I saw Kingdom of Heaven over the weekend. I don't want to be in the business of doing movie reviews on this site. I'll leave that to Dan and Dark Matt. However, I do have a few thoughts to share.
First, Ridley Scott has managed to bring me up-close looks at two things I never thought I'd see in my life: A US Special Operations air assault in Black Hawk Down and now a Templar charge in Kingdom of Heaven. Despite the fact that Scott villainizes my beloved Templars, I am indebted to him for the scene.
Actually, Scott's view of the Templars isn't too far off the mark. The history of Kingdom of Heaven is hardly the journalistic style of Black Hawk Down, but it is far, far more truthful than his Oscar winning Gladiator. I don't want to get too deep into what was good history and what was bad. Overall, I thought he did a remarkable job of summarizing the historical situation and characters. I was confused by the decision to make Guy de Lusignan a Templar, especially since he remains married to the Queen of Jerusalem, Sibylla. Templars, of course, took a vow of chastity. There were married Templars, but most of these were widowers, or took temporary vows while on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land while the wife remained in Europe.
However, while neither Guy nor Reynald de Chatillon were Templars, the actual Templar Grand Master of the period, Gerard de Ridefort, was equally slimey. Gerard owed his high position in the Order more to his political skills than piety or military prowess. He was a principle architect of the disastrous charge at the Horns of Hattin, and he was very rash in his dealings with Saladin and the Muslims. While the Templar politico-military policy in the Holy Land tended to be rather cautious and conservative because they recognized they were outnumbered and outgunned by the Muslim forces, Gerard was more aggressive and would've been right at home with the ambitions of the movie versions of Guy and Chatillon. One last thing about Gerad de Ridwfort. While Saladin made the uncharacteristically bloodthristy, if practical, decision to behead all of the captured Templars and Hospitallers after Hattin, he allowed Gerard to live, and actually ransomed him before releasing King Guy. Like I said, Gerard was pretty slimey like that -- outliving his entire command, and breaking the prohibition against Templars paying ransom to save his skin.
Something that caught my eye just as the movie started was the image of the two men burying Balian's wife. As the scene plays out, it becomes apparent that the women has committed suicide, and they are burying her at a crossroads. Before the gravedigger fills in the hole, the priest orders him to cut off her head. As soon as he said that, I thought, "Now that's blog worthy!"
They didn't bother to explain the superstitions behind what they were doing, and those have implications for our on-going inquiry into high weirdness. The actions were common for suicides throughout Europe for centuries. I can't say for certain what the underlying belief was circa 1200 in Southern France, but these were typical precautions against the return of the corpse as a vampire in most of Europe. The cardinal sin of suicide left the body vulnerable to reanimation as a vampire.
Burying the body at a crossroads was believed to cause a minor crisis for a new vampire. We are used to thinking of Vampires as all-powerful plotters, wise by virtue of their extended years, and extending a network of evil tendrils out into the world to make good their wicked schemes. In reality, the folk belief was that Vampires were at worst like our modern image of zombies -- brainless brutes controlled by hunger, or at best like the dim-witted vampires common to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer mythos. Medieval people thought that a vampire would be so confounded by the number of choices presented by a crossroads that they would spend the whole night thinking about which direction in which to go.
Cutting off the head was a second layer of defense, and has rather obvious uses in keeping a vampire from rising from the grave. However, it also had the implication, depending on time and local belief, that the person would not be resurrected at the Second Coming because the body was not whole. This was a real threat to the medieval mind, and it came up again later in the movie when dead soldiers of Jerusalem are burned to prevent the spread of disease over the protest of a priest concerned about their resurrection. Today, of course, the theology has advanced to the point that the Catholic Church frowns on cremation, but generally acedes that God is God because He's all-powerful. Cremation won't stand in His way come the Resurrection.