I recently watched this History Channel three-hour movie. Before I rented it I read a couple dozen reviews on Netflix. It was funny how many reviewers were angry that it showed the Crusaders in a bad light some of the time. They felt the program dwelt more on the Crusaders bad behavior than the Muslims’. I took that with a grain of salt, because having already read The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf, I was already familiar with the Arab view of the Crusades.
I disagree with those reviewers. While the Crusaders were portrayed in a worse light than we are used to, the program wasn’t kind to the Muslims. First of all, every actor portraying a Muslim character was unattractive. Call me superficial, but I think a subtle thing like that makes a difference. What was weird was that I kept seeing actors who looked like attractive Arab men to me, but then it would turn out they were portraying Crusaders or Christians.
I’m sure most people who watched this program were surprised to hear of the cannibalism that occurred that at Ma’arra (معرة النعمان) an incident that was sandwiched between the wholesale slaughter of Antioch and the wholesale slaughter of Jerusalem. I was surprised myself when I read about, in fact, it didn’t even sink in until the second time I read it.
One of the crusader commanders wrote to Pope Urban II: “A terrible famine racked the army in Ma’arra, and placed it in the cruel necessity of feeding itself upon the bodies of the Saracens.”
Radulph of Caen, another chronicler, wrote: “In Ma’arra our troops boiled pagan adults in cooking-pots; they impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled.”
These events were also chronicled by Fulcher of Chartres, who wrote: “I shudder to tell that many of our people, harassed by the madness of excessive hunger, cut pieces from the buttocks of the Saracens already dead there, which they cooked, but when it was not yet roasted enough by the fire, they devoured it with savage mouth.”
Many authors suggest that the crusaders’ behaviour was not really born of their hunger but fanatical belief that the Muslims were even lower than the animals. Amin Maalouf in his book The Crusades Through Arab Eyes points out the most crucial line for such belief among the Muslims: “Not only did our troops not shrink from eating dead Turks and Saracens; they also ate dogs!” by Albert of Aix.
The portrayal of Saladin seemed like a bit of a hatchet job. They portrayed him as a hale and hearty man, when the Arab historians say he was frail, and they skip over everything that leads to his being thrust into leadership of Cairo after the former strongman is killed, because he (Saladin) is perceived as the weakest of the possible choices and therefore the least threat. Then they allude to how Saladin’s rivals and enemies kept fortuitously dying, as if Saladin as a young lad was the evil genius behind this. It was reminiscent of the famous Clinton death list (I don’t know if this is the most up-to-date version, but I know there’s already an Obama version circulating).
The Arabs realize that Saladin got a lot of lucky breaks. But when Frederick Barbarossa, King of Germany, the most powerful Christian king ever to embark on a Crusade and a huge threat to Saladin, drowned in a freak accident while fording a river, even the most ambitious spinmeister couldn’t find a way to pin it on Saladin.
Speaking of whether the program portrayed the Crusaders unfairly, I found it interesting that the scene of Saladin’s soldiers cutting off the heads of Templars and Hospitallers after the battle of Hattin and the scene of Richard I’s soldiers cutting off the heads of 2,000 hostage Muslim soldiers were almost identical.
On Monday, July 6, two days after the battle, the captured Templars and Hospitallers were given the opportunity to convert to Islam. According to Imad al-Din, only a few accepted, although those that did became devout Muslims.
The executions (one of only two executions of prisoners ordered by Saladin) were by beheading. In an act of solidarity, many of the captured crusaders wrongly claimed to be Templar knights, forcing Saladin’s men to behead them as well . Saint Nicasius, a Knight Hospitaller venerated as a Christian martyr, is said to have been one of the victims.
“Saladin ordered that they should be beheaded, choosing to have them dead rather than in prison. With him was a whole band of scholars and sufis and a certain number of devout men and ascetics, each begged to be allowed to kill one of them, and drew his sword and rolled back his sleeve. Saladin, his face joyful, was sitting on his dais, the unbelievers showed black despair” – Imad ed-Din, Saladin’s Secretary 
That was in 1187. In 1191 (from Wikipedia):
Richard had kept 2,700 Muslim prisoners as hostages against Saladin fulfilling all the terms of the surrender of the lands around Acre. Philip, before leaving, had entrusted his prisoners to Conrad, but Richard forced him to hand them over to him. Richard feared his forces being bottled up in Acre, as he believed his campaign could not advance with the prisoners in train. He therefore ordered all the prisoners executed.
The program never even mentioned Saladin’s famous benevolence in sparing conquered people, which led to his eventual downfall.
You wouldn’t want this documentary be the only thing you know about the Crusades, but it does a pretty good job. After all, the Crusades in the Holy Land lasted almost two hundred years, and this was a three-hour program.