Courtesy of WesternOrthodox.com:
Kingdom of Heaven: A Review
Dr. Paul Crawford, Ph.D.
Jerusalem, October 1187.
Muslim forces, led by Saladin, are about to take the city from its Christian owners for the second time in 550 years, and the people inside are in terror of their lives, relying on Balian of Ibelin, the commander of the city, to defend them.
The solution, offered by the Patriarch of Jerusalem?
According to the recent film Kingdom of Heaven, it was to advise Balian to Convert to Islam!
Why would one of Christendom’s most prestigious clerics, heir to hundreds of thousands of Christian martyrs, standing almost on the very soil where his Lord suffered and died, offer such startlingly craven advice?
Well…because we can always repent later.
Kingdom of Heaven, which claims to be about the fall of Jerusalem to the Muslims in 1187, is a heartbreaking work of art. Beautifully shot, inspired by world-changing, emotionally wrenching, dramatic events, it fails in almost every way to convey the historical truth about those events.
The heartbreak comes from the lost opportunity. Ridley Scott, the director, could have made a brilliant historical film while simultaneously conveying the truth about twelfth-century medieval life. He managed this for the Roman world with Gladiator. But with Kingdom of Heaven, he did not.
The film offers falsehoods, even slander, at almost every turn. For example, there is no evidence that any Patriarch of Jerusalem ever counselled conversion to Islam, and it is incredible to imagine one doing so.
Let’s take a look at some other examples—what the film claims first, answered by the reality.
The twelfth century was a time of repression and poverty.
Medieval historians recognize the period’s cultural rebirth and economic growth by calling it the Renaissance of the Twelfth Century.
The Church required the beheading of suicides.
The Church taught that crusading was an activity that could release other people’s souls from Hell.
It didn’t. It did teach that crusading was one of many penitential activities that might obtain the release of one’s own soul from Purgatory—rather a different matter.
The Church taught that one should kill infidels by crusading in order to find the pathway to Heaven.
It didn’t. It did teach that fighting and dying in defence of Christendom was an act of charity and hence virtuous, but churchmen were generally careful to note that it would be better not to have to kill the infidel, and that it was only permissible if there was no other way to protect the free practice of the Christian faith and the lives of Christians. This is a point which has considerable relevance even today.
Medieval Christians commonly expressed scepticism and disbelief in Christianity (Your soul is in your keeping alone; God doesn’t know me; &c.).
On the contrary, such expressions would have been viewed with shock and horror. When Emperor Frederick II did venture sceptical remarks about Christianity while on the Sixth Crusade early in the next century, he was shunned and reviled by Muslims and Christians alike. Worldly scepticism is commonplace in the modern world, but it was practically non-existent in the medieval.
The Templars were fanatical troublemakers who were out of control and who represented a threat to the Kingdom.
Although the Templars could sometimes be difficult for local authorities to control because of the nature of their organisation, and one king of Jerusalem did in fact hang some Templars for interfering with his foreign policy, the Templars were highly-regarded defenders of Jerusalem and Christian interests generally. Some forty years earlier, Templar discipline and dedication had saved the Second Crusade from annihilation, and from that time forward they comprised a major element of the defence of the crusader states such as Jerusalem. Saladin paid them the ultimate compliment of slaughtering them ruthlessly whenever they came within his power, because he feared their dedication, clear-thinking, and competence.
The Christian King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem cooperated with the Muslim Sultan Saladin in order to try to build a Kingdom of Heaven of peace and tolerance in the Near East.
There is not a shred of evidence to support this fantasy, and a great deal to contradict it. To mention just one problem (aside from the ample historical record of these men’s deeds): tolerance is a modern concept and would not have been considered a virtue by medieval Muslims or Christians. There is no record of either faith ever attempting to set up a regime of calculated tolerance based on principle, anywhere (not even in Spain, contrary to popular belief). Both sides participated in truces for practical reasons, but these had nothing to do with tolerance.
Raymond of Tripoli (called Tiberias in the film) was a tolerant, humane man who supported King Baldwin with all his heart.
Raymond of Tripoli was a traitor to the kingdom, a man who plotted against the throne, consistently placed his own interests above those of kingdom or faith, and who was viewed with suspicion and hostility by the King.
Reynald of ChÃ¢tillon was a drunken, warmongering boor who defied King Baldwin’s commands, embarrassed his own compatriots, and brought death and destruction onto the Kingdom of Jerusalem by his behavior.
Reynald of ChÃ¢tillon was a skilled and dedicated defender of Christendom, so capable that Saladin viewed him as the primary obstacle to Muslim domination of the Near East, and murdered him at the first available opportunity. Reynald was Baldwin’s trusted advisor, acted as his regent at times when the King was disabled, and was widely viewed as a martyr by his contemporaries.
Balian of Ibelin was a bastard blacksmith in France, found, knighted, and brought to the Holy Land by his father Godfrey. He was a dedicated supporter of King Baldwin’s, and organized the defence of Jerusalem when it lay helpless before Saladin.
Balian did lead the heroic but doomed defence of Jerusalem in fall 1187. Otherwise, he wasn’t a bastard, his father wasn’t named Godfrey, he lived his entire life in the Holy Land, and he belonged to Raymond of Tripoli’s faction, although he apparently did not participate in Raymond’s most treacherous behavior.
Princess Sibylla committed adultery with Balian of Ibelin and despised her husband Guy of Lusignan.
Sibylla loved Guy passionately and remained singularly devoted to him all her life. There is no evidence that she committed adultery with Balian of Ibelin (who was married to Sibylla’s stepmother Maria), or anyone else for that matter.
