In the Ridley Scott movie "Kingdom of Heaven," a French blacksmith-Balian of Ibelin-goes on crusade to Jerusalem, where he battles the Muslim leader Saladin. Thomas F. Madden, professor and chair of the department of history at Saint Louis University and editor of Crusades: The Illustrated History, spoke to Beliefnet about how the film handled religion.

What did you think of the movie?

Well, I don't think its purpose is to be a documentary. They paid a lot of attention to getting arms and armor correct, but they weren't much interested in portraying the way people in the Middle Ages viewed their religion, the Crusades, or the Holy Land.

The thing that struck me most was how little religion had to do with the Crusades in this movie. The only religious people in this movie are fanatics. All of the good guys either have no religion, or are openly hostile to religion.

Yes, they're sort of benignly agnostic, but certainly not very devout.

Those are concepts just foreign to the Middle Ages, either on the Christian or Muslim side.

How plausible is it that there would have been such tolerance between Muslims and Christians at that time and in that region?

That's plausible. In the kingdom of Jerusalem at that time, Muslims were allowed to practice their religion-not in the city, but everywhere else in the crusader kingdom. When the crusaders held Jerusalem from 1099-1187, they adopted the Muslim practice [whereby] Christians and Jews were allowed to keep their religion, but had to pay a special tax for not converting. The Christians reversed that-they charged the Muslims. The tax was seen as a bit of a humiliation.

There was no attempt to convert the Muslims.

The groups tended to keep to themselves-Christians, Muslims, Jews.

The movie portrays good Christians and bad Christians; the bad ones say things like, "to kill an infidel is not murder." Wouldn't the Christians coming from predominantly Christian lands want to convert or kill Muslims, and not be interested in living peacefully?

A crusader is someone who was planning to go there and come back. There were also other people who came there to settle. They were perfectly tolerant of individual Muslims, but about a Muslim state that they saw as a threat to the Holy Land-all of the Crusades were called in reaction to the Muslims having conquered something.

The crusaders who came from Europe came to undo whatever that thing was. When they arrived, they were frequently surprised that the local Christians who had lived there for generations, including the military orders-the Templars and Hospitallers-were used to living as neighbors to Muslim states. They had deals and understandings with them.

The people who came from the west found it difficult to understand how you could make these deals with people they had come to push out of those regions.
The purpose of the kingdom was to safeguard the holy sites.

Which sites were most revered?

The most important was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, that covered Golgotha, where the crucifixion occurred, and the tomb of Christ. I thought it was odd in the movie that [Balian] has to ask some holy man where the hill is, and it's just sort of a barren hill. Everyone would know that place was within the church of the Holy Sepulchre, an incredibly ornate and beautiful church.

The religion in this movie is extremely sterilized. You would have expected in this period to see lots of religious symbolism. There are no churches in the movie. Even the crosses in the movie are all very bland--none are crucifixes, which is what crosses would have been in the Middle Ages.

You mean on the crusaders' clothes?

Not on the crusaders' clothes, but a gold cross, a processional cross or a cross on an altar would have been a crucifix. The only time you see something remotely religious is during the knighting ceremony where Balian's father gives him his oath. Behind him there's an altar with a chalice on it. It's a post-Vatican II altar-one designed for the priest to face the congregation, as near as I could tell. There's no religious artwork on it-there should be a diptych-there's just a lot of candles. Looks like a Catholic chapel you'd see today.

If you strip religion out--which he does--it's impossible to understand why they're fighting over Jerusalem.

You didn't get a feel for what Jerusalem meant to them, except maybe towards the end-and even then it was just Balian saying "it's the people of Jerusalem"-not what it represented.

Which is the opposite of the medieval view. The Christian medieval view was that Jerusalem was a precious relic, sanctified by the life of Christ, the site of his death and resurrection. Therefore it was the city that mattered--the people were there to defend the city.

It's true that Balian of Ibelin negotiated the surrender of Jerusalem (everything else in the movie is made up), and he seemed to have a good relationship with Saladin. But the reason he did was that it was a hopeless fight. Jerusalem had virtually no garrison left. Everyone had died or been captured at the Battle of Hattin.

Saladin was unwilling to make terms. That's when Balian said he would destroy the Muslim holy sites, including the Dome of the Rock. That would have undercut Saladin's whole program of jihad, his rationale that he had to unify Muslims under his rule so they could wage war against the Christians. The way he justified fighting fellow Muslims was that this was necessary to wage the great jihad against Christians to restore Jerusalem. So Saladin agreed to allow people to ransom themselves. In the movie, he just let them go.

In the movie, the bad guys are-to use modern parlance--Christian fundamentalists. The more sympathetic characters are agnostic or more tolerant. In reality, were most of the heroes on both sides devout men?

They were very devout men; that's why they were there. It doesn't make sense for someone with no religion to go to the enormous expense and danger of the Crusades for the fun of it. Nothing explains it except their enormous devotion to their religion and what they thought was right, on both the Christian and Muslim side.

These are not people who have a jaded view of religion. You read [Saladin's] biographers--men who knew him and spent their lives with him--it's clear he's an extremely devout man. He prayed, he got rid of taxes that were illegal by Islamic law, and so he ended up losing a lot of money by getting rid of them. He believed strongly, the way Christians believed, that if he was a good and pious ruler, God would reward him with these victories.

He attacked because he wanted to. It's true that Reynald de Chatillon was a complete jerk, a very cruel man. He provided the excuse for Saladin to break the truce, but Saladin was going to anyway. It was just a matter of time. According to Islamic law, an Islamic leader is not allowed to make peace with an infidel state. They can make truce-which is temporary.

[Retaking Jerusalem] was going to be the crowning triumph of his reign.

What is known about Balian's religiosity?

He was very religious man. There are several occasions in the Chronicles that refer to him. In one, he goes to a town on the feast of Peter and Paul and wakes up the bishop so they can talk about these great saints.

That's another thing missing in the movie-there are no crucifixes, there's no discussion of the saints, which were incredibly important for medieval Christianity, or the Virgin Mary--

These would have motivated crusaders?

Oh, very much. There's no prayer, Christians never pray in this movie.

But in real life.

They prayed all the time.

In one scene, Saladin picks up a cross that has fallen. What is the likelihood a Muslim leader would have shown such respect to a cross?

It didn't happen. Actually, Saladin ordered all crosses on buildings to be taken down when he took the city. Saladin allowed the church of the Holy Sepulchre to continue, he didn't take that. Crosses on the outside all had to come down-you couldn't have anything public. He made almost all the priests leave-he reduced the staff of the church to a very small number.

All of this was normal practice. In some ways, he was kinder to the Christians than he might have been. The usual Muslim practice was to select the best church and convert it into a mosque, and then allow the other churches to be held by the Christians. And the best church in town was the church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Any other thoughts about how religion is portrayed in the movie?

It's a very modern perspective on religion, a modern morality play set in the Middle Ages. The upshot is that everyone should be tolerant, and that religion, if taken too seriously, ultimately leads to everyone killing each other. The message that we shouldn't wage wars for religious reasons is a point well taken.

Yet there are people who take religion very seriously, but aren't intolerant or warmongers.

No. It's clear that Ridley Scott doesn't think much of religion, but the men and women who lived in the Middle Ages and went on Crusade did. That's why the movie, at least from an historical perspective, doesn't make much sense.

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