Warning: Fake History
I do understand, even if I resent, Hollywood’s burning desire to imbue its creations with “a message” of a left-wing, progressive, trendy nature. What I do not understand is Hollywood’s obsession with sexing up history, as if the real history wasn’t exciting enough a material for a blockbuster cinematic experience.
Maybe because I have just managed to finish Christopher Tyerman’s 920-page – and a few hundred pages too long – magnum opus “God’s War: A New History of the Crusades”, maybe because I can’t get In Extremo’s Rammsteinesque version of the old German crusading song “Palestinalied” out of my head
but this afternoon I started re-watching Ridley Scott’s 2005 Crusader epic “Kingdom of Heaven”. Watching it for the first time way back when I remember quite enjoying it, as I generally do with Scott’s movies. About an hour into it now (of the three hour director’s cut), I still love the technical mastery and the visual splendour of “Kingdom” but I can’t believe how grossly ahistorical and heavy on poli-cultural preaching it is.
Filming in the early years of the wars on terror and in Iraq (once misspoken of by George W as a crusade), Scott clearly felt the need to send a multi-culti “coexist” message, with an added heavy dose of anti-religious extremism. Since Hollywood simply doesn’t get religion, their anti-religious extremism messages end up being simply anti-religious messages – for the coastal cultural elites any religion (or rather any Christian religion) more serious than some vague eastern-tinged spirituality cum social gospel is extreme and dangerous. If only the rest of the world – today and in the past – was as sophisticated, enlightened and progressive as Hollywood, history would have been all rainbows and cute puppies, instead of, well, crusades and other offences against modern sensibilities.
“Kingdom of Heaven” follows the adventures of Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom), portrayed as a French blacksmith and a bastard son of a crusading lord, Baron Godfrey. The historical Balian was a scion of one of the most illustrious noble families of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, probably of Italian rather than French origin. Scott’s Balian is therefore even more of a fictional figure than Mel Gibson’s William Wallace, another travesty of “historical epic”, but I can forgive liberties with comparatively little known historical characters (at least no one will ever portray Churchill as, for example, a Nazi sympathiser). What I find more difficult to forgive is creating the whole fictional history for your fictional historical characters to live in, not just because I like my facts true – and my news not fake – but also because popular culture is probably the most influential history teacher these days for young generations largely oblivious to the fact that anything of note actually happened before they were born. Hollywood, by and large, is not just entertaining, it is also grossly misinforming cultural consumers about the past.
And Ridley Scott’s late 12th century Palestine/Holy Land/Outremer/Frankish or Latin kingdoms of the east are fictional alright. Oh, the basic skeleton is factual enough: Western Crusaders took back parts of the present day Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey from “the Saracens” but about a hundred years later things started to come to grief. One of the four crusader kingdoms, Kingdom of Jerusalem, was weakened by internal strife under a young leper king, its army was wiped out by a Kurdish general Saladin at the battle of Hattin, and Jerusalem itself was besieged and lost to Saladin soon after. But the Kingdom of Heaven where the movie action unfolds is more present-day California than a medieval Near East.
When Godfrey of Ibelin describes the Holy Land to his bastard son as “A new world. A better world than has ever been seen. A man who, in France, had not a house, is, in the Holy Land, the master of a city. He who was the master of a city begs in the gutter. There, you are not what you are born but what you have it in yourself to be. A kingdom of conscience, of peace instead of war, love instead of hate. That is what lies in the end of a crusade. A kingdom of heaven.” he is describing a cross between a utopia and the American Dream. The historical Crusader kingdoms were pretty traditional feudal societies ruled over by the aristocracy transplanted from Western Europe. The kingdom of heaven that many indeed dreamed of was a religious, eschatological vision firmly grounded in Scripture and medieval Christian theology of the End of Days, not the new age-y and rags-to-riches vision of Godfrey’s.
It wasn’t an American-style melting pot either. The kingdoms were largely free of Muslims, who would have been considered a potential fifth column; the real Jerusalem on the eve of its fall was completely unlike the bustling multi-faith, multi-ethnic movie version. There were frequent contacts – mostly of commercial nature – but no everyday co-existence. Contra the movie, neither was that anyone’s objective; there were no pioneers of tolerant multiculturalism in the 12th century, no leader – secular or religious – believed that “diversity is strength”. At best, some of the Frankish elites believed in realpolitik and desirability of long-term armed truces as opposed to perpetual religious warfare. When Balian’s mentor, the Hospitallier, tells him ” I put no stock in religion. By the word religion I have seen the lunacy of fanatics of every denomination be called the will of God. I’ve seen too much religion in the eyes of too many murderers. Holiness is in right action, and courage on behalf of those who cannot defend themselves. And goodness – what God desires – is here [points to head] and here [points to heart] and by what you decide to do every day you will be a good man…or not.” this is screenwriter William Monahan spouting modern platitudes. No one in the religio-cultural milieu of the early Middle Ages would have comprehend this sort of a woolly “agnostic spirituality” – and no warrior monk would have ever uttered it.
History does not present us with long lost Golden Ages as examples to the present and the future. We can’t look at the past through the prism of today, just as we can’t impose today’s values on our ancestors who would have, for better or worse, found them completely alien and incomprehensible. It’s nice and commendable to want the Islamic East and the post-Christian West to happily coexist like on a sticker, but this won’t be achieved by misrepresenting history or pretending that all we need to do is to recapture the old spirit of the Holy Land – or for that matter the Muslim Spain.
Deus Vult, my good people.