Taking it on faith
'Kingdom of Heaven' puts the Crusades in the multiplex
By Todd Leopold
(CNN) -- It's funny how the word "crusade" has gotten watered down over time.
Nowadays it's thrown around like a baseball in a friendly game of catch: You've got your Breast Cancer Crusade, your World Literacy Crusade, your Crusade for Children. (And yes, the Campus Crusade for Christ.) All based on the second definition in Webster's New World College Dictionary, a "vigorous, concerted action for some cause or idea."
But the real Crusades, the religious, military expeditions that ran from 1095 to the late 13th century, weren't exactly a jolly ride through Europe and the Middle East, full of success, chivalry and holy times in the name of Christianity.
Many of them were wracked with infighting, disagreements on strategy and military failure. Even participants who have since been hailed as heroes, such as Richard I of England -- Richard the Lionheart -- met with disaster; Richard, for example, was shipwrecked on the way home from the Holy Land, captured by a rival and held for ransom.
In fact, the Crusades usually fit the template of bloody, ugly and pointless.
Crusaders massacred Jews and Orthodox Christians, not to mention the Muslims who held the cities of the Middle East, and helped make an uneasy relationship between the faiths all the rockier. (Despite the Crusades' holy roots in the papacy -- the first was announced by Pope Urban II -- killing was allowed, given interpretations of various religious and theological documents.)
The Crusaders did have some of the success they hoped for, notably taking Jerusalem a couple times (though the second was more due to diplomacy than military might). And Crusaders, exposed to Islamic culture -- which included some of most notable advances of the time -- brought new thinking in art, mathematics and science back to the West, helping lead to the Renaissance.
But, in general, it was a messy and violent couple of centuries.
Ridley Scott's new movie, "Kingdom of Heaven," focuses on the late 12th-century period when Crusaders were on their way to challenge Saladin, the Kurdish Muslim leader who ranks as one of the great military leaders in history.
Eye on Entertainment charges into the fray.
"Kingdom of Heaven" is set in a period when relative peace reigned in the Middle East. The Crusaders had captured Jerusalem in 1099 and set up their own states in the area.
Then Saladin -- whose Western name is a contraction of "Salah al-Din," or "the righteousness of the faith" -- retook Jerusalem in 1187. Pope Gregory VIII, inflamed, announced another Crusade, and Richard I of England, Philip II of France and Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I took leading roles.
In "Kingdom of Heaven," Orlando Bloom plays Balian of Ibelin, a humble blacksmith drawn into the Crusade by a knight who turns out to be his father, played by Liam Neeson. Upon reaching the City of David, he gets involved with a local princess (Eva Green) and ends up leading the Christians in the battle against Saladin.
If history is any guide, he doesn't have much luck.
Director Scott is acutely aware of parallels between his movie and current events. (Indeed, the word "crusade" has come up more than once since September 11, much to the chagrin of the Islamic world.)
"We keep replaying history," he told Entertainment Weekly. "We don't seem to learn s***, do we?"
But if early reviews are to be believed, Scott -- who was nominated for an Oscar for his handling of 2000's "Gladiator" -- hasn't progressed much since that critical and box-office hit. Most critics say the director has created a splendid-looking film but one that sacrifices historical depth at the expense of pretty pictures.
"Kingdom of Heaven" also stars Jeremy Irons, David Thewlis and Ghassan Massoud. The film opens Friday.
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