic tradition, Prophet Muhammad ascended to Heaven from Jerusalem (Al-Mi’raj) and received the commandment that Muslims pray five times a day (an event celebrated by Muslims on the 27th of the Islamic month of Rajab), in 688 the Dome of the Rock was built on the ruins of the Jewish Temple.
In 1071 Seljuk Turks conquered Jerusalem, and, as the Encyclopedia of the Orient puts it, “based upon their extremist and deviant Muslim views, they treat the remaining Christians population and the Christian pilgrims badly. Some were killed and many not admitted to the holy places of Jerusalem”. The fall of Jerusalem to the Seljuk Turks is what provoked the first crusade, in which Jerusalem fell to crusaders in 1099 (whereupon the “grandest bloodbath in the city’s history is staged, and an estimate 70,000 men, women and children are slaughtered”).
The crusaders lose it to the Arabs under Saladin in 1187 (which is what Ridley Scott’s movie is all about). The Arabs surrender the city to the Christians in 1229, who lose it permanently in 1244, with the Ottoman Turks ruling the city from 1517 to 1917. In the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, a British cavalry general, Allenby, entered Jerusalem on foot, inaugurating not only the period of British rule over Palestine, but the resumption of resentment against the West for its actions in the region. Britain made Zionism possible, and Palestine’s being in the hands of Christians, the British, is blamed for what some continue to view as the offensive existence of the state of Israel.
Here lies the key to something Ridley Scott, Arabs praising his film, and Westerners denouncing it, all ignore: what of the Jews? They (the Jews) are, in the Weltanschauung of both the film’s critics and supporters, apparently completely beside the point. And yet, it seems to me, that in bringing up historical wounds, the unkindest cut of all continues to be made against the people who made Jerusalem a holy city in the first place.
This is the gravest defect of the film, indeed, the true grounds for objecting to it; as are its other grave defects: setting aside a sustained focus on chivalry (to which traditionally both Christians and Muslims can lay claim to on the part of the renowned figures in those wars) and substituting the motivation of faith with an absurd notion of egalitarianism on the part of Orlando Bloom’s character, already an unlikely hero as the unquestioned bastard heir of a baron! There is one thing the crusades, on both sides, were most definitely not about: democracy.