Kingdom of HeavenJAMES BOWMAN
Sir Ridley Scott’s Crusades movie, Kingdom of Heaven, though visually impressive as we might expect, is shockingly unhistorical.
The most hilariously idiotic of the film’s many historically stupid moments comes at the climax of the battle for Jerusalem in 1187 when Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom), the commander of the city’s Christian defenders, has a parley with the leader of its Muslim besiegers, Saladin, here invariably given his more authentic moniker, Salah al-Din (Ghassan Massoud). Nice that they insist on accuracy in something. Balian tells his adversary that he will surrender the city if the Muslim army will give its Christian inhabitants a safe-conduct to the sea, where they may take ship to return to Europe. The terrible alternative, Balian tells him, is that he will give the order for all the religious sites in the city to be destroyed: "Your holy places, ours — everything that drives men mad." It’s hard to imagine a more perfect example of Hollywood’s view of religion — or of a thought that would have been more unthinkable to the person supposedly uttering it.
Here are a few other historical howlers.
Where the blacksmith turns out to be an expert soldier with little or no training, the experienced soldiers among the Christian knights, especially Balian’s archenemy Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), are so stupid that they march off to do battle with the Saracens apparently unaware that they will need water. Like all the other examples of Christian stupidity, this is presumably attributable to their religion. So, obviously, is the fact that Guy is so credulous that he thinks God will give him victory against a vastly superior Saracen enemy and without any special preparation just because he is a Christian. Of course the Christian knights are slaughtered. Even granting Sir Ridley his premiss that Guy and all the other Christians, especially the Templars — remember them from The Da Vinci Code? — are fools for believing at all, I’d like to see the historical warrant for supposing that any of them were as foolish as this.
"Yes," says Balian, obviously an adherent of the Norman Vincent Peale, Power of Positive Thinking school of warfare himself. Well he ought to know.
Though all the knights who weren’t killed have left the city, they have apparently left behind all their armour, equipment and weaponry for the use of the overknights in its defense. Or perhaps Saladin shipped the dead knights’ kit back from the battlefield to give his enemies a sporting chance. It could happen! Obviously, Saladin is a decent guy, unlike the Christians. And when Balian, naked and on foot, defeats an Arab knight, armed and armored, on horseback he does so by urging him to "fight fair." The Arab knight then obligingly dismounts, though in the 12th century the idea of "fighting fair" would have been approximately as unfamiliar as that of agnostic religious tolerance. It just couldn’t have happened like that. Nor would any knight in his right mind have parted from his armor or weapons without being dead first. These were precious things, usually made for them personally. All knights knew that their lives depended on them, whether or not they were on a battlefield.
Easy come, easy go to the knighthood then. But he and Sibylla have obviously managed to hang on to some of the wealth from their days in power — she has a very chic fur cape, for instance — so it’s not as if the whole wealth thing is an issue here as it was, really (according to Jeremy Irons’s wise old Tiberias), for all the other crusaders. Why not stick with the pretty wife, add an extra wing to the house, be a rich blacksmith and let the quality, driven to madness by their incomprehensible religious delusions, get on with slaughtering each other without any help from him. Hell no, he won’t go. Does anyone suppose this to be a scenario likely or even a possibly to have taken place circa A.D. 1200?
I could, as they say, go on. Though without any particular expertise or knowledge about the Crusades themselves, I think a very basic historical knowledge should be sufficient to realize that it is mere nonsense to make the lesson they teach the virtues of liberal and secular governments in the holy land a good half a millennium before people had any idea of the existence such things. Whatever the truth about the Crusades, this cannot be it. Or even close to it.
James Bowman. "Kingdom of Heaven." jamesbowman.net (May 6, 2005).
Reprinted with permission of James Bowman.
James Bowman is or has been: movie critic, The American Spectator (1990 to date); American editor, The Times Literary Supplement of London (1991 to date); media critic, The New Criterion (1993 to date); Washington correspondent, The Spectator of London (1989-1991); teacher of English and Head of General Studies, Portsmouth Grammar School, Portsmouth, England (1980-1989). Mr. Bowman received his M.A. and A.B.D. degrees from Pembroke College, University of Cambridge, England. He is currently a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture and Honor: A History. Visit his website here.
Copyright © 2005 James Bowman
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