Why Both Christian and Muslim Fundamentalists Hate Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven

by Shlomo Svesnik

Doncha just love it? When Ridley Scott was filming his Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven in the Moroccan Sahara, death threats from Islamic militants flooded in, prompting King Mohammed VI to offer 1,000 soldiers to guard the set. Those without quite the chuztpah to make death threats attacked Scott in the local press for making a piece of war propaganda for George Bush’s “new Crusade” against the Arabs in Iraq. Now that the film is out, right-wingers on our side of the Atlantic are bashing it as “anti-Christian” propaganda that loans comfort to the Muslim enemy. Go figure!

If it was Scott’s intention (and this much seems clear) to make a movie that warns of the dangers of religious fanaticism, these nimrods are sure helping to make his point. Yes, the film deviates sharply from the details of history. But it seems to do this more in the interests of box-office success than any political agendas. If Scott is trying to make any points here, they are not anti-Christian or anti-Muslim, but anti-fundamentalist—and the fact that he is coming under attack from both Christian and Muslim fundis can only be seen as vindication.

Kingdom of Heaven tells the story of the 1187 taking of Jerusalem from the Crusaders by Saladin, the Kurdish warrior who became sultan of Egypt and united the dissolute and humiliated Islamic world in a new jihad for the Holy Land. The story is told through the eyes of Balian of Ibelin, the Frankish noble who organized the defense of Jerusalem against Saladin’s besieging army.

By the standards of their day, both Saladin and Balian were moderates, and they avoided a lengthy siege and general massacre of Jerusalem’s population by working out a deal. Both did so in defiance of hard-liners within their own ranks. Both are favorably portrayed by Scott. The siege of Jerusalem is the film’s climax, but after battle sequences perhaps even more realistic and extravagant than those of Scott’s last historical epic, Gladiator, the end comes not with glorious victory, but with a peace deal. Balian—the hero and protagonist, portrayed by Hollywood’s current golden boy, Orlando Bloom—surrenders the city to the Muslims in exchange for a pledge of no reprisals against the Christian inhabitants. Instead, they are granted safe escort to the sea.

Those are the salient points of the movie, and they are historically accurate. So is the contest which is portrayed between the “doves” around Balian and the Leper King of Christian Jerusalem, Baldwin IV, and the “hawks” led by Guy of Lusignan, Reynauld of Chatillon and the fanatical Knights Templars. Baldwin’s death in 1185, and the succession of his brother-in-law Guy to the throne, practically guaranteed renewed war with the Muslims. Jerusalem had been closed to Muslim pilgrims for generations after the Crusaders first took the city in 1099, and Baldwin had re-opened it in a bid for peace. The Templars, in turn, were scheming to break the peace with (illegal) attacks on Muslim pilgrims and traders.

The film deviates from historical fact in the predictable ways Hollywood always does, and in this case they are basically harmless. In the film, Balian starts out as a lowly French blacksmith, the bastard son of his Crusader father “Godfrey of Ibelin,” and follows him to Jerusalem seeking redemption after a personal tragedy. Nothing in the history books suggests this humble origin, and the famous Godfrey (of Bouillon, not Ibelin) was an early king of Christian Jerusalem who lived three generations before Balian. In reality, our hero’s father was also named Balian, and he was lord of Yebna (near Rafah in contemporary Gaza), from whence was derived the Frenchified pretension “Ibelin.” The family actually hailed from Italy, not France (the elder Balian began life as Balian of Naples), and the younger Balian was almost certainly born in Palestine (and wedlock).

Nor is there much to suggest that Balian had a torrid (or even tepid) affair with Princess Sibylla, sister of King Baldwin and wife of Guy of Lusignan—although she had jilted Balian’s brother Baldwin of Ibelin for Guy when it was clear he would become king. (Got it?)

In the film, Balian wisely refuses to march against Saladin’s forces in an ill-conceived and adventurist foray led by King Guy and Reynauld, instead choosing to stay and defend Jerusalem against the inevitable counter-attack, and is thereby spared humiliating defeat at the disastrous battle of Hattin, where the Christians got their asses handed to them but good. In reality, he fought at the battle, but escaped. (Guy and Reynauld were captured, and the latter personally offed by Saladin, as the film portrays.)

