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Modern Allegory - A Review of Ridley Scott's King's Kingdom of Heaven

Zein El-Amine
Date Published: 
November 01, 2005

When I first saw previews for Kingdom of Heaven, I thought at best it was going to be just like Gladiator, and at worst, another Hollywood film that would villainize Muslims and turn the history of the Crusades upside down. Then the director, Ridley Scott, was confronted by a reporter on TV about making the Crusaders look like the bad guys. The segment also gave the Syrian star that plays Saladin an opportunity to talk about the rich Islamic history and his lifelong dream of playing this role. The report ended with an archival clip of the White House Chief of Staff apologizing for Bush's use of the word "crusade" in talking about the war on Iraq. Before even seeing this movie I decided that anything that opens such forums of discussion these days is worth championing.

Scott told the reporter that he is a filmmaker, not a historian. Because of this distinction, he claimed he has the luxury to speculate on history. Therefore, the movie should be judged on its speculative implications rather than its historical accuracies. It is undeniable that Scott has a political agenda in the movie and he should be judged on the intentions of that agenda.

For instance, Balian (the good Crusader played by Bloom) is portrayed as a technically advanced westerner who, in one scene, teaches backward unwashed Arabs advanced methods of irrigation. But it's well known that the Crusaders were so Neanderthal-like that Muslims had to introduce them to soap, which they in turn introduced to Europe after returning from the Crusades.

Scott did not show in detail the fact that Christian Arabs fought with Muslim armies against the Crusaders. He also failed to detail the bloody massacre of Muslim women and children that set the historical context for the battles that were depicted in the movie. Finally, the film fails to show clearly that Saladin was advanced in other sciences in addition to warfare.

But to focus on these omissions is to miss the point of the movie. This is unquestionably an anti-war movie that shows the role of religious zealotry in stoking this bloody enterprise. Furthermore, it shows how these zealots use religion not for spiritual enrichment but rather for profit. What a brave statement to be made by an American film released during the wartime reign of the Bush administration and the religious right.

Scott's intention was to flesh out a fable for our times -- as such, fables are examined for their moral implications rather than for their scientific accuracy. This one preaches peace and tolerance. It is a modern allegory that tells the tale of conflict between religious zealots and merciful tolerant men on both sides.

Political agenda

If the audience has any doubt getting the message about war and organized religion, Scott hits you over the head with it. In a pivotal scene, Jeremy Irons as Tiberias (the Advisor to the "enlightened" Christian king) opts out of the final battle declaring to our hero Balian: "I thought we were fighting for God, but we were fighting for wealth and land."

In addition, all of the religious officials are portrayed as either evil or unprincipled weasels. One of the many classic lines is delivered by Balian when Jerusalem is under siege by Saladin and he is pondering how to protect the inhabitants of the city. The bishop advises Balian how to negotiate with Saladin: "convert to Islam and then repent later". Balian turns to him in exasperation and replies: "You've taught me much about religion". In another scene, a Christian proselytizes to the knights traveling to Jerusalem: "To kill an infidel is not murder. It is a path to heaven". And just to drive home the point, extremists on both sides use the same phrase to justify war: "It is god's will."

Scott set out to make a commercial film with a political agenda for a western (mainly American) audience. In order to achieve this he had to have a sympathetic westerner for the audience to relate to. Yes, this westerner was a Crusader but what kind of Crusader-someone who abandons religion and adopts a humane spirituality; someone who makes it clear that he has absolutely no use for religion. The audience will relate to this character in the fable, not in the historical context.

And to top everything, Scott gives us a Muslim leader who is shown to be merciful, wise and tolerant-a true representation of Saladin. Most important is that he has an Arab play Saladin-what an innovation in Hollywood-an Arab playing an Arab, and a multi-dimensional one at that. Gassan Massoud, the Syrian actor who dreamt of playing Saladin all of his life, performed the role with such subtle intensity and dignity that he has become the most memorable character of this star-studded cast.

If one person could have delved into this movie's historical inaccuracies it would have been the Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf, author of the definitive work on the Crusades, "The Crusades through Arab Eyes". Instead Maalouf supports the driving message of the film by stating that: "The film goes against religious fanaticism very clearly. All that goes against hatred, fanaticism and systematic opposition between those two worlds is welcome."

As secular anti-war activists we should claim this film and celebrate it. As an Arab, I share the sentiments of Rabiah Ahmed of the Council of American-Islamic Relations. Rabiah told the Washington Post: "It was really nice to go into a movie and feel so dignified, not feeling that you have to be ashamed or anything, and [to] feel proud of your history and your heritage."