A Kingdom of Reason

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If
you missed Ridley Scott's Kingdom
of Heaven
(2005) when it was released last spring, or
were dissuaded from seeing it because of a bad review, then by
all means buy it or rent it. It is one of his best films, as good,
maybe better than his justly esteemed Gladiator
(2000). Moreover, the film, with its excellent screenplay by William
Monahan, contains lessons, with applicability to all wars,
that Americans especially would do well to heed before they lose
what's left of their liberty or invade another country. As I see
them: the insistence upon total victory rests upon a presumption
of innocence that is illusory and false; there may be villainy
among one's friends and honor among the foe; war, which is nothing
but organized killing, is justified only when it is in self-defense
and never when its object is to spread an idea, a faith, or a
form of government.

Kingdom
did not do well at the box office, which is no surprise. Complexity
does not sell many tickets; nor does a positive portrayal of Muslims,
even when deserved or when the persons in question lived a thousand
years ago; and even less the subversive intimation that Americans
may not be doing the right thing in Iraq. The critics didn't like
it much either. They fell into two categories. The first were
those who seem pre-disposed to dislike any film that reminds them
of Peter Jackson's Lord
of the Rings
' trilogy. Salon's review was typical
of these, deriding Kingdom as yet "another boy's-book
adventure movie." There are plenty of films that deserve
that put-down, but not this one.

The second
were those who objected to the content of the film, and
they were mostly the cons, the cultural spokesmen for the ruling
majority. There are three kinds of American conservatives: the
neoconservatives, who supply the brains for the Republican governing
coalition; the theoconservatives, more commonly known as the religious
right, who supply the votes (and much of the cannon fodder); and
the paleoconservatives, a dissenting minority, intellectually
formidable, who are without much influence. The neocons saw Scott's
film as a clear and present danger both to the Global War on Terror
and the integrity of the state of Israel; the theocons as a threat
to the imminent return of the Lord. In the Weekly Standard
(May 2005), John Podhoretz dismissed the film for propagating
"multi-cultural" myths of a once-upon-a-time of peace
in the Holy Land disrupted by religious zealotry and fanaticism.
He concludes: "Kingdom of Heaven makes it crystal
clear that what Saladin and Balian and all good Crusaders really
wanted was a United Nations to come into existence circa 1186
to ensure a multicultural, internationalized Jerusalem."
Pod is terrified lest movie viewers come away from the film believing
that no one has an exclusive claim on Jerusalem. That perhaps
it should be made a free city, open to pilgrims of all faiths,
and policed by a United Nations constabulary. I came away from
the film thinking just that, but, unlike Pod, thought it rather
a good idea. And his other point is wrong too: there were
periods of peace and relative good will between Muslims and Christians
during the Crusades.

The paleocons
are not really a part of the Republican coalition, and they have
opposed the Iraq war from the beginning. In some ways they see
Islam as an even greater threat than the others; in most other
ways, less so. They are concerned more by what they regard as
the intrusions of Islam into the Western world, mainly through
immigration (both legal and illegal) and through the proposed
admission of Turkey into the European Union. The more reasonable
among them believe that a modus vivendi with Islam can be reached
by withdrawing the intrusive Western (mostly American) military
presence from the Middle East and ceasing financial and military
support for all regimes in the region. That coupled with
some real border security would render us safe at home and allow
us to consign the Department of Homeland Security to a bad memory.
However, there are some crazy paleos who can rival the neocons
in the stridency of their hysteria. One actually accused Ridley
Scott of "aiding and comforting the enemy," treason,
a capital crime under the U.S. Constitution. Others have called
on Mel Gibson to make a real movie about the Crusades,
one that depicts the Muslims in all their villainy.

Certainly,
there is a case to be made for a more restrictive immigration
policy (on many grounds) in Europe and North America alike (while
leaving a wide scope for study, travel, and commerce); and William
Pfaff, writing in the New York Review of Books (July 14,
2005) has argued eloquently against Turkish membership: "The
EU is not an international aid or development agency; it is not
aimed at reforming humanity or reconciling civilizations";
"the first obligation of any political society, whether national
or multinational, is to itself, its own security, integrity, and
successful functioning." But it's not necessary to demonize
Turkey, or Muslims, or exaggerate the threat posed by Islamic
extremism, and still less to indict Hollywood movie directors
for not stoking the fires of paranoia and fear.

Film
Review

Ridley Scott
has chosen to make a different kind of film, one that hints at
U.S. provocations in the Middle East, rather than reinforces the
American tropes of outraged innocence and righteous retribution;
one that suggests the Bush policy of imposing democracy by war
in the Middle East is a product of the same kind of zealotry and
self-serving idealism that once drove the Crusades, at least in
part; one that celebrates not purifying violence or blinding hate
but mercy, moderation, understanding, reason, compromise. And
he portrays Saladin and his cavalry commander as worthy foes and
honorable men, which they apparently were. He should be praised.

And there
is evidence that Scott's film is having a powerful and positive
impact in at least some parts of the Arab world. See Robert Fisk's
moving review of the film and the audience
reaction during its opening night in Beirut.

Kingdom
of Heaven is set in 1184 A.D., in the interval between the
First and Second Crusades. It begins in southern France. Godfrey
of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) has gone home to find his illegitimate
son, Balian (Orlando Bloom), who is toiling away as a village
blacksmith. Godfrey asks him for forgiveness and offers to bring
him back with him to the Holy Land, where there are opportunities
for a promising young man. Balian accepts, and after Godfrey is
mortally wounded in battle, takes his place, becoming the new
Baron of Ibelin, with a castle outside Jerusalem and a hundred
knights to command.

