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Salah-ad-Din, legend and modern context
May 7, 2005 1:00 PM   Subscribe

Saladin (Salah-ad-Din) is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the latest less than great Hollywood historical epic. A leader who seems to have viewed war as the means to a more perfect peace, his namesake now belongs to the Iraqi provence containing Tikrit, his birthplace and a city now all too familiar to us. The modern context of his story is important and obvious.
posted by fatllama (27 comments total)

 
Some additional historical background. Please note that I am generally under-informed about the topic and post this not for a flamewar but for interesting perspectives.
posted by fatllama at 1:00 PM on May 7, 2005


Well, here's my perspective: I haven't seen the film yet, but from the few reviews I've read so far, I'm worried. Even the choice of subject matter bothers me enough.

Most people now are extremely under-educated about medieval history. After hundreds of years of being told, by Machiavelli and everyone that came after him, that it was a "dark age" of ignorance and oppression, all we can remember is a few border wars and minor skirmishes-- i.e. the crusades and jihads. It sounds to me as though Ridley Scott had the same impression everybody else did-- that the crusades were some kind of major event in the middle ages-- and set out to find a lot of 'facts' about them. He probably made a reasonably accurate movie, but to focus on such a moment is extremely deceptive.

The medievals were often very enlightened. It is true that there were many oppressive and cruel regimes; but for every two brutal communities there was a brilliant and enlightened one that accepted many colors and stripes. Among the Muslims alone, atheists, pagans, Christians, and Jews often conversed openly with Muslims about truth and theology; and the Christians are exemplars in many ways of acceptance and scholarship, not least for their invention of the university.

In modern times, we've seen just as much bloodshed and brutality and turmoil as the medievals saw, maybe more. The only differences seem to be that our brutality marches under a secular flag, and that it kills a hell of a lot more people. I'd choose the medievals, myself.

[Thanks for a really interesting post, by the way.]
posted by koeselitz at 1:25 PM on May 7, 2005


Well, here's my perspective: I haven't seen the film yet, but from the few reviews I've read so far, I'm worried. Even the choice of subject matter bothers me enough.

.
posted by Stynxno at 1:37 PM on May 7, 2005


Saw a screening on Thursday. First off, I'll say that it was very entertaining -- to the point where my friend and I were still talking about it the next day, and seeing this post on the front page got me excited. And I'm not an action movie person.

People have made the crusades analogy for the Bush administration before, but I don't think anyone ever took it seriously. The movie is quite (unintentionally?) satirical of recent America, but not in a "we're making satire" sort of way -- just the overall sense. Undeniably well-timed release. "God wills it" used to silence debate in a disturbingly familar way.

From a movie standpoint, it was a strange mix of experiences, and it's certainly not refined movie-wise in the way LOTR is, for example -- rationally, I shouldn't have liked the movie as much as I did. I kinda want to see it again.
posted by VulcanMike at 2:01 PM on May 7, 2005


"Turns out that the Crusades were not the struggle between Christians and Muslims that you might have thought they were but between both Muslim and Christian religious fanatics on the one hand and modern tolerant liberals like the film-makers — oh and, by the way, everyone else in Hollywood — on the other. Who knew?"
posted by yesno at 2:07 PM on May 7, 2005


Yesno,
the link you provided does spoil it a bit but he's not too far off on his criticisms. The movie is entirely unbelievable.
posted by CCK at 2:21 PM on May 7, 2005


Thanks for the link yesno. Having known nothing about the movie except it was about "the crusades" beforehand, and having known nothing about the crusades beforehand either, I was able to tell the "fact" from the fiction pretty well.

I'd assume that other viewers are capable of doing the same, or at the very worst, assuming the whole thing is a fiction.

Actually, I found Bowman's article so condescending that after reading it, I thought "Kingdom of heaven has fictional elements? Who knew?"
posted by VulcanMike at 2:37 PM on May 7, 2005


I was still very able to tell the "fact" from fiction, I should have said.
posted by VulcanMike at 2:38 PM on May 7, 2005


After hundreds of years of being told, by Machiavelli and everyone that came after him, that it was a "dark age" of ignorance and oppression,...

Of course it was a dark age...it was Knight Time!