Having fudged these earlier details, Scott is then obliged to fudge the climax, the battle for Jerusalem—which is a shame, because the real story is arguably better than the silver screen version. After the defeat at Hattin, Balian returned to Jerusalem, already besieged by Saladin, to get his wife out—who was actually Maria Comnena, grand-niece of the Byzantine emperor and dowager queen of Jerusalem (she had been married to Amalric, the king before Baldwin IV). Balian intended to flee with her to Christian-held territory on the coast, and secured Saladin’s permission to enter the city on condition that he take an oath to stay only one night. This he did, but once in the city the people rallied to him and demanded he stay to lead the resistance. He would only do so after securing an official release from his oath by Saladin. This was granted, and the mutual honor between the two men served them both well days later, when Balian sued for peace in return for clemency. Saladin, his earlier peace offers rebuffed, had pledged to take the city by force. He relented of his own oath, and the city was spared a bloodbath.

Finally, in the film Balian goes back to France with Sibylla and they live happily ever after, rejecting an offer to join Richard the Lion-Hearted in the Third Crusade to take back Jerusalem. In reality, he fled with Maria Comnena to the rump Crusader state on the coast, where he remained an important lord, fighting alongside Richard.

Balian’s moment of understanding with Saladin would be echoed twice more in the generations of war that followed. First, in 1191 Saladin cut a new peace deal with Richard the Lion-Hearted, granting Christian pilgrims access to Jerusalem. This arrangement persisted until Saladin died in 1193 and subsequent Crusades were launched, and the bloody cycle began anew. The second came in 1229, when the abortive Sixth Crusade was cut short by a deal between the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II and Saladin’s successor Sultan al-Kamil, establishing joint Christian-Muslim control of Jerusalem under Frederick’s official if distant rule—for which Frederick was excommunicated by the Pope and al-Kamil assailed by the hardline mullahs as a traitor to Islam. (Another Balian of Ibelin, lord of Sidon and grandson of Ridley Scott’s hero, became regent of this multicultural Jerusalem.) This peace was broken in 1249 when Louis IX of France (St. Louis) launched the Seventh Crusade at papal behest and invaded Egypt, plunging the Holy Land into war once again. Don’t that say it all—excommunication for the peacemakers, sainthood for war-makers!

There would be 12 crusades in all—two centuries of war. And the meshuggenah types who are now dissing Scott seem intent on starting the whole damn thing over again. (Only now we’ve got nukes, not just catapults that hurl flaming balls of tar. Oy vey!)

If Scott had really wanted to make an “anti-Christian” propaganda film, the history of the Crusades could have provided him with plenty of material. He could have made a film about the fall of the city to the Christian armies in 1099, which was followed by a wholesale massacre in which Muslims and Jews were slaughtered and burned alive in mosques and synagogues, and one Frankish account (Raymund of Aguiles) boasted that at the Temple of Solomon, “men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins.” Widespread cannibalism by the early Crusaders is nearly universally accepted by historians—as the accounts come from both Arab and Frankish sources.

Scott could have made a film in which the hero and protagonist was Saladin himself (is Omar Sharif still around to play the lead?). He could have had Saladin speak the verse from the Koran which he actually invoked to justify clemency for the Christians: “Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loves not transgressors. And slay them wherever you catch them and turn them out from where they have turned you out; for oppression is worse than slaughter; but do not fight them at the Sacred Mosque, unless they first fight you there… But if they cease, Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful. So fight them on until there is no more oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah; but if they cease let there be no hostility…” (2:190-3)

He could have dealt with how Jews fared as the Christians and Muslims engaged in two centuries of mutual slaughter—not only how the Christian soldiers massacred Jews in the Holy Land, but the pogroms that broke out all over France and England in the same paroxysm of zeal that mobilized the Crusades, how the Crusaders gratuitously destroyed Jewish villages en route to Jerusalem.

Finally, if he were less self-conscious about making explicit contemporary analogies, Scott could have mentioned that Balian’s fiefdom as a Crusader lord was none other than Nablus—today a town in the occupied West Bank where, in a perverse historical irony, Jews are acting like Crusaders. And Yebna, where Balian’s father ruled, is today a Palestinian refugee camp in the occupied Gaza Strip. Iraq, the West Bank and Gaza are the three occupied territories that lead contemporary jihadis to speak of a “Zionist-Crusader Alliance.” This alliance is a relatively new phenomenon, and it will probably be short-lived. For all the centuries-nurtured historical claims and grudges that animate the current conflict in the Middle East, Muslims and Jews alike both seem to have forgotten that neither fare very well when Christians get into Crusader mode.


Also by Shlomo Svesnik:

Think Before You Cheer–Michael Moore is Making a Noose for the Left’s Neck

A Look Behind the Headlines Reveals The Passion of Christ as Propaganda for a Fascistic Cult


Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, May 10, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution