The Kingdom of Heaven: teaching the Crusades
The attacks of September 11th, followed by U.S. military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, have brought greater attention to the simmering conflict between Islam and the West-a conflict most brutally played out historically during the Crusades. The series of holy wars for control of Jerusalem and the Holy Land stretched over centuries--from 1096 to 1291 (with subsequent efforts as late as the mid-1400s). Recent statements from Islamic militants denouncing U.S.-led forces in Iraq as "crusaders" show that passions still are fired in the Muslim world by the memory of the Crusades. (1) Into this political environment, film studio Twentieth Century Fox recently released The Kingdom of Heaven, the first Hollywood movie to seriously address the Crusades and their present-day implications. The film, directed by Ridley Scott, is a timely commentary--that nearly a thousand years after the Crusades began, peace in the Holy Land remains elusive.
This present-day outlook makes The Kingdom of Heaven a useful educational tool to get students to talk about the ways in which people today make use of the past to explain or critique contemporary events. Even though the film is rated R (for graphic violence, not for profanity or sexual content), millions of teenagers either have seen it in theaters or will be seeing it, as it is expected to be released on home video/DVD in October. This article aims to provide educators with supplementary background on the time period and to suggest ideas for using the film in the classroom.
History and The Kingdom of Heaven
The Kingdom of Heaven chronicles events surrounding the Crusades through the fictionalized story of Balian (played by Orlando Bloom), the illegitimate son of Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), a crusader-lord from the Holy Land. Balian works as a blacksmith in France, but events compel him, as heir to Ibelin, to follow his newfound father to the Holy Land. Godfrey briefly trains Balian in swordsmanship and knighthood, but then Godfrey is mortally wounded in a skirmish and Balian must go on alone. Balian's ship is sunk and he washes up on the Syrian shore, where he befriends a Muslim named Nasir (Alexander Siddig) who takes him to Jerusalem. There, Balian is caught up in royal intrigues.
King Baldwin (Edward Norton) is a leper who knows he will die soon. Royal succession will pass through his sister Sybilla (Eva Green), who is unhappily married, to her husband, Godfrey's rival Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas). Sybilla and Balian become lovers. The Count of Tiberias (Jeremy Irons) backs King Baldwin. Renegade warlord Reynauld de Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson) and the Templars, a fanatical order of Christian knights, back Guy's faction. Under King Baldwin the kingdom has enjoyed peace with its Muslim neighbors. After his death, Guy is crowned king.
Guy and the warlord Reynauld provoke war with the Muslim ruler Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) by leading murderous raids on peaceful Muslim travelers. Count Tiberias and Balian refuse to join the war. Saladin defeats Guy's forces and then lays siege to Jerusalem; Balian takes command...