(scuttles toward nearest exit)
posted by alumshubby at 3:03 PM on May 7, 2005


The Bowman link is indeed condescending, and it's a tough call, I think. I agree with him that it's difficult for us today to understand the moral position of people living in the middle ages.

But when he says things like this:

"For someone to say "I put no stock in religion" would have been as nonsensical as saying "I put no stock in being my father’s son." People’s religion wasn’t just what they believed, it was what they were."

... he's showing a bit of his own misunderstanding of the moral position of medievals. Religion probably meant more to them socially-- it was part of their society, and part of how it ran; there was no teaching that it ought to be separate-- they had many of the same love/hate relationships with it. Plenty of people said they put no stock in religion, and, even if it wasn't popular, there was a whole movement among the Christians (inspired by an Arab) dedicated to the proposition (roughly) that religion is nothing more than a political tool, and is full of lies.

[on preview, alumshubby wins]
posted by koeselitz at 3:05 PM on May 7, 2005


By the way. If you were worried that this movie wouldn't feature The Wailing Woman of the Ancient World, you can rest assured.

The medieval Christians and Arabs, much like the late Romans and the Greeks and Trojans (and all peoples who lived prior to the invention of the top hat), were in fact big fans of Enya and Lisa Gerrard. So this movie at least got that right.
posted by yesno at 3:14 PM on May 7, 2005


VulcanMike writes "People have made the crusades analogy for the Bush administration before, but I don't think anyone ever took it seriously. The movie is quite (unintentionally?) satirical of recent America, but not in a 'we're making satire' sort of way -- just the overall sense. Undeniably well-timed release. 'God wills it' used to silence debate in a disturbingly familar way."

There's no comparison between the Crusades and Iraq War.

The Crusades were fueled by the prostitution of religion ideals and imagery and the demonization of people of another faith, in order to induce commoners to sacrifice their lives robbing another people for the benefit of a few kings, nobles and bishops.

The Iraq war is about Patriotism and giving the Gift of Democracy to the Iraqi people, not about a few powerful rulers grabbing another nation's oil wealth for their plutocrat friends by making up lies about imminent danger, and sacrificing young men who believe they're there doing their duty for God and Country.

So STFU lib'ruls!
posted by orthogonality at 5:16 PM on May 7, 2005


Historical dramas aren't about the past but about the present. This film is not about what was actually going on at the fall of Jerusalem, it's a sort of liberal epic answer to Mel Gibson's 'The Passion of the Christ': 'look at the bad things religion does - can't we all just get along with each other?'

It's very anachronistic, I nearly cacked my pants with laughter at the idea of a secular humanist crusading hero. Yes, of course there were radical religious thinkers and people who didn't care about religion and people who made pragmatic alliances across faiths at the time, but Balian is like some nice young earnest development worker sent back in time. I really don't think the barons of Ibelin were much like that...

However Bowman misses the point, I loved it because of this - pure hokum with a tasty Orlando Bloom in the lead role and lots of siege engines. I had the added fun of playing spot-the-historical inaccuracy. By the way, there are some things the film does get right, but to avoid tedium and spoilers, I won't say what they were. My only complaint is that Orlando doesn't take his clothes off nearly enough :-)
posted by Flitcraft at 5:23 PM on May 7, 2005


A leader who seems to have viewed war as the means to a more perfect peace

I'm not sure what this means, unless that (like every war leader) he viewed war as a means to conquering everybody in his path until there was no one left to fight, but the "more perfect peace" link is an anonymous piece that reads like a high school essay. I mean: "He was used by God to create the temporary peace that was enjoyed between the Muslims and Christians"? If you're interested in the historical Saladin, read a biography by an actual historian. The one I have, Saladin: The politics of the Holy War by Malcolm Cameron Lyons and DEP Jackson, sums him up thus in the conclusion:
To his admirers, Saladin on his death-bed at Damascus can be seen as the hero of Islam, the destroyer of the Latin Kingdom and the restorer of the shrines in Jerusalem. Eulogy, however, must accommodate itself to the fact that such a view was not accepted by numbers of his Muslim contemporaries. He can be pictured by his detractors as manipulating Islam to win power for himself and his family and only then launching on an adventure which still left a Frankish state poised to strike, if Europe were willing to support it, at an overburdened and impoverished Muslim empire...

