Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Kingdom of Hollywood 

Until quite recently, “Kingdom of Heaven” would have become known as merely the most anti-religious (or more precisely anti-Christian, since criticizing Islam seems to be a lot dicier proposition for “courageous” film-makers) Hollywood blockbuster in a very long time. But in the post-September 11 world, it’s primarily Ridley Scott’'s apparent political message which comes to the fore, and it is quite simple: all Muslims and many Westerners want to lead a peaceful coexistence, but a bigoted, bloodthirsty and rapacious group of Christians spoils it for everyone.

The real history, both that of the twelfth century as well as contemporary one, if of course far more “nuanced”. Crusaders certainly had a far share of appalling behavior to their discredit (including the massacre of Jerusalem'’s residents upon taking the city during the First Crusade, or the rape and pillage of Byzantium on the way to another), but the Saracens were hardly angels either. It was a bitter -– albeit very intermittent -– conflict fuelled on both sides by religious fervor as well as more earthly desires of land, wealth and glory.

I cannot but the sympathize with Ridley Scott'’s vision of a society where Christians and Muslims can live with each other in peace and respect, but wishful thinking is not a substitute for history, even in a movie. "Osama bin Laden's version of history" is how one British historian has described the film, and while I wouldn’t go as far as calling “"Kingdom of Heaven"” a recruiting tool for jihad, a cool and objective look at the Crusades it ain’t either, as many other historians have pointed out. Scott’'s response has been typically modest: “"There's been a lot of criticism from historians... But they haven't seen anything. They haven't read anything."

There is no doubt that the film'’s Muslims come off better than the Westerners. All the atrocities and acts of dastardry are committed by Christian knights, whether it’'s the unprovoked massacres of Muslim merchants and villagers, killing an envoy or cold-blooded murder of Saladin’'s sister. Muslims, on the other hand, are a purely responsive force –- they only fight when themselves first attacked and provoked beyond endurance by Christian outrages.

The Westerners, or the Franks as Muslims would call them, are portrayed as a diverse bunch. On one hand we have the bloodthirsty warmongers: dishonorable, treacherous, megalomaniac, bigoted knights, most of them associated with mainstream medieval Christianity (although setting up the Knights Templar as the driving force of virulent anti-Muslim militarism -– “"the Rightwing or Christian fundamentalists of their day",” in Ridley Scott'’s own word - strikes me as somewhat ironic, given that the Knights were often criticized by the contemporaries for having “"gone native"” and being the most pragmatic and non-ideological of the Western forces in the Holy Land). On the other hand you have the chivalrous, reasonable and tolerant minority who want to create a peaceful multicultural society, are concerned for "“the people"”, and all happen to have at best a very ambiguous relationship to organized religion (the common complaint that runs throughout the movie about losing one’'s religion makes you feel you’'re suddenly in an R.E.M. music video). They'’re also a cast of endearing outcasts and outsiders: the haunted main character who'’s a blacksmith-turned-lord having discovered at the start of the movie who his real father is, an unorthodox priest, a brooding but loyal sheriff of Jerusalem, a beautiful adulterous princess stuck in an unhappy arranged marriage, and a leper king to boot.

Muslims, by contrast, are gallant and honorable men of peace, with war thrust upon them by the Crusaders. This rather one-dimensional portrayal of what otherwise was a complex Muslim society of the twelfth century Mid East is partly due to the fact that Muslims simply aren'’t given anywhere near the same amount of screen time as the Crusaders, partly due to some trendy bias (“"If we could just take God out of the equation for a second, concentrate on how you live. If we could abide by that, there'd be no f****** problem," says Scott, but of course it'’s much easier and more convenient to take the Christian religiosity out -– all the main goodies in the movie are “"agnostic"” - but on the Saracen side there is little doubt as Saladin'’s army chants “"Allah’u akbar"” in unison, and only Saladin himself is given – ahistorically – to downplaying the deity). Lastly, it’'s a function of the historical focus of the film -– Saladin (who, by the way, was a Kurd), the great Saracen general, was widely recognized by his contemporaries, including Christian contemporaries, as a noble and chivalrous figure, a very worthy opponent indeed.

Having said all that, if you can suffer through Ridley Scott'’s imposition of a twenty first century political vision on the gory medieval past (or as Mark Steyn writes "the short review of Sir Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven": "an opportunity to explore our present blundering stupidity in the context of our long tradition of blundering stupidity") it's actually not too bad, particularly as far as the latest crop of historical epics is concerned. As most of Scott’'s previous work it'’s visually stimulating and on many levels engrossing. Acting is generally good, even if I’'m still not sure whether Orlando Bloom manages to carry the picture as the main character –- he just doesn'’t seem strong enough a presence (too elf-like?) in such a brutal and cold world.

Just one final thought. If by the Kingdom of Heaven, the film’s creators really mean merely (and with a scant regard to theology) a peaceful multicultural community where people of all races and creeds live, work and pray happily next to each other, “a "kingdom of conscience"”, and a place where “"it matters not who you were born but what you can become”", then arguably we have already achieved that heaven on earth. It’'s called America, but I doubt whether Hollywood will be making a blockbuster about it any time soon.

Meanwhile, in another Hollywood blockbuster news, it seems that George Lucas couldn'’t help himself but to deliver a backhander at George W Bush in his “"Star Wars"” latest:
During an obscenely over-the-top duel in Mustafar, Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) declares, "Only a Sith Lord deals in absolutes," after Anakin says, "If you're not with me, you're my enemy."
Ironic, seeing that the whole “"Star Wars"” series is the most black and white story in movie-making history. Ironic, also, seeing that when the first trilogy screened in Poland in the early 1980s, there was no doubt in our minds that the films were an allegory for the struggle of the free West with the Evil Soviet Empire. But apparently we were too naïve and not nuanced enough.


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