Hollywood does The Crusades

I don't know about you, but the first time I heard that Hollywood — actually Sir Ridley Scott, a Brit — was doing a movie, Kingdom of Heaven, on the Crusades, I said to self  'Oh no...'

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, as the US prepared to respond militarily, the word 'crusade' would have arisen in debates even if President Bush hadn't uttered it during a speech.  It was bound to happen in the obvious Islam vs. the West context of that world—changing event. 

At the time, there was an excellent column by crusades historian Thomas F. Madden in National Review Online  titled 'Crusade Propoganda' that deserves another look.

Madden sets up his remarks by noting that, from his cave, Bin Laden referred to Bush as 'leader of the infidels' having previously called the President a 'crusader.'  Madden then defines the popular notion of the Crusades as

' a bunch of religious nuts carrying fire and sword to the land of the Prince of Peace...cynical imperialists seeking to carve out colonies in faraway lands with the blessings of the Catholic Church.' 


In fact, the Crusades were defensive wars,

'the West's belated response to the Muslim conquest of fully two—thirds of the Christian world," as Professor Madden tells us. 

In his words,

'The Crusades were no more offensive than was the American invasion of Normandy.' 

Their objective was to bring those once—Christian lands back under Christian control.  Elsewhere Dr. Madden explains that Crusaders embodied a new definition of warfare as something undertaken selflessly, in good faith

'in the service of Christ and his people as a penitential act...warriors underwent extreme hardship to save the lives of their neighbors oppressed by foreign conquerors.' 

And what was the Muslim reaction?  A call for jihad.

Kingdom of Heaven is set in the period from leprosy—ridden King Baldwin IV's brief rule over the Kingdom of Jerusalem to Saladin's conquest of the city after the Battle of Hattin, 1187.  In an interview, its screenwriter, Bill Monahan, delivered the expected treacle:

'The film proposes that it's better to live together than to be at war.  That reason is better than fanaticism; kindness better than hate.'  

And of course in the film, those fanatics are Christians, as star Orlando Bloom burbles in another interview:

'But unfortunately there are characters like Reynald and Guy de Lusignan who are depicted in our movie as fanatics.'  

What about Muslim leader Saladin, you ask?   Why, he's the epitome of chivalry and restraint.

Our great allies the British have a way of putting things succinctly and powerfully.  Reacting to this movie, leading crusades historian Professor Jonathan Riley—Smith, in a Daily Telegraph article said:

'It sounds absolute balls.  It's rubbish.  It's not historically accurate at all...they depict the Muslims as sophisticated and the Crusaders as brutes and barbarians... [portraying] the Templars as baddies is only sustainable from the Muslim perspective.  They were the biggest threat to the Muslims and many ended up being killed because their sworn vocation was to defend the Holy Land.'

Another piece of bogus history the offered by Kingdom of Heaven is an organization in Jerusalem called the Brotherhood of Muslims, Jews and Christians.  Can you say '12th century United Nations?'

And for the record, Professor Madden notes in the second article cited above that in fact the First Crusade did not result in Jerusalem's streets running knee—deep in blood. 

'No scholars now accept the grossly exaggerated reports of massacres at Jerusalem in 1099.  None of them are from eyewitnesses.'

When Saladin was preparing to conquer the city in 1187, he fully intended to massacre all the inhabitants.  It was only through a negotiated surrender by Christians promising no harm to the Muslim population and its holy sites that the planned slaughter was avoided.

Once again Hollywood has lived up to expectations by delivering ersatz history resonant with marshmallow 'can't we all just get along' preachments and redolent with smarmy moralizing.'

Wonder if Bin Laden has his DVD copy yet?

John B. Dwyer is a military historian and a frequent contributor.