Saladin himself subordinated money to men and, as al-Fadil reported, he used the wealth of Egypt for the conquest of Syria, that of Syria for the conquest of Jazira [northern Iraq] and that of the Jazira for the conquest of the Coast [east of the Mediterranean]. In such a process, however, as al-Fadil also noted, "hopes of expansion can never come to an end." The difficulties that arose when expansion was halted can be seen in reports of violent disturbances amongst the peasants around Damascus at the end of the Third Crusade, poverty in Jerusalem both in Saladin's lifetime and after his death and complaints after his death that "salaries in Egypt remain in name only and have no meaning."...

The Holy War propaganda and the continuous self-justification of his letters to Baghdad are examples of coloured rhetoric in which everything is shown in extremes and internal contradictions are glossed over or ignored. This too can be seen as a matter of convention. His claims were inflated and their justification dubious, but he should at least be acquitted of the charge of cynicism. It is, of course, true to say that Saladin blurred the distinctions of the Holy War by adding Muslims, such as the Almohades, to the list of possible enemies and, instead of being confined to the recovery of the Coast, the concept was thus almost infinitely extendable...

He cannot be thought of as an innovator, but as a man who was content to act on ideas supplied him. He was a good, but not a great, strategist and tactician, an open-handed but not far-sighted administrator and a man with his share of faults, mixed motives and weaknesses... He appears to have held instinctively to the middle ground. The conventional mind was matched by virtues that were no less attractive for being themselves conventional. He was not concerned to question the relevance of his ideals or even, apparently, to check how far he was guilty of distorting them. They were part of the heritage of Islam, to be accepted emotionally, not intellectually, and with such an attitude he could be presumed to ignore contradictions.
I'm sure the movie fudges history, but hey, it's a movie. I'm looking forward to seeing it just for the spectacle.
posted by languagehat at 5:53 PM on May 7, 2005


I will crush Orlando Bloom.
posted by saladin at 8:19 PM on May 7, 2005


That about says it all, doesn't it.
posted by VulcanMike at 9:36 PM on May 7, 2005


languagehat, the comments and hardcopy reference are much appreciated. The reference to "... a more perfect peace" was a comparison to the man who coined the phrase, Gen. William T. Sherman, whose terrible war exploits could only be connected to a more perfect peace if one takes the viewpoint of the victor. Is the modern judgement of Saladin similarly disjoint? Of course.

This movie and much more importantly some islamic scholars perceive the legend of Saladin not in the balanced and guarded summary you cited but as a romantic figure whose story can be used to inspire reaction to what is currently framed by some as a modern crusade against islam.
posted by fatllama at 10:12 PM on May 7, 2005


I think Flitcraft basically summed it up. Historical dramas are much like science-fiction dramas: they're just like today, only with different clothing.

The story is told by the people of today, for the people of today, in terms that make sense to the people of today. I'm no one that believes that this is a good thing, but I do accept that it sells tickets.

That being said, the movie was... odd. Great production values and passable acting, but laughably terrible in every other way. The story, the utterly terrible storytelling that leaves enormous gaps in the story that would fill the gaps in the motivations of the horribly written charicatures that pass as characters, the anachronisms, the politically correct schmaltz moments, etc... More of a poorly rendered historical-fantasy (in the spec fiction sense) than a historical drama.

On the other hand, I kept thinking that bombarding the public with a story of tolerance between Muslim and Christian may not a bad thing right now. In spite off its amateurish delivery.
posted by C.Batt at 10:45 PM on May 7, 2005


You know, on second thought. My post, above ^ ... is very poorly written, rantish, and off topic. Sigh. I'm going to bed now.
posted by C.Batt at 10:47 PM on May 7, 2005


