Selling colonialism

The Kingdom of Heaven movie poster

Kingdom of Heaven, directed by Sir Ridley Scott and starring Orlando Bloom, Jeremy Irons, Eva Green, Liam Neeson, has now been released on DVD (20th Century Fox). Watching this Hollywood extravaganza is like seeing the current Iraq war through the eyes of an American soldier, or a portrait of apartheid from the point of view of a rich white South African farmer, or a depiction of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank from the perspective of a Jewish settler. It is also like the foreign news in the quality U.S. and British news media today: no direct or conscious lies, but extremely one-sided. In end effect, it has all the historicity of an early cowboys-and-Indians-movie or Birth of a Nation, the infamous 1916 film that sympathizes with the Ku Klux Klan.

The DVD version contains a ‘Pilgrim’s Guide’ which delivers huge amounts of facts about the Crusades, especially about the weapons and the battles, but like the film itself it fails to draw the obvious parallels between modern Israel and the Crusader Kingdoms. The legal discrimination against Muslims, Jews, and Palestinian Christians in the Kingdom of Jerusalem is entirely absent from the DVD. During the century or so of Western European rule in Palestine during Europe’s Middle Ages, Roman Catholic fundamentalist fanatics in fact ruled in a barbarous and racist manner. When they first took Jerusalem in 1099, they killed every single Muslim and Jew in the city. This last fact is mentioned in the film but not shown.

Rather, the indigenous people, the Palestinian farmers, are unable to water their own fields until Balian of Ibelin, Orlando Bloom’s character, a knight/blacksmith straight out of rainy France, shows them how to build a well and irrigate properly. Ever since the birth of Zionism in Austria in the 1890s, many believers in Israel as the Jewish state have propagated that Palestinians would benefit from being closer to a ‘more modern people’, such as the Jews, seen as bearers of Western civilization. This is the so-called ‘leftist’ brand of Zionism, which leaves unmentioned such immaterial details as land ownership in this whole equation. The important thing is that Palestinians should be grateful for Westerners wanting to be in Palestine.

Instead of even attempting to personalize the Palestinians (the indigenous majority), the film concentrates on armoury and battle (the U.S. soldier point of view), and on the chivalry and courtly love of the western European main characters. There are a few rotten eggs among the European invader caste, but most of them are really good people, an asset to the backwards indigenous mobs. The queen of Jerusalem, Sibylla, becomes a nurse during Saladin’s siege of the city. Balian, head of Jerusalem’s defence, knights every man able to bear arms. Yes, the feudal Europe is thus, highly dubiously, given the credit of trying to introduce egalitarianism and democracy among the Arabs.

Many of the other details in the film, however, have a deceptively high degree of historicity. For instance, some of the all-European-members of the Jerusalem court are shown wearing fashionable Arab clothes. The weapons and the warfare, likewise, are depicted in almost painfully accurate ways. Saladin is not portrayed as a bloodthirsty savage, but as a noble one. Saladin, the liberator of Jerusalem, was actually born in Tikrit, in modern-day Iraq, and just like the Soviet baddies were given some respect in Cold War Hollywood products, an Arab warrior is now considered a worthy enemy.

Robert Fisk, a journalist who has fearlessly exposed western and Zionist atrocities against Arabs in the modern Middle East, reviewed this film for the Independent on June 20, 2005. In his review, Fisk related that the Muslim audience in Lebanon with whom he watched it “came to realise that even Hollywood can be fair”. Similarly, the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee (ADC), in a press release on 29 April 2005, finds the portrayal of Arabs and Muslims praiseworthy in comparison with other products coming out of Hollywood at the moment. Both Fisk and the rest of his Beirut audience, as well as the ADC, were taken in by the ‘worthy enemy-noble savage’ trap.

This film in fact reveals how Western elites sell slaughter, oppression and exploitation of non-Western people to the masses. Like the westerns during the early 20th century: invasion, racism, and genocide are really good, both for us and the victims, but of course only as long as the perpetrators are white and the victims are not. That is the real reason why the film’s director - maker of such pseudo-objective films as Black Hawk Down, in which U.S. soldiers kill scores of Somali militants hiding among civilians without shooting a single civilian - was himself recently knighted.

Related links

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  • To read ADC comments on the script for Kingdom of Heaven from 11 August 2004, click here

    Anthony Loewstedt teaches media communications and philosophy in Vienna, Austria. He recently taught at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank and worked for the United Nations Development Programme at Miftah - The Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy in Jerusalem. He is currently working on a book on apartheid in South Africa, Israel/Palestine, and elsewhere.