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Pluralistic Crusaders

"Pluralistic Crusaders" Continued...

Issue: "John Bolton: Take cover!," May 7, 2005

Mr. Scott, once an altar boy who now calls himself an agnostic, approaches God and faith in the film from a doubter's point of view. Balian is a pilgrim before he becomes a hero, and he embarks on the Crusade to "find forgiveness from God." By the time he reaches Jerusalem he tells his most trusted advisor: "I've lost my religion."

Balian's advisor and fellow knight, the Hospitaler (David Thewlis), provides the core of the film's religious theme when he defines faith by telling Balian: "Holiness is right action. . . . It's the decisions that you make every day."

The hero takes up a creed of right action and conscience, and the film commendably exalts the virtues of honor, chivalry, defending the helpless, and speaking the truth. But these Christian notions are removed from the context of biblical Christianity as man relies on himself for determining and doing what is right instead of looking to the Scriptures and relying on Christ's work. In fact, while the hero insists on fidelity in some areas, he follows his flesh in others, committing adultery with the wife of the future king.

Mr. Scott paints a vision of "the kingdom of heaven" as a peaceful world in which every man does what he thinks is right, and all beliefs are upheld as equally valid. The film's final line captures the likelihood of such a world: "The quest for the Kingdom of Heaven remains elusive."

Opportunity lost

Historical scholars in Ridley Scott's native England gave The Kingdom of Heaven less than rave reviews in the weeks leading up to its release. Jonathan Riley-Smith, one of Britain's leading authorities on the Crusades, called the film's plot "rubbish," ridiculous," and "complete garbage."

Thoughtful moviegoers with a reasonable understanding of the Crusades will find revisionist threads running through the film's plot and characterizations. But those same moviegoers will also find a film that's solidly acted and visually compelling, though often jarringly violent.

Orlando Bloom, the film's star, said he was eager to "step up and be a man" when he auditioned for the lead role in The Kingdom of Heaven. The 28-year-old Brit, just five years out of acting school, had already landed a string of major supporting roles, including Legolas in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Will Turner in Pirates of the Caribbean.

Mr. Bloom carries the burden of a lead role well, delivering a performance that is both disciplined and understated, and manages to pull off some of the film's more unrealistic moments with believable conviction. The supporting cast, including Liam Neeson and Jeremy Irons, turn in reliable performances, providing the film with needed weight. One of the film's most striking performances comes from Edward Norton, who plays the role of the leprous King Baldwin entirely from behind an eerie metal mask.

Mr. Scott, who also directed Gladiator, stages battle scenes that are both mammoth in scope and impressive in detail. The faint of heart should beware: The film's combat scenes are gruesomely bloody in places, earning the movie an R rating for "strong violence and epic warfare."

The real Crusades

The history of the Crusades is a saga of heroism and cruelty, unintended consequences and bad theology-but not simply imperialistic Western aggression against Muslims. Not only Palestine but Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, and North Africa-all part of the Christianized Roman Empire-were vibrant centers of faith and theology before the Muslims conquered them in a crusade of their own.

· Islam, born in Arabia in a.d. 600, spread by the sword. Jerusalem was conquered in 638. The conquest of Africa began in 647. Jihad invaded Europe in 712 with Muslims conquering Spain. Muslims moved into France, but Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours in 732 finally stopped them. Otherwise, the rest of Europe might also have fallen.

· In the 11th century Islam again gathered its military might. Eastern Orthodox Christians in what was left of the Byzantine Empire-centered at Constantinople-begged the Western church for help. Pope Urban II called the first Crusade in 1095. (There would be eight in all, the last in 1270.)

· The First Crusade won back Jerusalem and established intermittent European kingdoms in the Middle East. Eventually the Muslims defeated the Christians. From the beginning the Crusades were tainted. Frenzied mobs slaughtered thousands of Jews. Armies originally sent to protect the Byzantine Christians instead plundered them, even sacking Constantinople. When Jerusalem was finally taken, its whole population-Muslims, Jews, and Christians-was put to the sword.

· With the invention of indulgences, the medieval church motivated Crusaders. Those who fought the enemies of God were given passes from purgatory. Thus the Crusades were sold as holy wars, identical to the Islamic jihads.

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