Kingdom of Heaven, Ridley Scott’s ambitious Crusade-era epic, idealizes the 12th-century Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem as a nexus of uneasy but briefly successful coexistence of Christians, Muslims and Jews in the Holy Land. The Kingdom of Jerusalem, Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) explains to Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom), is meant to be “a better world than has ever been seen… a kingdom of conscience, peace instead of war, love instead of hate. That is what lies at the end of crusade.”
It is over half a millennium since Muslim dominance first came to Jerusalem in 638 when the army of Caliph Omar conquered the Holy City, ending Christian control of Jerusalem for the next four and a half centuries.
Throughout most of this era of Muslim control, Byzantine Christians and Western pilgrims had access to their holy sites in the city and throughout the Holy Land. Then in 1070, a new Muslim faction, the Seljuk Turks, seized control of Jerusalem, threatening the Christian presence throughout the Middle East and even into Europe.
In 1095, European Christians, long preoccupied with internal conflicts, finally struck back, mounting the first Crusade against Muslim occupation in the Holy Land with the blessing of Pope Urban II. A decentralized campaign comprising regular armies and knights as well as peasant hordes, the Crusaders succeeded in capturing Jerusalem in 1099, but proceeded to slaughter all the city’s Muslim inhabitants, including women, children, and the elderly.
The First Crusade established the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem, which lasted until 1187, when the Muslim leader Saladin captured the city. Christian forces had already been decimated at the Battle of Hattin, but Jerusalem’s Christian population remained well defended under the leadership of Balian of Ibelin.
Balian held Saladin’s forces at bay, ultimately threatening to destroy the entire city — and, in a detail the film omits, kill all the Muslims in the city — rather than let the Christian population fall into Saladin’s hands. Ultimately, Balian negotiated the city’s surrender in exchange for a promise of mercy that the Crusaders had not shown the Muslims a century earlier.
Subsequent crusades to reestablish Christian control in the Middle East failed and led to many unhappy consequences, perhaps the darkest of which was the sack of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade.
In this highly fictionalized retelling, Balian is the illegitimate peasant son of the fictional Godfrey, working as a blacksmith until tragedy, heartbreak, and eventually guilt impel him to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the hope of atoning for his sins and those of his late wife, a suicide.
From his father Balian learns a code of conduct for a knight to live and die by: “Be brave and upright that God may love thee; speak the truth always, even if it leads to your death; safeguard the helpless and do no wrong. That is your oath.” Then Godfrey gives him a slap, like the symbolic blow to the cheek bishops used to give recipients of confirmation: “That’s so you remember it.”
Balian struggles with loss of faith, fearing that he has fallen from grace and is beyond redemption. He’s finds comfort, though, by the counsel of a priest of the order of Hospitalers (David Thewlis), who tells him, “Holiness is in right action… what God desires is here” (touching Balian’s forehead) “and here” (touching his heart).
These are high ideals, though the reality is messier. The Kingdom is ruled in its final years by Baldwin IV, the Leper King (Edward Norton in a startling mask), a moderate who wishes to maintain peace with Saladin (Ghassan Massoud). The peace is threatened, however, by “fanatics of every denomination [sic],” i.e., Christian and Muslim. (What about Jews? They’re irrelevant here.)
On the Christian side, these fanatics are primarily the Knights Templars, who treacherously instigate for open war with Saladin, waylaying Muslim pilgrims on the road, confident that God will give them victory over the infidels.
The Templars aren’t the only rotten monastic or clerical characters in the story. The Patriarch of Jerusalem is thoroughly contemptible, and a minor character in the prologue whose odious behavior leads to tragic consequences is also a priest. On the other hand, the negative depiction of the Patriarch of Jerusalem appears to have some historical basis, and Thewlis’s Hospitaler provides a positive priestly counterpoint to the corrupt clerics. Beyond the clerics, there are also other good Christian characters, especially Jeremy Iron’s noble knight Tiberias, who supports Baldwin’s peace against Templar war-mongering.
There’s also Balian himself, who refuses to murder a haughty rival even to potentially save the kingdom and get the girl (Eva Green), who is inconveniently married to the rival. This, he says, would be to sell his soul; and he’s unmoved by the girl’s objection, “The day will come when you will wish you had done a little evil to do a great good.” (On the other hand, he does commit adultery with her at least once.)
