Yes, it’s the Crusades, and the Church can’t help but come off badly: you’ll save your immortal soul if you’ll go kill some infidels?
But for those who love the Church, it’s worse than that: early on, the parish priest goes to the blacksmith’s shop to assure the young recent widower that his wife is surely in Hell because she committed suicide (after the death of her baby). Not only that, the “helpful” priest reminds the grieving blacksmith that his wife’s head was severed prior to burial, so she’s in Hell headless, as well. This gruesome representative of the Church doesn’t promise the young blacksmith that going on the Crusade will deliver his wife from Hell, but does try the “save your own soul” appeal. We hardly want to blame the enraged blacksmith for applying his rage to the incredibly insensitive priest.
The rest of the movie continues the tradition of incredible insensitivity, to the point of callousness. The battle scenes are more than explicit. The blacksmith, named Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom), joins the Crusade not because of his piety, but because of his desperate need to start over. At least it’s an adventure, and he’d kinda burned his bridges, so he might as well allow himself to get caught up in blood frenzy. It was both a way to hide and, for the moment, a socially acceptable place to vent rage.
Along the way, Balian encounters his “real” Dad, Godfrey (Liam Neeson), who teaches him hand-to-hand combat, and then conveniently hands over a fiefdom as he succumbs to his own battle wounds. This gives our newly-knighted Balian the opportunity to travel in the decision-making circles of both the bloodthirsty Crusaders, and, eventually, the Saracens who were defending their homeland from these infidels with a religious cause. The Saracens, of course, were Muslim, and they had their own religious convictions. There had been an uneasy truce after the First Crusade, where Europeans actually occupied Jerusalem for a century, developing a coalition government with the local Muslims, but that shaky political alliance was toppled by misguided zeal.
The Crusades, of course, prove not only that people can do horrible things in the name of religion, but also that people can use religion as a disguise for motives that are purely political, blatantly militaristic, or even just plain sadistic. These “soldiers for Christ” did not wish to convert so much as to conquer, which hardly qualifies them for “true” representatives of the religion they professed. Nevertheless, the historical reality of the Crusades, as a whole, is undisputed. It’s just that the particular venture described in this movie may or may not be literally accurate. It does appear, however, to be authentic with regard to battle armament, siege techniques, civilian garb, political realities, and even “period” music.
Ridley Scott brings the Middle Ages to light, but this part is so dark and dreary and cold-blooded that it’s difficult to consider it appealing.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION:
After days of bloody battle, Balian wants to burn the corpses lest disease become rampant, but a local priest objects, saying this will affect the eternal salvation of those who are slain. Do you believe that the method of disposal of remains has any bearing on the afterlife?
Is there such a thing as a “holy war” for Christians?
Is there such a thing as a “holy war” for other religions?
How important is it to Christians to know that Christians are controlling the Holy Land?
The caption at the end of the movie states that the unrest in the Holy Land today has continued unabated for 1,000 years. What do you think is the solution?
RON SALFEN is pastor of Westminster Church, Dallas, Texas.