Crusades Revisited

Article excerpt

THOUSANDS OF medieval Christians answer the spiritual call of the pope, take up arms, and travel to the Holy Land to defend the faith against a barbaric and militaristic Muslim foe. The war is bloody, and over time Jerusalem is won, then lost again--but the spread of Islam into Christendom is halted.

We all know the story of the Crusades. Or do we?

Riddley Scott's film Kingdom of Heaven reverses centuries of popular portrayals of the Crusades. It shows the great Muslim military leader Saladin as articulate and circumspect. Its Christian hero theuled by a secular conscience rather than by religious convictions. Christians are (at times) duplicitous and faithless, and Muslims are (at times) noble and godly.

Set amid the events surrounding the Muslim siege of Jerusalem in the 1180s, the film (with screenplay by novelist Willian Monahan) focuses on the story of Balian (Orlando Bloom), a humble blacksmith and illegitimate son of a Christian knight named Godfrey (Liam Neeson). Unlike the Templars and their leader (Brendan Gleeson), who are depicted as seeking confrontation with the Muslims at every turn, Godfrey envisions establishing a "kingdom of heaven" in the Holy Laud--a place where peace will reign between Christians and Muslims.

Balian is knighted and eventually finds himself chief defender of Jerusalem, pitted against Saladin (played by Syrian actor Ghasson Massoud). The picture's last third is devoted to the gripping and bloody siege of the city, replete with the proverbial armies of thousands, fiery night scenes, intricate strategies and the director's patented cinematography. (Nothing in Scott's Oscar-winning Gladiator matches these epic battle scenes.)

A movie that revisits the most historically significant invasion of Islamic territory by Western military forces and that appears during a time of crisis between the West aid Islam cannot but be controversial. The filmmakers reportedly received death threats from Islamic extremists while the movie was being shot in Morocco. Cambridge University scholar Jonathan Riley-Smith has allegedly criticized the film's script as "Osama bin Laden's version of history." The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has called the film "a balanced and positive depiction of Islamic culture during the Crusades," but UCLA law professor Khaled Abou El Fadl has asserted, "There is no doubt in my mind people are going to come out of this movie disliking Muslims and Arabs more than they already dislike them. …

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