Heaven on earth
A new film about the Crusades, writes Amina Elbendary, brings the topic closer to the ground
Kingdom of Heaven, Sir Ridley Scott's newest production about the Crusades, was released simultaneously in Cairo, the US and Europe, where it tops the charts. It was only natural that my politically aware friend and I should hurry to the downtown cinema, notebooks and pencils in hand, ready to analyse and dissect. After all, the plot of the film was promoted as follows: "During the Crusades of the 12th century, Balian of Ibelin, a young blacksmith in Jerusalem, rises to protect his people from foreign invaders." We thus had every reason to expect a controversial take on the clash of civlisations; and yet when we found the film disappointing, in the end, it was for an unexpected set of reasons.
Set in the 1180s, Kingdom of Heaven follows the adventures of one knight on his journey from France to Jerusalem and back. In choosing the French blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom) for the main role, the filmmakers set the tone for a focus on the common people. But equally they are producing a heroic fairytale; and their protagonist is more than just a foot soldier in the army of a famous knight. As it turns out he is the bastard son of Godfrey, Baron of Ibelin; inheriting his father's title, he becomes Balian of Ibelin (the Balian Ibn Barzan of Muslim sources). This legacy places Balian on the side of King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, who favours peace with the Muslims (led by Salaheddin Al- Ayoubi). Other knights, including Reynald and Guy de Lusignan, come across as religious fanatics dying to make war, something they achieve after Baldwin's death and the consequent siege of Jerusalem. With Salaheddin at the other end, a limited number of battles -- they are contained thanks to the understanding between Baldwin and Salaheddin -- give way to an all-out war that in turn leads to the battle of Hittin, and eventually the battle for Jerusalem. The defence of the city falls onto Balian, who organises the operation with courage. A truce is finally negotiated with Salaheddin, who on reconquering the city grants the Franks amnesty and freedom of passage. Balian returns to his French hometown, a blacksmith once more.
Not all Crusader knights in the film are good characters like Balian. Insofar as there are good guys at all, they would have to be the Hospitalers (as opposed to the Templars). Another distinction relates to the difference between Franks already assimilated into Middle East life and newly arrived Crusaders with their zealous preconceptions. Though it is suggested that Balian sets out on this Crusade to atone for a murder he committed, many of the "good" Crusaders, his allies, seem to be agnostic. This isn't all about God and forgiveness, then. Indeed orthodox religiosity would be hard pressed for a thumbs-up in this film. The opening scenes show a French village priest ordering the beheading of the corpse of Balian's wife, who committed suicide. When he later urges Balian to leave the village, to escape ostracism, Balian responds by murdering him. Similarly, the Archbishop of Jerusalem is given a nasty treatment as a cowardly, pleasure-loving hypocrite. In an attempt at parity, one of Salaheddin's aides (played by the Egyptian actor Khaled El- Nabawi) is presented as the Voice of Islam, admonishing the king for avoiding war with the Franks. It is not clear whether that character is a bureaucrat, a man of religion or an officer, but despite his zeal he seems more level-headed than his Christian counterparts, Reynald and Guy de Lusignan, for he respects the wisdom of his commander and does not unilaterally shatter the peace. But in some ways, Reynald and Guy prove him right: the Franks are not to be trusted. A discomforting echo of prevalent stereotypes of both Muslims and Westerners: Muslims are violent and love war; Westerners are treacherous.
With such a plot, it becomes clear that this is not a regular epic movie. There doesn't seem to be any glory, for one thing, and the high ideals commonly invoked in such ordeals are not quite clear. By deconstructing the traditional image of the crusade as a religiously inspired ideal, what we are left with is a diluted cross of The Alchemist and John Gray. The oath Balian takes at his knighthood sums it up: "Be without fear in the face of your enemies. Safeguard the helpless, even if it leads to your death." Godfrey promises his son another world in Jerusalem: "A new world. A better world than has ever been seen. There you are not what you are born but what you have it in yourself to be. A kingdom of conscience, peace instead of war, love instead of hate: that is what lies at the end of Crusade." A spiritual journey, perhaps, or a journey of self- fulfilment? You listen to your head and your heart, you do good and defend the weak; worthy ideals, no doubt, but they don't explain or justify a Crusade. Which is why, perhaps, in the end, Balian is sent back home, there to find his own Jerusalem.
