Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Kingdom of Cynicism

What is there to say about Kingdom of Heaven that has not already been said? We can begin by asking why an epic film that cost approximately $130 million to make captured an underperforming $19.6 million opening weekend. (Update: The film did make $56 million internationally).

Did the film overly fictionalize events and make events up?

Let's look.

Ridley Scott's film begins with a young man Balian. Balian's wife has just committed suicide and Balian feels lost and is concerned for the state of his wife's soul. A crusading knight by the name of Godfrey enters Balians village and wishes Balian to accompany him to "defend the Holy Land" and join in the Crusades. As it turns out Balian is Godfrey's bastard child. Upon reflection, and after murdering the village priest who said his wife is burning in Hell headless, Balian begins his journey.

After being knighted, losing his newfound father, and suffering trials and tribulations, Balian arrives in Jerusalem and begins serving the leper king of Jerusalem Baldwin IV. It is now that Balian encounters the four people who will most alter his life:

  • Nasir (admirably portrayed by Deep Space 9's Alexander Siddig), the noble Saracen warrior and servant of Saladin who acknowledges Balian's virtue as a knight and Balian's capability for mercy.

  • Sibylla, the sister of Baldwin IV, Wife of Guy de Lusignan, and romantic interest for Balian .

  • Guy de Lusignan, the angry, hatefilled, and judgemental French noble destined to become King of Jerusalem.

  • Reynald of Chantillon, crass boor, racist, murderer, and destroyer of the Peace of Jerusalem.

  • Reynald has been violating the Peace of Jerusalem and attacking Saracens at random, which has agitated Saladin to begin his assault against Christian lands. Baldwin IV opposes Reynald's actions, but it becomes quickly apparent that Guy supports them.

    Sibylla and Balian fall in love, have a one night stand, and separate for a while. Meanwhile Saladin's army marches upon Reynald's holdings seeking justice for Reynald's unprovoked attacks. The Army of Jerusalem marches to meet them, as does Balian who arrives before the Army of Jerusalem. Balian runs a diversionary assault against Saladin to protect innocent bystanders who are fleeing into Reynald's castle. Our hero hopes that his tactic will save the civilians and give enough time for the Army of Jerusalem to arrive. His plan works, a new peace is negotiated and Reynald is imprisoned.

    Alas, Baldwin IV is a leper and his health is failing. The King of Jerusalem is dying and seeks to give control of the Army to Balian. This would require the murder of Guy (and his supporters) so that Balian could marry Sibylla. Balian refuses the offer, he will commit no sin in the Holy Land ("It is the Kingdom of Conscience or nothing!") Baldwin dies, Sibylla stays with Guy, Reynald attacks what appears to be a small Saracen village which happens to have as a citizen Saladin's sister, and Guy gets the war he desparately wants. Guy marches the army to meet Saladin, leaving behind only Balian's troops, to defend Jerusalem. Guy, Reynald, and the Army of Jerusalem are slaughtered due to exhaustion and lack of hydration; and Saladin marches upon Jerusalem with the intent to siege the city. After a few days of siege warfare, Balian surrenders the city while managing to negotiate the safety of the Christian residents so long as they leave. Roll credits.

    There is a little more to the narrative of the film, but those are the significant historical events described in the film. Did they happen? And if so, did they happen in the way portrayed? If not...what is lacking.

    Did Saladin begin a "counter-crusade" against Christian armies during the time period after the Second Crusade? Yes.

    Did Balian of Ibelin negotiate the surrender of Jerusalem to Saladin's army? Yes.

    Was the Army of Jerusalem destroyed by Saladin? Yes, at a battled called the Horns of Hattin.

    What one discovers quickly upon study of the events is that the "big events" the movie portrays did occur.

    Including the attack by Reynald of Chantillon. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia (which one would imagine would be more inclined to favoritism of Christian Crusaders):

    Attacked in his castle at Karak, Renaud twice repulsed Saladin's forces (1184-86). A truce was then signed, but Renaud broke it again and carried off a caravan in which was the sultan's own sister. In his exasperation Saladin invaded the Kingdom of Jerusalem and, although Guy de Lusignan gathered all his forces to repel the attack, on 4 July, 1187, Saladin's army annihilated that of the Christians on the shores of Lake Tiberias. The king, the grand master of the Temple, Renaud de Ch√Ętillon, and the most powerful men in the realm were made prisoners. After slaying Renaud with his own hand, Saladin marched on Jerusalem.

