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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

How Kingdom of Heaven Whitewashed the Crusades

The long history of the Crusades | Podcast | History Extra

"Even when you're trying to reinterpret the Crusades in a positive light then there is serious danger. Even if you are trying to present what you think is a more balanced positivistic approach to this period, then you have to be extremely cautious.

And an exemplar of this comes in the two thousand and five film Kingdom of Heaven directed by Ridley Scott...

I spent six months working as a historical consultant on this film. It was not pleasant. Not a nice experience.

What's so fascinating about this - obviously it comes in the wake of 9/11. What is at the heart of this film is an attempt to present the world of the Crusades in the 12th century. Surrounds basically the battle of Hattin and the fall of Jerusalem that I described at the start of the lecture.

The attempt really is to present anyone who's of significance, anyone that you were supposed to view as a positive character - all of those figures really don't believe in religion. They ask almost proto-atheists. And what we're supposed to glean in many ways from the characters that we see who are positive characters is that they show us that Christians and Muslims can live side by side. That there is real potential for friendship, for equanimity and that especially in the presentation of Saladin... What we see is a man who's wise, who's gifted. Whose sort of evocation almost of the nineteenth century noble savage image of Saladin that we saw in the work of someone like Walter Scott.

And I think undoubtedly what really Scott wanted to do was take the sting out of Crusading history but also use it as a positive mirror to the past. The idea that we think that it's all about war but actually no it's about two peoples that can interact peacefully. It's a very cozy image.

Unfortunately it's not reflective of reality even though it's a more pleasant and more palatable piece of propaganda. It's still propaganda. We can see this in a couple of moments. One is it actually really telling in the film where we see Saladin making a deal to negotiate the surrender of Jerusalem and a man played, called Balian of Ibelin played by Orlando Bloom is trying to cut a deal for the Holy City's surrender.

And in, in the version in the film we see Saladin basically say I will let all the women and children go. All the men will go, I'll let them go free and Balian of Ibelin is absolutely astounded: how can you do this? The Crusaders came here and cut everyone down. It was violent and bloody and Saladin... just says: I am not those men. I'm, I'm a different type of human being.

The reality is a bit more complicated. Of course it's true that Saladin didn't butcher the population of Jerusalem but he did make them pay for their freedom - those who could pay. And we know, and this we know this from Arabic testimony, from Muslim testimony that some seven thousand men and eight thousand women remained unransomed and were taken into slavery. That little bit of uncomfortable detail is just again brushed to the side to give a slightly air brushed vision of Saladin.

Perhaps an even more telling moment comes a little bit later, about five minutes later in the film where we see Saladin walking through Jerusalem. Walking through a slightly disheveled room and there's a cross on the floor. Ghassan Massoud playing Saladin bends down, picks up this cross and just puts it on the table. Now this wasn't in the script. The script was pretty awful I have to tell you and when I read the script I actually thought to myself: they won't film half of this, anyone can see this is pretty awful. But actually they did film all of it pretty much word for word. But that moment with the cross wasn't there.

And after the film came out I had a very surreal experience of having Ridley Scott call me on the phone, an hour and a half trying to persuade me to put my backing behind the film to say yeah this is historically really accurate. And we went back and forth and back and forth and then in the end he said but how can you not like this film? What about that moment when Ghassan bent down to pick up the cross? It's such a powerful message about the integration of these two faiths.

I said so where did that come from? He said oh you know Ghassan just did it off the cuff. He was just walking through the room and he bent down and picked it up. And Ridley Scott said he went up to Ghassan afterwards and said why did you do that. And he looked him in the eye and said: because that's what Saladin would have done. It's a lovely image but unfortunately again it's entirely misrepresentative.

Again Arabic Muslim testimony tells us that the very first thing that Saladin did when he got into Jerusalem was to order the cross that had been on top of the Dome of the Rock to be ripped down and broken into pieces. So this idea that we can alter the past by presenting a rosier more positivistic image of Saladin, even that I think is problematic"
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