Or: The Dark Side.
Or: The Crusades as Fought by Hunksome Orlando Bloom.
Last week I wrote about my admiration for the Masterpiece drama Indian Summers and the way the writers create ambiguous characters while staying fairly true to history. As we were finishing up the show’s season finale, I happened to be watching a very different kind of historical drama with my 9th grade class: Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven. In which hunky Orlando Bloom fights to save Jerusalem from the Muslims between the Second and Third Crusades.
Rest assured, friends, Orlando Bloom is able to maintain his leading-man hero status, all at the expense of the true history of the Crusades.
Now, I’m getting ahead of myself. Briefly, the Crusades are a series of holy wars fought by European Christians in an attempt to gain control of sacred sites in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, roughly between 1095 and 1290. The Muslims had conquered much of this territory during their long reign, and when Byzantine emperor Alexius asked the Catholic Church for help defending his borders against the Turks, the Pope decided this was a great opportunity to take back sacred Christian sites (never mind that they were sacred in more than one religion). Aside from the First Crusade, most of these wars were dismal failures for the Christians, as few conquests lasted more than 10 years.
The whole reason the 9th grade watched Kingdom of Heaven was for a History versus Hollywood assignment, in which they compared the real history of the Crusades to the way they’re depicted in the movie. Surprisingly, most of the major events and characters stay true to life: there’s the violent, hateful Reynald of Chatillon, who continuously attacks peaceful caravans to provoke another Crusade with the Muslim army; Saladin, the leader of the Muslims, who’s shown to be a cunning, yet fairly generous military leader; and the battle for Jerusalem, which fell to Saladin in 1187.
The real trouble, though, lies in the movie’s determination to keep Balian, played by Orlando Bloom, a likable hero. There’s the gratuitous shirtless scene (we skipped that in class), the scene where he miraculously discovers water in a tiny village that somehow never discovered water before the European man showed up, and then there’s the rousing speech he gives to his ragtag team of knights just before Saladin bombards Jerusalem with superior firepower.
In his speech, Balian argues that they’re not fighting for the cause of the Crusaders – that would suggest he thinks it’s okay for Christians to slaughter people of another religion for no good reason but religion. Instead, he argues that they’re fighting to save the city of Jerusalem and its holy relics, which are sacred not only to Christians, but to Jews and Muslims, too. It all sounds pretty 21st-century and like something most Crusaders would have disavowed in a hot second.
I’m not sure it would have been possible to make a rousing historical action movie about the Crusades with a hero who thinks it’s fine to kill anyone who doesn’t believe in Christianity. That’s a hard line, one much blacker than the shades of gray in which Ralph Whelan of Indian Summers is painted. And that’s where a movie about the Crusades will always diverge from history. Maybe if Kingdom of Heaven instead had been an ensemble piece – one with multiple Crusaders, and Muslims, as the main characters – it would have been able to explore the issue of faith and holy war with a more balanced perspective. But as it stands, the movie can’t possibly argue that a Crusader is someone worth rooting for while still remaining true to history.