Sunday, January 9, 2011

Comparing Kingdom of Heaven with God's Battalions

About five years ago, I saw the film Kingdom of Heaven in theatres. Though the film was a bit heavy-handed in its criticisms of religion and especially Christianity, I liked it, because I'm a sucker for war epics. Two of my biggest complaints of the film were that it was extremely light on telling Balian's (played by Orlando Bloom) story.

In recent weeks, I finished reading Rodney Stark's book God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades. My impression of the book was that it is absolutely essential reading. The culture at large sees the Crusaders the way that Ridley Scott portrays them in Kingdom of Heaven: bloodthirsty, savages, murderers. And of course, the conventiona wisdom was that the Muslims - and Saladin in particular were simply gentlemen who invented chivalry. No doubt, many of the crusaders were bloodthirsty, and no doubt many of the muslims were chivalrous. The point is, the contemporary picture of both sides is not robust enough to sustain claims of fairness or accuracy over the long haul.

What Stark's book does is paint the larger picture, which I was always missing. Once I read about the second crusade and Saladin's eventual taking of Jerusalem, I immediately desired to see the film for a second time. This time, I watched the Blu-Ray Director's Cut of the film, and I just want to say that - as a film - the Director's Cut is the only version anybody should ever watch. It actually adds a whopping 45 minutes to the film! The storyline in the original theatrical version was so anemic and underdeveloped that it is almost sad to think about how much exposition Scott was forced to cut from the movie so that it could be mass consumed in its theatrical run.

Having gotten the larger picture about Saladin's conquest of Jerusalem from Stark's book, let me interact a bit with the way Scott handled the tale:

1. My first beef is the way in which the motivation for the Battle of Hattin was portrayed. In the film, Scott made it look as if the Templars were so eager for a battle that they just had to rush forth, losing most of their men to thirst, and then martyring themselves on the battlefield out of zeal.

What had, in fact, happened, was that Saladin (the supposed gentleman hero of modern historians) laid siege to the fortress of Tiberius in an effort to force the crusaders to come forth, compromising their main fighting force and strategic advantage - they ought to have remained to defend Jerusalem. When King Guy took Saladin's bait in an effort to save Tiberius, the majority of Jerusalem's fighting men were wiped out.

2. The big problem comes when Balian comes to surrender Jerusalem to Saladin. In the film, Saladin swears that everyone will go free - every man, woman, and child. He appears quite generous. In reality, the freedom of Jerusalem's inhabitants was paid for in gold. When not enough gold existed to pay for everyone's release, many were sent into slavery.

3. After receiving Saladin's terms for surrender, in the film, Balian says, "When the Christians took this city, they slaughtered every man, woman, and child" (referring to the siege of 1099). Saladin smiles and replies, "I am not those men. I am Saladin."

In reality, the situation was quite complex. The slaughter of Jerusalem occurred after the Muslim occupants of Jerusalem had received an offer for surrender. The Muslims had chosen to fight to the death. A hundred years later, when Saladin took the city, the occupants of Jerusalem accepted the terms of surrender specifially so that the women and children in the city would go free. It is the difference between leadership who says, "Damn the women and children," and the kind of leadership who says, "Let us save our families, even if we lose the city."

1 comment:

  1. Valid points made.
    The story used in the motion picture "Kingdom of Heaven" was obviously made with blatant liberties taken to appease the sensitive / volatile & certainly "politically correct" climate between the "West" & the "Islamic" world.


Before posting please read our Comment Policy here.

Think hard about this: the world is watching!