At this time,
the Christian rulers of Jerusalem are maintaining an uneasy peace
with the Muslim forces based in Damascus under Saladin (brilliantly
played by Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud). But fanatics on both
sides want war. King Baldwin of Jerusalem (Edward Norton) is all
that a king should be, but he is dying of leprosy. Waiting to
succeed him is the head of the Knights Templar, Guy de Lusignan
(Marton Csokas) whose claim to the throne is by marriage to Baldwin's
sister (French actress Eva Green). Lusignan is rash, impulsive,
and ruthless. He craves war for the power and glory it will bring
him and invokes religion merely because it serves his purposes.
Lusignan can count on the services of Reynald de Chatillon (Brendan
Gleeson), another Templar, whose specialty is furnishing provocations
for war. After Reynald has attacked a Muslim caravan, the Marshall
of Jerusalem, Tiberias (Jeremy Irons), who is an ally of the king,
says that he "would rather live with men than kill them."
Lusignan responds with grudging derision: "That sort
of Christianity has its uses … I suppose."

The charge
that it is anti-Christian is preposterous. But there is no question
that the institutional Church comes off rather badly. There is
a priest who cuts off the head of a suicide, a monk who chants,
"to kill an infidel is not murder, it is the path to Heaven,"
murderous Templars, narrow-minded, self-serving Bishops. But it
is never suggested that these men are true Christians, rather
the opposite: that they use religion to advance their ambition,
justify their cruelty, and simplify the world. Moreover, other
characters in the film are depicted as men of Christian faith
and principle.

Balian receives
advice from three men. His father, who knights him and administers
the oath: "Be brave and upright" to merit the love of
God, "speak the truth always," "safeguard the helpless,"
and "do no wrong." A Hospitaller knight (David Thewlis):
"I put no stock in religion. Holiness is in right action;
and courage in behalf of those who cannot help themselves; and
goodness, what God desires, is here [pointing to Balian's head]
and here [pointing to his heart]; by what you decide to do everyday,
you will be a good man … or not." The King of Jerusalem:
"Kings may move men, a father may send for a son, but your
soul is in your keeping alone. When you stand before God, you
cannot say – but I was told by others to do thus, or that
virtue was not convenient at the time – that will not suffice."
Subversive stuff.

After Baldwin's
death, Lusignan inherits the crown, and it's not long before he
is marching to war at the head of the Crusader army, which is
destroyed by his arrogance and bloodlust. Weakened by the heat
of the desert and a lack of water, the army is annihilated by
Saladin, who then marches on Jerusalem and puts it under siege.

To defend
the city, Balian has only the garrison, his own knights, and those
who are not knights: the city's artisans, merchants, servants,
and commoners, who have come to Jerusalem not to fight but to
work. The Bishop of Jerusalem urges Balian to flee with the ecclesiasts
and remaining knights, abandoning the people to slaughter or slavery,
thus furnishing the pretext for the next war and a justification
for the next crusade. How better to warm the blood of valorous
recruits than by tales of atrocity and massacre? Balian rejects
such self-serving cowardice as contrary to his knightly oath and
to the late King's instructions to protect the people from harm.
"You have taught me a lot about religion, Bishop." Balian
could also fight to the death – the fanatic's choice, heroic
martyrdom – furnishing an even more glorious casus belli,
but he places a higher value on life.

Deciding
to stay, he must devise a battle plan and inspire the men to fight
against an enemy more than ten times their number and equipped
with advanced siegecraft, including long-range catapults, rams,
and breasting works. He decides his only hope is to fight for
terms; that is, to make the siege so costly to Saladin that he
will offer mercy to the Christians in return for the city. He
must also buck up his motley army, by giving them hope of an outcome
other than a glorious death, and by relieving them of any guilt
they may harbor over what happened when the Europeans took the
city in 1099 A.D. (they killed everyone). In this, he reveals
acute psychological insight; for it would be natural for them
to believe that they were being punished for the sins of their
fathers.

It
has fallen to us to defend Jerusalem, and we have made our preparations.
No one here was alive when this city was taken from Muslims. We
fight over an offense we did not give, against those who were
not alive to be offended. What is Jerusalem? Your holy places
lay over the Jewish temple the Romans pulled down. The Muslim
places of worship lay over yours. Which is more holy? The Wall?
The Mosque? The Holy Sepulchre? Who has claim? No one has
claim. All have claim. We fight to defend not these stones
but the people between these walls.

I shall not
discuss the spectacular battle sequences that follow, which are
as thrilling (but more realistic) as the sieges of Helm's Deep
and Minis Tirith in the Ring movies. But Balian does well
enough to win a conference. After Balian threatens to burn the
city down over the heads of his dying warriors, Saladin relents
and offers terms, which are more than reasonable; they are merciful:
"I will give every soul safe conduct to Christian lands,
every soul: the women, the children, the old, and all your
knights, your soldiers, and your queen; no one will be harmed,
I swear to God." Balian can scarcely believe what he has
heard: "The Christians butchered every Muslim within these
walls when they took this city." Saladin: "I am not
those men. I am Saladin." Then, as Saladin
rides away, Balian asks him what Jerusalem is worth. Saladin replies
"Nothing," then turns, grins, and says "Everything."
I cannot recall a more satisfying end to a movie; or one more
noble.

January
19, 2006

H.
Arthur Scott Trask, Ph.D., [send
him mail
] is
an independent historian, currently writing The
Other North: Northern Democrats and Conservatives Who Opposed the
Civil War.

H.
Arthur Scott Trask Archives

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