Guy of Lusignan was a bloodthirsty warmonger who yearned for combat.
Actually, Guy seems to have taken the offensive at Hattin because he had been sharply criticized for excessive caution and avoidance of combat previously. During his short term as king, he did everything he could to avoid direct confrontation with Saladin, not because he wished to tolerate Islam, but rather because he was intelligent enough to know that such confrontations were all too likely to end in the destruction of the Kingdom.
Saladin was a worldly-wise cynic who did not take his own religion seriously, and a ruler who has been viewed as a model by Muslims ever since.
On the contrary, the available evidence indicates that Saladin was at least conventionally pious, a man who took his responsibility to wage jihad against non-Muslims seriously. But it is Christians who lionized Saladin; amongst Muslims he had a relatively poor reputation until recently, when they learnt admiration for Saladin from the West. Most medieval Muslims saved their admiration for more successful, because more vicious, rulers such as Zengi in the twelfth century and Baibars in the thirteenth.
Christians had no particular attachment to the holy sites in Palestine.
One of the primary reasons for the crusades is the powerful attachment Christians felt to the places where the story of Salvation had been played out. Tens of thousands of Christian warriors willingly laid down their lives in defence of these places, and the loss of them was bitterly mourned across Christendom.
Raymond of Tripoli (Tiberias) and Balian of Ibelin refused to accompany King Guy to Hattin.
They did not. They were both present, and both fought beside him, although they did cut their way out of Muslim lines to escape. Guy could not have fielded a functional army without them.
The Church taught that bodies which were burned were thereby prevented from Resurrection.
The First Crusaders in 1099 slaughtered everyone in Jerusalem.
They didn’t (although some of their own propaganda claimed that they did).
The Christians of the First Crusade stole Jerusalem from the Muslims, unprovoked.
Jerusalem was a Christian city when the Muslims captured it in 638…unprovoked.
Saladin voluntarily and generously allowed the Christians to walk away from Jerusalem in October 1187.
He did not. Saladin allowed the Christians to negotiate their own ransom, because Balian of Ibelin threatened to fight house to house and destroy the entire city if he did not offer surrender terms in accordance with usual military custom.
When Saladin entered Jerusalem, he was considerate enough of Christian sensibilities to pick up and gently restore a fallen cross.
One of Saladin’s first acts was to have the cross on the Dome of the Rock torn off, dragged through sewers, and reviled.
It is the fault of the crusades that the Muslim and Christian worlds have been at each others’ throats (to be fair, this is implied, not stated explicitly—but the implication is clear).
Muslims attacked Christians first, and continued attacking them from the seventh century to the eleventh, and then beyond. Islam teaches that the whole world must submit to Islamic law, and if it will not do so willingly, it must be forced to submit. Islam has always had, in Samuel Huntington’s words, bloody borders. The crusades had nothing to do with this phenomenon, but were a defensive response to centuries of Muslim aggression—and were unsuccessful, at that.
There’s more—much more. But you get the point.
It might be argued that filmmakers take liberties with the historical record all the time, that it is in the nature of the medium to require such liberties, and that anyway, this is entertainment and ought not to be taken so seriously.
There are several problems (at least) with that view.
1) Taking artistic liberties is one thing. Direct, deliberate, consistent misrepresentation of the truth, and the slander of one’s fellow humans, is quite another.
2) The real story is amply dramatic. It doesn’t need to be inverted.
3) The filmmakers have claimed forcefully that what they were presenting was not just entertainment, but was a historically accurate and fascinating history lesson.
In addition, the film makes a couple of points very powerfully, points which Christians (not to mention Muslims) cannot allow to stand without challenge.
Most important, the film consistently depicts those who take religion seriously, and allow it to influence their actions, as crazed fools whose actions threaten the peace, stability and prosperity of society. It doesn’t matter, in the film, whether the devout are Christian or Muslim. The problem is religious conviction.
The film also shows its heroes as world-weary cynics who believe in nothing except, perhaps, relativism, tolerance…and sexual liberty. Adultery is depicted as a positive good, and marital fidelity is contemptible.
The film is not mere entertainment. It is a powerful and artistically compelling presentation of the morally disordered views of our own age, and an equally powerful assault on traditional morality, especially on the teachings and historical record of Christianity. As such, it is poisonous as well as slanderous.
The director, Ridley Scott, was sharply criticized for the movie in early 2004, well before it came out, by some of the foremost crusade historians in the world (including Jonathan Riley-Smith of Cambridge University, who characterised the film as rubbish). Rumor has it that Scott made a few changes to the script in response to the criticizm…but not nearly enough.
Kingdom of Heaven does great violence to the history it purports to portray, is an insult to Christian and Muslim believers alike, and is a disservice to anyone who seeks to understand the meaning and consequences of the past.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Bernard Hamilton, The Leper King and His Heirs: Baldwin IV and the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. A scholarly but highly readable and reliable book; if footnotes scare you, just don’t look at them.
Malcolm Lyons & D. E. P. Jackson, Saladin: The Politics of the Holy War, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982. The standard study of Saladin and a clear-eyed look at the great Muslim leader.
Thomas Madden, A New Concise History of the Crusades, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005. An excellent, readable, up-to-date survey of the crusades to the Holy Land.
Jonathan Riley-Smith, What Were the Crusades?, 3rd ed., San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002. The benchmark introduction to the concept of crusading, by a practicing Catholic who is the foremost historian of the crusades today.