Ridley Scott's Peaceable Kingdom

How to make a Crusades movie in the era of Osama bin Laden


In the mid-1990s, residents of several Middle Eastern cities were treated to a bizarre spectacle as groups of Westerners, organized into something called the "Reconciliation Walk," walked up to them in the street to apologize for the crimes of the Crusades. Coming 900 years after the call by Pope Urban II for Christendom to fight a righteous war against the Muslims controlling the Holy Land, the effort was splendidly extravagant; it also confirmed that there are no bounds to the stupidity that guilt can engender.

At the time I had written that the apology was nonsensical, for being addressed by the wrong people to the wrong people in the wrong context; unnecessary, because the Crusaders were no worse (or better) than countless other brutes trampling through the course of history; culturally imprecise in its evocation, since the Crusaders frequently allied themselves with Muslims in battles against fellow Christians; and foolish, for being directed at pedestrians living in states that had perpetuated crimes making those of the Crusaders seem almost tame by comparison.

I wrote as a conclusion, "One can only pray that [such efforts] will not become the norm around here [in Lebanon]. Otherwise, we shall soon have delegations from Macedonia apologizing for the takeover of Tyre, from Italy apologizing for Roman imperialism or from Iraq apologizing for the Assyrian invasions."

With this in mind, it was with pleasure that I recently watched Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven, in Beirut. Though the film has its faults, and its inaccuracies, it also has undeniable qualities. Much has been made of its religious ecumenism and the depiction of Saladin as a morally upright leader. But more intriguing was its focus on the final chapter in the Kingdom-of-Jerusalem phase of the Crusades, when European noblemen bickered among themselves over whether to resume combating the Muslims (a truce was then in place). Some of the Crusaders started a war, Saladin kicked the tar out of them, and in 1187 Jerusalem fell, despite a defense organized by Orlando Bloom in the guise of one Balian of Ibelin.

Scott's choice of that interlude was shrewd, since it brings out best the contradictions and intricacies of the Crusades. It also complicates the prevalent view today, both in the Middle East and oddly in the West, that the endeavor was mainly a tale of Christian pogroms against Muslims.

To make an evenhanded film about the Crusades, or to try to, in the era of Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is daring, if nothing else, and one must salute Scott's audacity. So too is making Saladin the mirror image of the leprous King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem—both portrayed as venerable universalists trying to control the fanatics in their ranks. It's all too convenient, certainly, as is the film's message that violence could be avoided if only men of goodwill would agree to resolve their differences peacefully. But Scott does also admit to the irrational power of symbols in an exchange between Saladin and Balian, as they're negotiating Jerusalem's fate. "What is Jerusalem worth?" asks Balian, surveying the dead and wounded defending the city. "Nothing," replies Saladin, before taking a few steps and turning: "Everything."

Two things can be said in defense of the artistic license used by Scott: Films are not scholarly textbooks, and thank god for that; and if a director wants to turn his story into a parable buttressing cross-cultural amity in the contemporary world, then why in the kingdom of heaven's name not?

Some in Lebanon welcomed the effort. It was ironic that the film began playing while the country was engaged in a divisive debate over a parliamentary election law. The main issue of contention was that a vast majority of Christian parliamentarians were going to be elected by Muslim voters. While the tiff was eventually papered over amid assurances of mutual love, many Lebanese were disturbed by the ambient sectarianism. That's why, I would venture, several people in the audience momentarily clapped during the scene when Saladin, having taken Jerusalem, stoops to pick up a cross lying on the floor before placing it on a table. A work of fiction had momentarily ridiculed the petty sectarian quarreling outside.

Wishful thinking? Maybe. But it sure beats Michael Moore's crucial scene in Fahrenheit 9/11, a film supposedly sympathetic to Arabs, where he shows an endless succession of clips of the George Bushes and their envoys meeting with Saudi officials, whose headdresses and dark skin make them appear increasingly alien and menacing as the scene progresses. To go after the Bushes, Moore needed to tarnish the Saudis. He did so by highlighting what to Americans was their atypical appearance and physique. The scene—though Moore might defend it as an editing together of material for which he was not responsible—was in fact deeply xenophobic. It's quite the opposite sentiment that Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud provokes as Saladin—though in a different incarnation his swarthy features, black turban, and beard would have made him a top-of-the-line offering as the evil Arab from central casting.

Throwing historical accuracy to the winds is fine in a movie, but filmmakers must be prepared to suffer the stern backlash from outraged experts. Some dons described Scott's story as anti-Arab, while others complained he was too set on showing the defects of the Crusaders. For example, Jonathan Riley-Smith of Cambridge called the film "Osama bin Laden's version of history,"adding that it wrongly "depicts the Muslims as sophisticated and civilized, and the Crusaders [as] all brutes and barbarians. It has nothing to do with reality."

But Osama bin Laden would have never posited a fraternity of fellow humanists on both sides of the Christian-Muslim divide—or rather the Muslim-infidel divide. Baldwin IV, whose function in the film is to cool down those wanting to reignite a war against Muslims, is one of many characters Scott shows are not barbarians. With the fictional Godfrey of Iberin, played by Liam Neeson, Balian, and another character played by Jeremy Irons, he sits atop a "pro-peace" camp in the story that once actually existed. Scott focuses on their qualities, making one wonder whether Riley-Smith actually made it through a full screening.

In real life, there was also Raymond of Tripoli, who played a central role in the events Scott describes, but was, alas, written out of the script. He's probably a model for Godfrey, had good relations with Saladin, and was allowed to escape the disastrous Battle of Hittin, where the Muslim king destroyed the Crusader forces before recapturing Jerusalem. Raymond spoke Arabic fluently, read Islamic texts, and like many of his peers was a Levantine—not a boorish expat sipping mead in Palestinian pubs.

And because no discussion of the impact of the Crusades on the East is complete without him, there was also the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II Hohenstaufen. An Islamophile with Saracen bodyguards, Frederick had to be threatened with excommunication before he would venture to "liberate" Jerusalem from the Muslims a second time. When he finally reached the Holy Land, he preferred to negotiate a takeover of the city with Saladin's son Al-Kamel. The agreement allowed Muslims and Christians to worship at their holy places while preventing Christians from rebuilding the city's walls. Both rulers were criticized for averting bloodshed, but as Frederick's biographer David Abulafia wrote in Beirut's Daily Star, "the treaty brought a new level of peace to the Holy Land."

That's not Bin Laden's message, nor did that reality suggest, in the pained language of post-colonial studies, that the Crusades were a mediaeval rendition of modern Western imperialism. Like any historical venture, especially one almost 200 years long, it was a vast mish-mash of good and bad, moral and immoral. Kingdom of Heaven, whatever its shortcomings, points to the subtleties in the historical record, and that's a lot more than many modern-day polemicists have been willing to afford the Crusades.