GE CLST 30C
1 May 2014
Barbarians of the Silver Screen
“It’s a kingdom of conscience, or nothing.” This quote from the 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven by Ridley Scott sums up the moral struggle of the main protagonist Balian of Ibelin. The unwavering nature of this quote belies the struggles that Balian undergoes to reconcile his sense of conscience with the conflict between the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem and Saladin, the Ayyubid Sultan of Egypt and Syria. The complexity of the events in Kingdom of Heaven highlights the difficulties facing a “kingdom of conscience” that results from the natural tendency of humans toward categorizing and labeling people that are different from themselves, or as Bruce Malina termed it – drawing lines (Kendrick 8). The application of the term barbaric to either kingdom in the war demonstrates the flexibility of words and the power of perception in the evolution of language. While both sides of the conflict see the other as barbaric and can easily be described a barbaric based on modern definitions, Balian surpasses common prejudices and transcends polarizing terms such as barbarism that are created by “drawing lines” and stays true to his ideals throughout the course of the film, ultimately leading to his ability to negotiate with Saladin the safe passage of the people of Jerusalem after the end of Guy of Lusignan’s brief reign and Saladin’s victory over Guy’s army.
In its most basic form, the word barbaric simply refers to people who do not speak Greek; however, over the years the term gained new meaning with each successive use and turned into a derogatory term for uncivilized people in modern times. One of the earliest documentations of the word was Homer’s use of barbaros to benignly describe the language of the Carians, a non-Greek speaking ally of the Trojans (Kendrick 9). Based on this usage, both kingdoms in the film may be described using the term barbaric, however the meaning of the word soon changed with its politically charged usage by Herodotus. The negative connotation of the word developed with Herodotus’ use of the word to describe Persians and is based on to their his perception of their language as horse-like and their apparent inferiority to the Greeks during the Greco-Persian Wars around 500 BCE (Herodotus 29). This development set the precedent for the Roman usage of the word as an insult attributed to the less civilized, nomadic Celtic and Germanic tribes and marked the greater flexibility with the term in the future, including in the film (Kendrick 9). The fluidity of the term civilized allows users of the spoken language to take liberties with it and extend it to practically any group of people. Simply put, barbaric evolved as a term to describe any and all differences between two groups of people, whether ideological or cultural; under these conditions, either kingdom in the film can be described as barbaric by the other based on their differences in religious beliefs. Thus, Saladin and his kingdom can be described as uncivilized by Christian Crusaders for their practice of a religion other than Christianity while the opposite can be said that Saladin considers Crusaders uncivilized because their practice of religion other than his own.
Kingdom of Heaven masterfully shows just how deep prejudices run in certain individuals and how readily the right people can overcome them. In the case of Guy of Lusignan, the brother-in-law of ruler Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, his prejudices led him to barbarically instigate attack after attack against Saladin, which culminated in his attack against Saladin as the newly crowned king of Jerusalem and his inevitable defeat and humiliation. Although a knight, Guy’s actions were far more barbaric than any of Saladin’s offenses against Jerusalem such as when Guy beheaded Saladin’s sister and diplomat as means of both provoking and insulting Saladin. This contrasts with other characters such as Balian and…