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Kingdom of Heaven Is A Step Forward in Portrayal of Both Sides in Crusades, Says History Professor

As with many movies dealing with historical topics, the recent release Kingdom of Heaven is lacking in some accuracy, but it represents a step forward in the complexity with which popular culture handles the Crusades, according to Ken Wolf, professor of history at Pomona College.

Wolf has done research on Christian-Muslim interactions during the Middle Ages, the Norman conquests and the first Crusade. He has taught a course on Christianity and violence and has used films such as "The Life of Brian" and "The Cid" in his classes. Wolf's latest book is the first English translation of a history of the Norman conquest of Muslim Sicily, which occurred just prior to the first Crusade. He is available to comment on Kingdom of Heaven and similar films from a historical context.

Wolf was pleased to see evidence of real research in the making of the film. "The movie is indeed based on some historical facts," he said. " But there are significance changes to make it work."

The plot of the movie concerns a former blacksmith, Balian (played by Orlando Bloom as seen in the publicity photo above), who follows his father to fight with the Crusades. After the death of the king of Jerusalem, a power struggle results in the crowning of a hawkish king who incites the Muslims to fight. Balian becomes involved in the intrigue, has an affair with the king's wife, refuses to fight in what he considers an unjust battle against the Muslims and attempts to create a sort of Utopian community at his castle.

One of the things that impressed Wolf was the screenwriter's obvious knowledge of historical texts, though, as perhaps could be expected of a historian, he thinks sticking closer to actual history could have resulted in a more satisfying film.

One of the things the filmmakers got right, however, was a more nuanced portrayal of the people on either side of the Christian-Muslim divide in the 12th century.

"Historically speaking there were two different attitudes on the part of Christians living in the crusader east," Wolf said. Some viewed the Muslims from the standpoint of Christian zealotry, while others viewed the Muslims from a pragmatic standpoint. "They, in other words, considered politics more than religion when making alliances."

This pragmatic attitude was often the result the experience of living in the Middle East. "But every time a new group of Christians came from the West, they were inspired by crusade rhetoric," Wolf said. "Every time they arrived, they had to be debriefed in some sense - 'Hey we don't do that.'"

Likewise, some of the Muslim leaders were more pragmatic than idealistic when dealing with the Christians. Kingdom of Heaven illustrates this reality much better than movies have in the past.

"It's a step in the right direction from what one might have imagined in an earlier generation," Wolf said.

Still, the filmmakers also threw in a third viewpoint, held by Balian, that Wolf feels gets in the way.

"He seems to have been given this motivation which has more to do with leaving religion behind altogether and trying to develop this perfect society on earth." Wolf said. "I'm not sure where this comes from ... The tension is really between people who are motivated by ideas of Crusade and people who are motivated by pragmatic ideas."

Despite issues of accuracy, movies such as Kingdom of Heaven can expose audiences to parts of history with which they might not have been familiar.

"I think at a really fundamental, superficial level that there are positive things that come from a movie like this," Wolf said. "I don't think you could leave it without thinking that leaders on both sides were driven by pragmatic concerns...I think it's useful for an audience to see a movie that is openly critical of fanaticism on both sides."

Pomona College is one of the nation's premier liberal arts institutions, offering a comprehensive program in the arts, humanities, social and natural sciences. Its hallmarks include small classes, close relationships between students and faculty, and a range of opportunities for student research.