An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, Brendan Gleeson, Edward Norton, Eva Green, Film, film review, Ghassan Massoud, history, Jeremy Irons, Jerusalem, King Baldwin IV, King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, Liam Neeson, Marton Csokas, Oliver Bloom, Overly Sarcastic Prodctions, Politics, religion, religious corruption, Ridley Scott, Saladin, Stronghold Crusader, The Crusades, virtue
I right clicked, and sent a thousand archers to their doom. I had no cavalry, no knights, no footsoldiers, no pikemen, and not even a single swordsmen to assault the pillars of the Caliph. The die had been cast, and my men would burn. I lost a good three hundred men to the pitch that burned their flesh alone, and I lost a hundred more to the ballistas and the fire-throwers that manned the towers alongside a legion of archers. Yet despite all this, I took the castle that day, and the Caliph was felled by almost six hundred men firing arrows at him until his hit-points were finally exhausted and I crushed him.
This, in a nutshell, was the experience of my puberty. And I’m not sorry for one minute of it. Stronghold Crusader taught me a lot about medieval warfare, about the difficulty of sieging a fortress, about the precious commodity of iron, about the pros and cons of hiring mercenaries, about the difficulty of feeding an entire population on nothing but apples and bread. The game appeared in my life and then consumed it rather quickly as I would spend, literally, hours in front of a monitor leading troops to their deaths, and sometimes victory, in a battle for the Holy Land, or, as is far more accurate, for fertile territory where I could grow more crops and mine more iron so I could be rich enough to wage more war in the first place. This latter admission becomes a fascinating parallel moment to the past, as the Crusades were, as time went on, really just efforts in self-interest and personal gain. I wish I could say Stronghold Crusader pushed me to begin reading more and more about the Crusades, and while I will admit I did perform some cursory internet research, I was far, far more interested in playing video games.
Still, youth is more about establishing foundations that building great wonders that last throughout adulthood, and the young man I was fostered a life-long fascination with the Crusades. This fascination manifested in some interesting reading, but more than anything else it provided the foundation for a love of one my favorite films of all time: Kingdom of Heaven.
Now right off the bat I’m sure my regular reader will have an objection. Kingdom of Heaven is a film which is largely condemnatory about religion, why isn’t this a “letter to a young atheist?” And since I’m an atheist is this essay just going to be a long rant about how religion is stupid and dangerous? Because if it is, I’m not terribly interested.
These are fair points and worth addressing because, yes, I am an atheist, and I do nothing to hold back my contempt for faith and religion in whatever form it manifests. Religion is an infantile disease founded in the infancy of our species to explain natural phenomena that we lacked the language and methodology to explain. It has also largely been a Misoginist tool used by sadists to acquire political and economic power throughout centuries allowing a manipulation and outright abuse of common people. To put it another way, religion just fucking blows man, but that’s not what this essay is ultimately about. Though I am living a godless existence (I don’t even read the Bible, not out of some lofty philosophical position, but honestly it’s just fucking boring as fuck), Kingdom of Heaven is a beautiful film period and I’ve always wanted to write something about it.
The film follows an English blacksmith named Balian who is visited by a Crusading Knight Baron Godfrey. Balian has recently lost his wife to suicide, and Baron arrives announcing that he is the man’s father and would like Balian to forgive him his sins. Godfrey leaves and Balian is left in the village when a local priest informs him that the village does not want him and that his wife is in hell. Balian kills the priest and escapes to join Godfrey who himself is mortally wounded when the castle guard comes to arrest Balian. The party eventually arrives at the shores of Italy where Godfrey passes his title, sword, and knighthood to Balian before sending him to the Holy Land where Balian quickly becomes one of the most outstanding lords of the realm in due in large part to his kindness and devotion to the people.
Kingdom of Heaven is complex film because it is layered in developed characters who regularly question the nature of virtue, religion, society, and the services the powerful owe to the weak in society. This complexity often is centered in one character, who is also for the records dear reader, my favorite character in just about the entirety of Ridley Scott’s creative Universe King Baldwin IV. Balian is invited to meat the King of Jerusalem, and when the reader first observes his character one is left spellbound, at least if you’re me:
King Baldwin IV: Come forward. I am glad to meet Godfrey’s son. He was one of my greatest teachers. He was there when, playing with the other boys, my arm was cut. It was he, not my father’s physicians, who noticed that I felt no pain. He wept when he gave my father the news… that I am a leper. The Saracens say that this disease is God’s vengence against the vanity of our kingdom. As wretched as I am, these Arabs believe that the chastisement that awaits me in hell is far more severe and lasting. If that’s true, I call it unfair. Come. Sit.
[they sit down on opposite sides of a chessboard]
King Baldwin IV: Do you play?
Balian of Ibelin: No.
King Baldwin IV: The whole world is in chess. Any move can be the death of you. Do anything except remain where you started, and you can’t be sure of your end. Were you sure of your end once?
Balian of Ibelin: I was.
King Baldwin IV: What was it?
Balian of Ibelin: To be buried a hundred yards from where I was born.
King Baldwin IV: And now?
Balian of Ibelin: Now I sit in Jerusalem, and look upon a king.
King Baldwin IV: [Baldwin chuckles] When I was sixteen, I won a great victory. I felt in that moment I would live to be a hundred. Now I know I shall not see thirty. None of us know our end, really, or what hand will guide us there. A king may move a man, a father may claim a son, but that man can also move himself, and only then does that man truly begin his own game. Remember that howsoever you are played or by whom, your soul is in your keeping alone, even though those who presume to play you be kings or men of power. When you stand before God, you cannot say, “But I was told by others to do thus,” or that virtue was not convenient at the time. This will not suffice. Remember that.
