Film still of knights on horseback charging

In Review

Hollywood’s Take on the Crusades

Twentieth Century Fox

By Harvey Cox

As soon as I learned early last fall that Twentieth Century Fox would be releasing a film on the Crusades, I knew I wanted to see the screenplay in advance. I was offering my course on Jerusalem that semester, and I wanted my students to have the chance to take a look. Also, I had heard that even before its release the movie, directed by Ridley Scott, had stirred up considerable controversy. Professor Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, who had seen the script, insisted that the film would replay an old repertory of ugly Hollywood stereotypes, especially of Arabs and Muslims. But Father George Dennis, S.J., of Loyola Marymount University, who studies the Crusades, said he thought the film would be fair and even historically accurate. So I wondered: would this be the next religious-movie flare-up, on the heels of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ? Might it even be the intention of the filmmakers to stir up controversy and reap the benefits of the additional free publicity? After all, the Gibson film had made well over $600 million.

Studios, however, are very reluctant to let anyone take a peek at scripts in advance, so I had to rely on some old friends in what denizens of Hollywood call “the industry.” Eventually, however, I did get my hands on one. In some ways my worst fears were justified. The film, released in May as Kingdom of Heaven, is full of extremely violent scenes. Swords and shields and spears clang. Horses whinny and fall. Blood spurts. Toward the end, as the Muslim army advances on Jerusalem, Saladin shouts, “Not one alive—not one,” and the soldiers shout back, “Allah!” Still, what happens after that, when Saladin captures the city, which he actually did in 1187, is that, instead, not one of the entrenched Christians is killed. One of the last scenes of the film shows the refugees filing out and heading for one of the Christian provinces, fulfilling a Saladin promise, under the protection of the Muslim forces. This is of course in marked contrast to the bloody devastation the Christian conquerors had wrought on the Holy City when they captured it in 1099, which is not shown in this film. At that time, according to the Gesta Francorum, “They killed all the Saracens and Turks they found, they killed everyone, whether male or female.” Indeed, they also killed all the Jews and Orthodox Christians who had lived in the city.

Ridley Scott is one of filmdom’s legendary geniuses. Many years ago he made Blade Runner, a genuine classic that foresaw some of the later man-against-robot pictures. More recently he has directed Black Hawk Down and Gladiator. He does epochs with splash and vigor. He loves large screens packed with action, and Kingdom of Heaven gives him ample scope. Vast armies on horseback collide and soldiers smash, bash, and stab each other with zest. Siege machines are dragged against walls under clouds of arrows, and invaders are seared with boiling oil. This is no celluloid outing for the faint of heart. But it is worth remembering that, alas, far too much blood has been shed in reality over the centuries by the various parties that hold Jerusalem to be their holy city.

As for historical accuracy, this film is obviously a mixture of fact and fiction. It starts in the late 1100s, nearly a century after the initial Crusader conquest of Jerusalem. By then the Christians living there were the descendents of the original conquerors. Many had settled down, had assumed some of the customs of the Levant, and preferred to live with their Muslim neighbors rather than kill them. But this relatively tranquil picture was disturbed by three factors, all well depicted in the film. First, the Christians were at each other’s throats in nasty factional and dynastic disputes. Second, the zealous new Crusaders freshly arriving from Europe to expand the Latin kingdom were often shocked and even outraged at the degree of interfaith cohabitation they discovered in the Holy Land. They were eager to fight and thereby gain lands and loot, and the absolution from sins they had been promised at home. But most important, the Muslims, who had also been diverted by internal disputes, were now united under the formidable Saladin, and were determined to regain Jerusalem. In Kingdom of Heaven, this complex set of forces is artfully worked out through character and plot—albeit with considerable poetic license.

Having read and discussed the screenplay with my class, and now having watched it in a theater, I can report that the film is not as bad as I had feared it would be. It does not demonize the Muslims. Saladin himself is shown as an honorable warrior who keeps his word. The real “bad guys” are the Knights Templar and the fresh-off-the-boat sword wielders from Europe. Although the local Christian leaders tried to restrain them, these fanatics, confident that God would give them the victory, insisted on attacking Saladin at Hittin, in the middle of the Galilean desert, where as many of them died of thirst and heat exhaustion as did from the scimitars of the Muslims. If you have any pacifist leanings, as I do, this film will only strengthen them.

And, as it turned out Kingdom of Heaven did not excite all that much controversy. Maybe the publicity moguls at Twentieth Century Fox are sorry that it didn’t. Its real message, a bit too overtly conveyed by both Balian (the brave but unsuccessful defender of Jerusalem) and by Saladin is a simple one: Jerusalem is just not worth all the suffering and death it has caused. After all, the real Jerusalem—the Kingdom of Heaven of the title—is not made of stones. It is within. Not a bad message for 2005.


Kingdom of Heaven, directed and produced by Ridley Scott, written by William Monahan, with Orlando Bloom, Morton Csokas, Brendan Gleeson, Eva Green, Jeremy Irons, Ghassan Massoud, and David Thewlis. 145 minutes.

Harvey Cox is Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. His most recent book is When Jesus Came to Harvard (Houghton Mifflin).

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.