The film even lacks the kind of epic love story one would expect. Though Balian does have an affair with the future queen of Jerusalem, Guy's wife Sybilla (Eva Green), it is so clichéd, complete with dark chambers and incense, that it fails to arouse any sympathy. As the only leading female character in the film, Sybilla's main role is to push the narrative on its destined track, namely open confrontation between Franks and Muslims. When she inherits the throne of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, on her brother's death, she makes her husband, Guy, the king, thereby granting him the authority required for waging war. Kingdom of Heaven is thus amounts to the Crusades reconsidered, if not revised. It exposes some of the cracks in popular narrative about the Crusades and pastes over others. The film attempts to recreate the ambiance of medieval warfare and political manoeuvre, with panoramic airplane shots showing how two mighty armies might have clashed, and exposing the inherent confusion and madness. Such scenes are juxtaposed with zoom shots from the viewpoint of the soldiers themselves as balls of fire fall inside Jerusalem, for example, or arrows bring men down. The indoor scenes are dim and shady, perhaps emphasising the notion of the "dark ages" in an all too literal way, perhaps in reference to "the exotic east": scheming politicians and seductive temptresses. There are soft, crumbled sheets, sundry shiny fabrics, candles and incense sticks, shutters, fruit and wine.
By making the Crusades the movie's ostensible subject, Jerusalem its setting, the filmmakers are taking an inherent risk, and it seems they have done so consciously. The Crusades have long been a controversial historical subject, one that, for many, foreshadows animosity between East and West. It is a subject that lends itself to projection, bringing to mind the contemporary Arab-Israeli conflict and, more recently, Bush's "war on terror". One of the more famous Arab films inspired by the Crusades was Youssef Chahine's Al-Nasir Salaheddin, for example, produced at the height of Gamal Abdel-Nasser's glory and replete with overtones of Arab nationalism. With Kingdom being released in a post-9/11 atmosphere, many have expressed the concern that it would reproduce the traditional stereotypical arguments of the clash of civilisations. Salaheddin's character itself has inspired many writers and artists from both East and West, starting with Dante. One trait often emphasised in such reconstructions is his generosity and the mercy he shows to fallen enemies, his magnanimity.
In Muslim historiography, Salaheddin is celebrated as an able general, one who prepared well for his battles. He is credited with building a united Muslim front and carving a kingdom for himself before embarking on fighting the Franks. Echoes of this common wisdom make their way through to Kingdom although its starchy Salaheddin is hardly at the centre of the drama. Here played by Ghassan Massoud, Salaheddin resists his general's call for embarking on a war with Baldwin until he feels sufficiently prepared. Seeing his adversary suffer from leprosy, he offers to send his physicians to treat him. And at the end, as he regains Jerusalem, he stops to upright a fallen crucifix. Though Salaheddin's fairness to his adversaries is mentioned once or twice, he does not appear to be much more religious than Baldwin and the Hospitalers, although he is not quite as agnostic. When faced with one aide's zealous call for war, he insists on the futility not of fighting wars in general but of fighting unprepared. In the end he does not preach lovey- dovey coexistence. And that is probably closer to the historical Salaheddin than saintly images. Rather than emphasize the daily coexistence of Franks and Muslims, the film does not ignore the fact that they were enemies at heart. While Baldwin IV and Salaheddin set about creating a regime of peace in the region, there is a prevailing sense that this was a temporary situation, a fragile peace waiting to broken. Such an argument does not seem to be in line with the ostensible tolerance expressed in the discourse of the film. It is a historical fact that the Crusades were indeed about war, but the film makes war seem inevitable. The peace-lovers are a minority waiting to be overtaken.
With the film's perspective firmly embedded in Crusader territory, Salaheddin and his generals remain minor characters, with insufficient human depth, there to contextualise the principal drama -- Balian's life. Hardly any other Arab or Muslim characters appear, with the exception of extras playing voiceless villagers or servants. A particularly poignant scene shows Balian working on his barren land with the peasants, showing them how to dig a well; the peasants are clearly Arabs. Such scenes cannot but bring up contemporary Israeli propaganda about making the desert bloom. Indeed, though Balian is hailed as a man of the people, rising from humble origins and fighting to defend the poor, it is not entirely clear who the poor and the weak are in this case; the filmmakers gloss over exactly who he was protecting, who the invaders were.
During the siege of Jerusalem it would seem that many people who sought refuge in the city were residents of nearby villages and towns; not only Franks. Is this a call to rise above parochial identity, to unite with the poor and the helpless? Despite all good intentions, the nods to diversity and revisionist history, Kingdom lacks gusto and a specific line of argument. While deconstructing the glorious myths of the Crusades as wars to establish the Kingdom of God on earth, it is not quite ready to give them up completely. And herein, perhaps, lies the disappointment. History is not meant to soothe our souls and make us feel better about ourselves, it is not a self-help tool. Pompous maxims like those uttered by Godfrey Salaheddin that "Jerusalem is nothing, and it is everything" offer no insight into history or the human predicament.