Film Reviews

KINGDOM OF HEAVEN

By • May 6th, 2005 •

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A Scott Free production
MPAA rating: R / Running time — 144 minutes

Quote: A sanitized PC version of the bloody Crusades that celebrates a surrender. Saladin never mentions Allah. It’s not religion, but economy that drove 8 Crusades across two hundred years?

From Pope Leo IV (847-855) given to the Frankish Army: Forgiveness of Sins for Those Who Dies in Battle With the Heathen.

“Now we hope that none of you will be slain, but we wish you to know that the kingdom of heaven will be given as a reward to those who shall be killed in this war. For the Omnipotent knows that they lost their lives fighting for the truth of the faith, for the preservation of their country, aid the defense of Christians. And therefore God will give then, the reward which we have named.”*

I have only read one book on the Crusades: “A History of the Crusades, Volume 1: The First Crusade and the Foundations of the Kingdom of Jerusalem” by Steven Runciman. The first Crusade began in earnest in 1091; the last, under Louis IX, King of France (later St. Louis), began in 1270. However, crusader campaigns limped along until 1669.

KINGDOM OF HEAVEN takes place in France in 1184, placing it in the vicinity of the Third Crusade, conducted by Philip Augustus, King of France, and Richard Coeur-de-Lion. French blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom) has just lost his wife to suicide following the death of their infant son. She is now in Hell. Suddenly, a Crusader appears, Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson). He proclaims himself Balian’s father. He invites Balian to join him on the Crusade to recapture the Holy Land and to claim wealth and stature as Godfrey’s heir. Balian’s mom never mentioned a dalliance with a nobleman or his legitimate right to his father’s lands and title. Instead, she allowed him to eek out a peasant’s living as a blacksmith.

By the way, Godfrey lets Balian know his mother willingly gave herself to him without asking for even a tiny plot of land to grow a few vegetables. He never once looked into the life of his only son even though he always knew exactly where to find him. The bastard!

Once again, the father-son conflict is at the center of a Ridley Scott movie (BLADE RUNNER, GLADIATOR). Okay, I get it. Scott has unresolved Daddy issues.

Jerusalem (looking much like I found it in September 2004) is under the rule of a Christian king, Baldwin IV. Baldwin is a very interesting character: He is young but a victim of aggressive leprosy. He has to wear a fabulous silver mask and gloves. Baldwin has a shaky treaty with Saracen leader Saladin (Ghassan Massoud)allowing all three religions, Christians, Moslems and Jews to live and worship inside the holy city of Jerusalem.

Balian joins his father’s army after he hysterically kills his village priest. Now he needs redemption for himself and his dead wife. Joining the Crusade will wash away his wife’s suicide and his crime of murder.

Godfrey conveniently drops dead right after naming Balian his heir and anointing him a Knight. Godfrey’s aide-de-camp, Hospitaler (David Thewlis, who always seems to be chewing food as he speaks), gives him counsel and helps him navigate Godfrey’s vast land holdings. It is an impressive village without water!

Balian gains prestige digging a well and comes into contact with Baldwin’s young sister, Sibylla (Eva Green, who is mad that Scott cut her sex scenes with Bloom. And so am I!) is unhappily married to a sexy noble brute, Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), who anticipates becoming King when Baldwin dies. Lusignan allows Sibylla to visit Balian while he instructs nutty Reynald of Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson) to incite the Saracens to make war again.

Problem is, the Saracens have a tough, big army.

If only Balian had listened to Baldwin’s advisor Tiberias (Jeremy Irons) and agreed to the plot to kill Lusignan. Tiberias’s plan is for Balian to marry Sibylla and avoid a war. But Balian is a Knight with morals now! (Making a cuckold out of Lusignan isn’t listed in the Knight’s Code.) This misstep by Balian accounts for the death of many thousands and the embarrassing fall of Christianity in Jerusalem. This condition continues to this day. A Christian presence is barely visible in Jerusalem. As I have written in an earlier movie review, the Stations of the Cross along Via Dolorsa are barely visible under all that graffiti and garbage.

Scott knows how to direct a historical epic. GLADIATOR is one of my favorite films. It is blessed with wit, strong dialogue, emotional drama, and grand visuals. Russell Crowe knows how to deliver an emotionally riveting performance without compromise. KINGDOM OF HEAVEN echoes many of startling visuals of GLADIATOR; however, due to the fact that the Crusades was an ongoing, bloody religious war between Islam and Christianity for control of The Holy Land, here Scott and his screenwriter, William Monahan, cripple the religious intent of the vicious struggle. Revisionist history now says the Crusades were about currency, economy, and booty.

Are we to believe that this is also what drove the followers of Islam to fight for possession of The Holy Land? Wasn’t anyone thinking about the Hereafter and their souls?

The followers of Allah won Jerusalem and we wouldn’t want to be reminded of that fact since it is their religious ardor that is haunting us today.

The slant of KINGDOM OF HEAVEN is obvious and it continues to bother me. When Balian meets Saladin to surrender Jerusalem, Saladin doesn’t attribute his victory to Allah, as he should have, but to God.

If one dismisses the historical slant, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN is an architectural success. All the trappings are in place: a fascinating subject with big name recognition, a beautiful star, a strong supporting cast that really supports the star, and opulent visuals. It is amazing to see how siege and warfare was done way back in the Middle Ages. Scott knows how to film military mayhem in snow. He’s a master, but big budgets mean concessions.

The problem, of course, is the story. Islam won control of Jerusalem. So this is really the story of the losers since we know nothing about the victors, except their leader raised a very big army. And, Balian is treated as a hero for surrendering the city to Saladin! Huh?

Scott is such an expressive director that it saddens me that he allowed a whitewashed version to be made. KINGDOM OF HEAVEN is the sanitized account of an important crusade with no winners, no losers, and definitely no religion. Like Popes and Medieval Kings, I would have preferred soldiers died for religion than personal advancement.

* From Migne, Patrologia Latina, 115: 656-657, and 161:720, trans. Oliver J. Thatcher, and Edgar Holmes McNeal, eds., A Source Book for Medieval History, (New York: Scribners, 1905), 511-12.


Cast:
Balian: Orlando Bloom
Sibylla: Eva Green
Tiberias: Jeremy Irons
Hospitaler: David Thewlis
Reynald de Chatillon: Brendan Gleeson
Guy de Lusignan: Marton Csokas
Godfrey of Ibelin: Liam Neeson
Saladin: Ghassan Massoud

Credits:
Director/producer: Ridley Scott
Writer: William Monahan
Executive producers: Branko Lustig, Lisa Ellzey, Terry Needham
Director of photography: John Mathieson
Production designer: Arthur Max
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams
Costumes: Janty Yates
Editor: Dody Dorn

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