Crusades: Hollywood vs. History

The recent release of Twentieth Century Fox’s $130 million dollar epic Kingdom of Heaven has increased an already heightened interest in the medieval Crusades.

The director, three-time Academy Award-nominee Ridley Scott, has been pontificating about the Crusades not only in the film itself but also during the media promotion he has done for the movie.

Scott is eager to tout all the research and historical detail in Kingdom of Heaven. However, when challenged about the various inaccuracies (and they are numerous), he is quick to intone, “I’m a moviemaker, not a documentarian. I try to hit the truth.” At other times he has defended himself by assuredly claiming, “I don’t think anyone historically, really, except historians, cares” or sarcastically responding, “Every historian is an expert.”

Jonathan Riley-Smith is one these historians whom Ridley Scott seems to hold in such low regard. Generally regarded as one of the foremost historians of the Crusades, Riley-Smith is a professor of Ecclesiastical History at Cambridge University and the author of a number of books on the crusading movement, including What Were the Crusades. He was also one of the earliest critics of Scott’s film. After hearing some initial publicity and a general outline for Kingdom of Heaven back in January 2004, Riley-Smith told the Telegraph that the story was “complete and utter nonsense,” noting how it relied heavily on Sir Walter Scott’s nineteenth-century novel, The Talisman. “It’s rubbish. It’s not historically accurate at all. They refer to The Talisman, which depicts the Muslims as sophisticated and civilized, and the Crusaders are all the brutes and barbarians. It has nothing to do with reality.”

Scott was irked by these early criticisms — especially those from Riley-Smith — complaining to a Washington Post reporter, “How can a historian say that? That’s like me being a specialist telling you you’ve got [bleeping] cancer and I haven’t examined you.”

Though Riley-Smith’s criticism may have been premature, were they correct? How truthful is Scott’s presentation of the crusading movement? While story-telling and the limitations of film might necessitate some dramatic license (and the movie takes plenty), where Scott abysmally fails is in accurately portraying the spirit, mindset, and essence of the period.

In the introduction to The Kingdom of Heaven: The Making of the Ridley Scott Epic the director writes, “It’s been said that the medieval mind was very different from ours, to the point where we cannot hope to identify with the people of that time or understand their motivations. I don’t agree with that. They may have faced different challenges and lived with a level of violence we can hardly imagine. But even though it’s based on history, a lot of the film’s emotional territory will be familiar ground for us.” Scott may be right in believing that one can perceive the motivations of the crusader, but the film clearly demonstrates that he himself does not understand either the motives or the mindset of these medieval men.

In his preface to What Were the Crusades, Riley-Smith presents a much different approach to analyzing the medieval crusaders, explaining, “I have tried to understand crusaders and the ideas they expressed, recognizing that we can never penetrate deeply into the minds of the men and women in the past. I have accepted the crusaders for what they were and I have refused to be judgmental…. [However] I have to face the fact that the crusades are nowadays seen through lenses distorted by attitudes to them which evolved in the nineteenth century…. These attitudes, leading to images of crusades and crusaders which were caricatures, are still with us, deforming academic as well as popular history. I have always believed that objectivity and empathy demand that we abandon them, because otherwise we will never understand a movement which touched the lives of the ancestors of everyone of European descent.” Unfortunately, Kingdom of Heaven indulges in many of these caricatures. As Riley-Smith noted in his review of the film in the London Times: “A cruel, avaricious and cowardly Christian clergy preaches hatred against the Muslims and most of the crusaders and settlers are equally stupid and fanatical.”

For Scott, the avowed agnostic, religion seems to be inherently problematic. His presentation of it in the movie is just as problematic. In the film, the heroes are those who have either lost their faith or consider religion a very private, personal matter. The villains, on the other hand, are the devoted believers (Christian and Muslim). Scott’s description of the Templars — who serve as the primary villains in the film — as “the right wing or Christian fundamentalists of their day” further illustrates both his failure to grasp the role of religion in the medieval period and the simplistic and modernist lens with which he chooses to depict it. Religion can only be understood as a catalyst for fanatics or a façade to cover avaricious motivations.

This assessment is flawed for a number of reasons. As Riley-Smith explains in What Were the Crusades, “Everyone agrees that material and ideological motivations are not mutually exclusive and it would be absurd to maintain that no one thought he could benefit in worldly terms — for one thing there were real advantages in enhanced prestige at home — but the profit motive, which has always rested on insufficient evidence, looks less and less convincing the more we know…. It is clear that men and women were deeply moved by the desire to serve Christ by taking up His Cross, defending the Church and physically occupying and holding the land sanctified by His presence.” Scott’s failure to remotely perceive this overriding motive for crusading is probably best reflected during the climax of the film, when the Muslims are besieging Jerusalem. Balian (played by Orlando Bloom) rallies the inhabitants of the city by telling them that they fight not to save the stones but the people of the city. Nothing could have been further from the truth for medieval Christians and Muslims. These stones, which Balian is quick to dismiss, were sacred to both religions. Crusaders undertook the long and expensive journey to Palestine because they were committed to regaining or defending those stones, particularly the Holy Sepulcher. Those stones, namely the Dome of the Rock, were equally important to the Muslims.

When it comes to explaining what the Crusades were, Ridley Scott is no Riley-Smith. One wonders, though, how many people watching the film will arrive at this same conclusion. As the Cambridge professor observed, “Nonsense like this will only reinforce existing myths.”

© Copyright 2005 Catholic Exchange

Vincent Ryan, a doctoral candidate in medieval history at Saint Louis University, has taught, written, and lectured on various aspects of the Crusades.

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