Kingdom of Heaven

*This following post is adapted from an older 2005 blog post on my now defunct crusades-encyclopedia website and needs, eventually, further updating.

Few films have caused as much of a stir among crusades historians and students as Kingdom of Heaven. The film was directed by Ridley Scott and although it was not released until 2005, various commentaries and criticisms by those who had been given access to the film’s script began appearing in the press several months in advance.

The film focused on the crusading movement in the Levant in the years shortly before the calling of the Third Crusade [c. 1187]. The highlight of the film is Saladin’s siege of Jerusalem and the events leading up to the capture of the city from the crusaders. Viewers are guided through both historical and fictional events from the perspective of the film’s main character, the historical Balian of Ibelin.

While some Muslim groups ultimately expressed praise for the film, many crusades historians did not. The traditional battle between scholarly and popular views of the crusades flared as a result, with some prominent scholars denouncing the director’s claim to historical reliability. Consequently, judging by the nature of most news stories released during and after the production of the movie, the debate over the film’s depiction of historical events became, perhaps, a bigger story than the release of the film.

Comments on the film:

Jonathan Riley-Smith– University of Cambridge

Kingdom of Heaven will feed the preconceptions of Arab nationalists and Islamists. The words and actions of the liberal brotherhood and the picture of Palestine as a Western frontier will confirm for the nationalists that medieval crusading was fundamentally about colonialism. On the other hand the fanaticism of most of the Christians in the film and their hatred of Islam is what the Islamists want to believe. At a time of inter-faith tension, nonsense like this will only reinforce existing myths. (1)

Jonathan Riley-Smith– University of Cambridge

It sounds absolute balls. It’s rubbish. It’s not historically accurate at all. They refer to The Talisman, which depicts the Muslims as sophisticated and civilised, and the Crusaders are all brutes and barbarians. It has nothing to do with reality. (2)

Jonathan Riley-Smith– University of Cambridge

It’s Osama bin Laden’s version of history. It will fuel the Islamic fundamentalists.(3)

Jonathan Phillips– University of London

The Templars as ‘baddies’ is only sustainable from the Muslim perspective, and ‘baddies’ is the wrong way to show it anyway. They are the biggest threat to the Muslims and many end up being killed because their sworn vocation is to defend the Holy Land. (4)

Thomas Madden– St. Louis University

As a historian it naturally irritates me that there are people who will leave theaters certain that Scott and his writer, William Monahan, have served up something that approximates reality in the Middle Ages. They haven’t. In fact, there is very little that is medieval about The Kingdom of Heaven. It is instead a mixture of 19th-century Romanticism and modern Hollywood wishful-thinking. (5)

Thomas Madden– St. Louis University

Ridley Scott has repeatedly said that this movie is “not a documentary” but a “story based on history.” The problem is that the story is poor and the history is worse. Based on media interviews, Scott, Monahan, and the leading actors clearly believe that their story can help bring peace to the world today. Lasting peace, though, would be better served by candidly facing the truths of our shared past, however politically incorrect those might be. (6)

Vincent Ryan– Aquinas College

For Scott, the avowed agnostic, religion seems to be inherently problematic. His presentation of it in the movie is just as problematic. In the film, the heroes are those who have either lost their faith or consider religion a very private, personal matter. The villains, on the other hand, are the devoted believers (Christian and Muslim). Scott’s description of the Templars — who serve as the primary villains in the film — as “the right wing or Christian fundamentalists of their day” further illustrates both his failure to grasp the role of religion in the medieval period and the simplistic and modernist lens with which he chooses to depict it.(7)

Amin Maalouf – French Author

[Before seeing the film] It does not do any good to distort history, even if you believe you are distorting it in a good way. Cruelty was not on one side but on all.(8)

Amin Maalouf– French Author

[After seeing the film] The film goes against religious fanaticism very clearly. All that goes against hatred, fanaticism and systematic opposition between those two worlds is welcome. (9)

Khaled Abou El Fadl– UCLA

In my view, it is inevitable that there will be hate crimes committed directly because of it. (10)

Khaled Abou El Fadl– UCLA

I believe this movie teaches people to hate Muslims.(11)

Ridley Scott– Film Maker

I showed the film to one very important Muslim in New York, a lecturer from Columbia, and he said it was the best portrayal of Saladin he’s ever seen.(12)

Council on American-Islamic Relations

A balanced and positive depiction of Islamic culture during the Crusades.(13)

References:

  1. Jonathan Riley-Smith Truth is the First Victim [Review of Kingdom of Heaven] U.K. Times Online May 5, 2005
  2. Charlotte Edwardes Ridley Scott’s New Crusades Film ‘Panders To Osama Bin Laden’ U.K. Telegraph, January 18, 2004
  3. Charlotte Edwardes Ridley Scott’s New Crusades Film ‘Panders To Osama Bin Laden’ U.K. Telegraph, January 18, 2004
  4. Charlotte Edwardes Ridley Scott’s New Crusades Film ‘Panders To Osama Bin Laden’ U.K. Telegraph, January 18, 2004
  5. Thomas Madden Onward PC Soldiers [Review of Kingdom of Heaven] National Review May 27, 2005
  6. Thomas Madden Onward PC Soldiers [Review of Kingdom of Heaven] National Review May 27, 2005
  7. Vincent Ryan- Crusades: Hollywood Vs. History. Catholic Exchange, May 2005.
  8. Charlotte Edwardes Ridley Scott’s New Crusades Film ‘Panders To Osama Bin Laden’ U.K. Telegraph January 18, 2004
  9. Al-Jazeera Muslim Groups Praise Crusades Film May 9, 2005
  1. BBC: Neil Smith Film Maker Defends Crusade Epic April 28, 2005
  2. Bob Thompson Hollywood on Crusade The Washington Post May 1, 2005
  3. BBC: Neil Smith Film Maker Defends Crusade Epic April 28, 2005
  4. BBC: Neil Smith Film Maker Defends Crusade Epic April 28, 2005
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