I nearly cacked my pants with laughter at the idea of a secular humanist crusading hero.
Actually, the idea is not nearly as absurd as it may seem at first sight. The relationships between church and medieval rulers during the Middle Ages were extremely complex, especially in those places where Christianity and Islam met (the Holy Land, but also Spain and places like Sicily, Malta, Cyprus, etc.) Quite a few Christian kings and knights of the time enjoyed both pretty good relations with their Muslim neighbours and very bad relations with the Church. A good example of a "secular humanist crusading hero" of the Middle Ages was Alphonsus X of Castile, who employed Christian, Muslim and Jewish scholars in his court in Toledo, dabbled in alchemy, was excommunicated by the Pope for a rather secular matter pertaining to his claim to the German empire, nevertheless wrote quite memorable verses honouring the Virgin Mary and tried to launch a crusade to conquer the Muslim kingdoms in Southern Spain. (Granted, he wasn't the perfect hero of this film, but his mentality clearly wasn't that far apart).
posted by Skeptic at 6:21 AM on May 8, 2005


Religious tolerance is not the same thing as secular humanism. If Alphonsus or any other ruler had disavowed religion altogether, he would have been deposed and killed. Let's try to use terminology in some sort of coherent way, shall we?
posted by languagehat at 7:34 AM on May 8, 2005


fatllama: "The reference to "... a more perfect peace" was a comparison to the man who coined the phrase, Gen. William T. Sherman, whose terrible war exploits could only be connected to a more perfect peace if one takes the viewpoint of the victor."

This is a side-issue, I guess, but I disagree. Sherman moved the war toward its end while minimizing fatalities, and you have to respect that, especially if you care about saving lives. In fact, a southern general, one General Johnston, an ancestor of mine, appreciated Sherman's actions so much that they became friends after the war. In fact, I've heard that this happened between Sherman and several southern generals. Johnston was even a pallbearer at Sherman's funeral. Of course, it rained that day, and Johnston caught pneumonia and died. Southerners will mutter something about 'poetic justice,' but I'm a western boy myself.

posted by koeselitz at 8:23 AM on May 8, 2005


languagehat: Read Alphonsus' famous attributed quote regarding the Ptolemaic system:
"If the Lord Almighty had consulted me before embarking on creation I should have recommended something simpler". Even if it is probably apocryphal, if that doesn't sound like a secular humanist, I don't know what does. If you, however, mean by a "secular humanist" somebody who "disavows religion altogether" I'm afraid you are the one who isn't using terminology correctly (Erasmus of Rotterdam, the quintessential humanist, didn't disavow religion. And neither did his friend Saint Thomas More).
Of course, I've also heard the term Secular Humanism used in place of good old Anti-Clericalism, but that strikes me as an unnecessary manipulation of language. IMHO, secularism means the limitation of religion to the private sphere, not necessarily its rejection.
posted by Skeptic at 9:37 AM on May 8, 2005


Fair enough. That's one problem with the overused term "secular humanism" -- everybody means something different by it.
posted by languagehat at 11:12 AM on May 8, 2005


koeselitz, you're certainly right and I agree with you concerning Sherman's shortening of the war. But then as much as now, sometimes perceptions win the day.
posted by fatllama at 11:50 AM on May 8, 2005


The story is told by the people of today, for the people of today, in terms that make sense to the people of today. I'm no one that believes that this is a good thing, but I do accept that it sells tickets.

All too true alas, save for the final point, at least if the Mother's day box office is any sign.

But it need not be that way, and indeed hasn't always been that way (see this for an interesting discussion).

I was able to tell the "fact" from the fiction pretty well. I'd assume that other viewers are capable of doing the same, or at the very worst, assuming the whole thing is a fiction.

With respect, I'd assume nothing of the kind. I'd assume many other viewers would take the whole thing as, forgive me, gospel. Which would be, will be, bad. Many of our fellow countrymen are not so thoughtful or bookish or curious and will buy the first thing on offer. Big responsibility for someone like Mr Scott, who in an interview I saw rather disassociated himself from the concerns of historians as not his bailiwick. He wanted to make an anti-war film. Nothing wrong with that, but why stuff the piece with anachronisms?

Yes, yes, it's only a movie.

And CNN is only the news.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:36 PM on May 9, 2005


He probably made a reasonably accurate movie, but to focus on such a moment is extremely deceptive.

Ridley Scott? Historically accurate? The guy who had ancient Schwabians speaking in modern high German? riiiight....
posted by dagnyscott at 8:17 AM on May 10, 2005


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