    In fact, one has a hard time finding any fans of Reynald who is described in Thomas Madden's Concise History of the Crusades:
    According to his nature, Reynald acted impulsively and without thought. He was grotesquely cruel, painfully bombastic, and politically tone deaf. In 1156, joining forces with Prince Thoros of Armenia, he led three weeks of plundering expeditions against Byzantine Cyprus. With joy, Reynald presided over and took part in brutal murder, rape, and descruction across the Christian island. Emperor Manuel was enraged, and so was King Baldwin.

    Wait...Christian island? That's right Reynald attacked Christian as well as Muslim. In fact, his attack on Cyprus led the Emperor of Byzantium to agree to support Crusading troops in their struggles against Nur ed-Bin (a very successful Saracen warrior). Sadly, when Manuel defeated Reynald he did not exact proper justice, but instead gave him the duty of protecting Antioch as imperial vassal. There is a great deal more to Reynald's story, much would make a good movie with him as villain.

    Shortly after the successful rise of Saladin (al-Malik al-Nasir Salah ed-Din Yusuf) into significant power, a new Byzantine emperor removed support of the Crusaders and in fact "encouraged urban mobs to massacre thousands of western Europeans living in the capital."

    Was there a "Leper King Baldwin IV"? Yes. But the film leaves out that his rule was actually largely a rule of regents and not his own rule. There were many factions who sought control of Jerusalem for various reasons.

    What is truly ironic in the film's portrayal of Guy de Lusignan by Martin Csokas is that they portray him as friend of Reynald of Chantillon. In fact, after the death of Baldwin IV and the betrayal of Raymond of Tripoli, the court party (of which Reynald was a member) forced Sibylla to divorce Guy and it was only her political savvy at having negotiated that she could choose her next husband (immediately after her coronation as queen of Jerusalem) which enabled her to remarry Guy. This event, among others, caused Reynald to leave the court and declare his territories "independant of royal control." Rather than friends, as the movie portrays them, Guy and Reynald were political opponents. After Reynald's above mentioned famous raid, Guy demanded that Reynald make restitution and was rebuked. It appears that Reynald, who had committed atrocities in Christian Cyprus and Antioch, only felt at home in a state of war. Reynald provoked his war, and doomed the lives of many.

    Heroes and Villains

    One could easily picture an attempt at an honest depiction of the Crusades with heroes on both sides.

    Saladin was recognized by his opponents as a noble adversary, and there is no doubt that he took his faith seriously. Saladin revoked unjust taxes and funded the construction of places of worship and education.

    Guy was not a military genius, but one could see him as devoutly defending the Holy Land.

    Raymond in particular could be portrayed as a noble figure betrayed by his trust that men like Reynald would fail in their manipulations.

    And Reynald? He does make a natural villain. Kingdom of Heaven could have been a tale of three noble and pious men, on opposite sides and in an unstable truce, all coming into conflict after being manipulated by a man who loved bloodshed. Whether the blood shed was Christian or Muslim seemed to matter not to Reynald.

    But that is not the film we received.

    In an article at Jewish World Review by James P. Pinkerton many "conservative" compaints about the film are addressed and presented. But I think a look at the film can dismiss a claim that it is "Osama Bin Laden's view of the Crusades," unless OBL's view is that the Christians have no genuine faith. Then the claim is fair.

    Because the main problem with the film is essentially the weakness featured at a "Christian Film Site" called Plugged in Online who cites as the major weakness of the film, the participants of the film appear to be fighting over nothing. None of the main actors seems to have faith, whether Muslim or Christian, and none seem to know why they are fighting. The movie overlays modern agnostic theology on a religious struggle. That is a bad combination indeed.

    I am not normally one to recommend a born-again cite for a film review since they tend to focus on moral content etc., but I think the writer is acutely accurate in the above critique. Though given Tom Nevin's (the author) quick dismissal of the legitimacy of the Crusades:
    First, make no mistake: The Crusades are a blot on Christian history. The idea that God would will that military force be used to retake the city of Jerusalem for Christendom, as Pope Urban II claimed in launching the First Crusade in 1095, is contrary to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 26:52. “‘Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to [Peter], ‘for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.’”

    I think Tom needs two things. First, an education in History. Some thinkers don't believe that the Crusades are "a blot on Christian history." I think that such a quickly dismissive statement is unreflective and uninformed. Second, given his statement that Crusades were contrary to Jesus' teaching, it is true that prior to 1095 Christians had no concept of "Holy War." But they did have a concept of "Just War." Point of fact, many smart people have discussed this very issue. Far more thoroughly than I can here, but the question is not whether the Crusades were unjust because all war is unjust, but whether they were just wars. I think that the answer to that question depends on which Crusade you are talking about.

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