Despite mention of “fanatics” on both sides, Scott devotes far less time to developing the Muslim side of things. Saladin himself is essentially the only Muslim who emerges as a real character. There are no depictions of Muslim clerics, good or bad. One very minor Muslim character briefly exemplifies Zealot-like impatience to reclaim Jerusalem; but we see no Muslim equivalent to the mustache-twirling villainy of the Templars or the hypocrisy of the Jerusalem Patriarch. Apparently Saladin is more successful at restraining fanatical Muslim elements than Baldwin is fanatical Christian elements.
The story, in fact, could largely be described as the failure of moderate Christians to restrain fanatical Christians from oppressing innocent Muslims, thereby provoking justifiable Muslim retaliation against the Christians, both fanatics and otherwise. Yet Saladin himself is not an uncomplicated noble figure. As he prepares to lay siege to Jerusalem, he explicitly rejects the possibility of showing mercy, relenting only when Balian fights him to a standstill.
Still, the film cross-examines the Christians in a way it doesn’t the Muslims. “At first I thought we were fighting for God,” says Tiberias, “but then I realized we were fighting for wealth and land.” Oh. What are the Muslims fighting for? What were they fighting for when they captured Jerusalem in the first place?
More than once we see Muslims engaged in daily public prayers, but we never see Christians similarly engaged. Prayer for the Christian characters is only a solitary struggle with the sense of God’s absence.
Despite these contrasts, Kingdom of Heaven makes an uneven effort to bring a measure of even-handedness to the religious divide. The film’s perspective, though, is ultimately more secular than religious. Even the Hospitaler, the most positive religious character, is more a spokesman for conscience than for faith per se. Kingdom of Heaven isn’t anti-God or even necessarily anti-faith, but there’s an element of anti-religious sentiment at work here. “Thank you, your Eminence, you’ve taught me so much about religion,” Balian sneers after the Jerusalem Patriarch has alternately suggested abandoning the Christian populace of Jerualem to slaughter or converting to Islam and repenting later as a means of saving their necks.
In a historical epic genre that lately has been fueled substantially by revenge (Scott’s own Gladiator; Troy; Braveheart) or even less (King Arthur; Alexander), Kingdom of Heaven aspires to be about something more: conscience, right action, and above all peaceful coexistence. Its hero, Balian, is more engaging than, say, Gladiator’s Maximus, who neither grows nor changes throughout the course of the film. Of course Gladiator had Russell Crowe, and Bloom’s not in his league, but he grows nicely into the role, and his character arc is more interesting. The rest of the cast — Norton, Irons, Massoud, Green, Neeson — is excellent.
Unfortunately, first-time screenwriter William Monohan bogs down the obligatory love story in overwrought dialogue. “I’m not here because I’m bored or wicked,” Sibylla (Green) confesses as she comes to seduce Balian. “I’m here because here in the east, between one person and another, there is only light.” Before Balian can wonder what precisely that’s supposed to mean, she blows out the candle she’s holding. Whoops, nothing between them now. Afterwards, she wonders, “What will become of us?” Balian’s profound reply: “The world will decide. The world always decides.”
Epic siege sequences have become so numerous lately (The Two Towers; The Return of the King; Troy; King Arthur) that I thought I had seen it all, but Scott has some new tricks up his sleeve, and the siege of Jerusalem is more dramatic than it has any right to at this point. On the other hand, some of the violence, especially a combat scene set in France, is needlessly brutal and explicit.
The climactic battle sequence, though, ends with a striking image: an overhead “God shot” of Christian and Muslim warriors pressing on either side of a breach in the wall, anonymous, indistinguishable, ineffectual. Kingdom of Heaven doesn’t take sides or fault one over the other in the struggle over Jerusalem, but it ultimately leans toward the agnostic conclusion that the world might be better off if there were no temple wall, no mosque, no sepulchre for Christians, Jews, and Muslims to fight over. Alas, the sad history of religious strife in, over and around the Holy Land makes it difficult to fault the filmmakers for finding this a tempting point of view.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.