Balian of Ibelin: I will.
When I first saw the film I had never seen Lawrence of Arabia, I had no idea King Baldwin was being played by Edward Norton, and I had no conception that the King wearing the White robes and that metal mask was in fact based on a real human being. I was simply struck by the tragedy and beautiful humanity of a character who seemed, in the face of such overwhelming personal tragedy, aloof to his own suffering. Suffering, as his plight was, was not as important as being a good man and ensuring that the people of his realm were led by decent people. King Baldwin IV stuck with me, partly because Scott portrayed the character as a “philosopher King” in the vein of Marcus Aurelius, but more because his values were that of a man who simply wanted to make the world a better place.
Kingdom of Heaven continually returns to this theme placing virtue as something opposed to religion. Religion is often something that breeds malice, envy, contempt, or far too often excuses for bloodshed. Balian, as soon as he reaches Jerusalem, visits the hill of Golgotha to try and settle his peace with god and the death of his wife, and finding nothing but silence and emptiness he informs Hospitaller, one of the knights who accompanied his father, that he has “lost my religion,” prompting both the following conversation, as well as your friend Greg to start singing REM.
Hospitaller: 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. 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]
Hospitaller: and here
[points to heart]
Hospitaller: and what you decide to do every day, you will be a good man – or not.
There is some part of me that worries at times that Kingdom of Heaven is in fact just one long series of beautiful speeches, syllogisms, aphorisms, and religious meditations, but for all of the criticism of fanaticism and the corruption of the doctrines of religion the film does manage to help the characters to come to some sense of themselves. Though these previous conversations are really one sided they serve to help build Balian into the virtuous man he becomes. Balian often has few lines, but that’s not a weakness on his part. Being a blacksmith he’s become a man of action rather than a man of words and speeches and contemplation. Balian acts to build a well on his new lands, to help his subjects dig the holes, to help them lay the agriculture that will provide them with food, to defend the civilians who attack the castle of Renault de Chatillion by charging into the Saracen Cavalry, to defend the city of Jerusalem when Saladin’s army begins their march to it.
Balian’s actions matter and in this way Ridley Scott is able to demonstrate a real fundamental truth: virtue is in action, rather than ideology.
In the end Balian becomes the sort of figure a Crusader was ultimately supposed to be. And this becomes painfully Clear when he addresses the army of Jerusalem as they are preparing for the ultimate siege.
Balian of Ibelin: [to the people of Jerusalem] It has fallen to us, to defend Jerusalem, and we have made our preparations as well as they can be made. None of us took this city from Muslims. No Muslim of the great army now coming against us was born when this city was lost. We fight over an offense we did not give, against those who were not alive to be offended. What is Jerusalem? Your holy places lie over the Jewish temple that the Romans pulled down. The Muslim places of worship lie over yours. Which is more holy?
Balian of Ibelin: The wall? The Mosque? The Sepulchre? Who has claim? No one has claim.
[raises his voice]
Balian of Ibelin: All have claim!
Bishop, Patriarch of Jerusalem: That is blasphemy!
Almaric: [to the Patriarch] Be quiet.
Balian of Ibelin: We defend this city, not to protect these stones, but the people living within these walls.
I right clicked and sent a thousand archers to their own destruction, and while it’s absurd to compare a computer game to the realities of the actual Crusades, I don’t believe it’s a step too far to observe that my motivations weren’t that far off from what the Crusades actually became about. By the time of the Fourth Crusade Christians had stopped even bothering going as far the Holy Land and simply stooped to burning the city of Constantinople and razing the city for the hope of personal gain. The struggle for the “Holy Land” became about securing personal wealth rather than being virtuous and declaring a conviction to god.
Kingdom of Heaven is a film I have watched well over ten times, and having recently purchased the directors cut on Blue-Ray I was able to show the film to my little sister for the first time. This was slightly discombobulating given the fact that she’s a historian (and a medievalist to boot), but it was also a chance to see how my appreciation of the film has deepened. Ridley Scott is an incredible director and I want to dig deeper into this film again, but for now my impression on rewatching the film was just an appreciation for the fact that the film is not just an empty bashing of religion, but instead a film about someone who wants to be a good man and who learns from other good men what real virtue is.
Balian of Ibelin: What man is a man who does not make the world better.
It’s a simple statement that at first appears to be nothing but a piffy aphorism, but upon inspection this statement has power. If one is held by the principle that one should try to make the world a better place, then a series of small actions will build to something great. If the Crusades had been held by such a conviction they may not have been eventually settled on as a great example of human beings fucking up in monstrous ways, they might have in fact have been remembered as a victory of the tenants of Christian philosophy and ideology.
But as always the Kingdom of Heaven is elusive, and I need at least 700 more archers before I attack Duc Truffe The Pig. Those crossbowmen are mean sumbitches.
All quotes cited from Kingdom of Heaven were provided by IMDb.
Being an avid fan of history, and a nerd, I tend to spend my time reading and watching films, but also listening to other nerds talking about things that they are pretty nerdy about. One of my favorite nerd programs is Overly Sarcastic Productions, and in between the videos about The Aeneid and Vikings I watched a video hosted by Blue about the Crusades. It’s most definitely worth your time and will provide the reader with a far more nuanced and entertaining backstory about the Crusades than my work. If you’re at all interested you can follow the link below:
This is still, arguably in my opinion, the sanest argument about the “Holy Land” that I have ever heard in my life, not to mention one of the best delivered lines in cinema history: