Kingdom of Heaven: Bashing a Film for the Wrong Reasons

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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I wasn't planning to write anything about Kingdom of Heaven. It's not a movie about science, and what little scientific content there might be is acceptable. It's not close enough to my experiences in the Middle East for my military background to be really pertinent. But the focus of these pages is bad or misapplied logic, and the commentaries on the film are loaded with that. So here's a film review driven, not by the movie itself, but what people are saying about it.

I found the movie flat and somewhat unsatisfying, for reasons I'm still trying to define. The acting is good, the special effects are good, but it was still flat.

The Plot

The film opens in 1184 in France with a woman being buried on the roadside without rites, because she was a suicide. We discover that she was the wife of the village blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom) and committed suicide out of grief because their child died. The knight Godfrey (Liam Neeson) rides up to Balian's shop, confesses that Balian is his illegitimate son, and offers Balian a chance to go to Jerusalem with him. Balian declines.

Soon Balian has a change of heart. The vile village priest taunts Balian over his wife's suicide, and Balian kills him. He decides that maybe crusading might be an option after all. He rejoins Godfrey and confesses he's on the run for murder. When the sheriff shows up, Godfrey declines to turn Balian over. In the ensuing fight, many of Godfrey's knights are killed and Godfrey himself is badly wounded. Nevertheless Godfrey hangs on long enough to make it to Messina, the embarkation point for the Holy Land. There he knights Balian, declares him his successor as Baron of Ibelin, and dies. This seems to be Liam Neeson's role in movies lately; set a moral standard, then die.

The knightly oath Balian swears is truly noble, and Balian's fidelity to it is the film's strongest point. But Balian, who had probably never been more than a few miles from home in his whole life, is seeing things he never dreamed of, like the sea or Muslims at prayer, and the film betrays not a hint of a sense of wonder. Also, the film is studded with appealing minor characters who don't even have names, and who often appear and disappear quickly. Godfrey's squire is a tough but cheerful young man who seems like he could become a real friend and help to Balian, but he dies before they even get to the Holy Land.

Balian's ship is wrecked in a storm and he finds himself washed ashore, the only survivor (the squire is among the dead). He finds a horse surviving in the wreckage and heads inland, but is soon challenged by two Arabs. He defeats one and spares the other, demanding only that the Arab guide him to Jerusalem. This might be a tall order if the ship had wrecked in, oh, Libya. I really wondered where Balian got his skills with a sword. Even granted he was a blacksmith and might be familiar with swords, and got training on the way down to Messina, he'd still not be a match for someone with years of combat experience. Upon reaching Jerusalem, the Arab says that he is rightfully Balian's slave, but Balian frees him and even gives him the horse.

Balian has no money and no ID, and not much training in courtly ways, so how he's going to convince anyone he's a baron was a puzzle. Fortunately, one of Godfrey's knights spots him with Godfrey's sword, and Balian establishes himself by correctly answering a trick question. Balian is introduced around to the key heroes and villains. On the villain side, we have Guy de Lusignan, who is scheming to become king, the Templar Master (even this key villain doesn't have a name) and the haughty but cowardly bishop. On the hero side, we have Tiberias (Jeremy Irons) and the King (Edward Norton). These two steal the show. Tiberias is a tough but likeable veteran who has somehow maintained courage and integrity in a cesspool of corruption, and the King is a saintly young man dying of leprosy who nevertheless faces his duties and impending death with nobility. Then there's Sybilla (Eva Green) the sister of the king and wife of the smarmy Guy de Lusignan.

Bailan takes over his fief at Ibelin, which he discovers is a hardscrabble village. He quickly realizes he has land but no water. Makes you wonder how anyone lived there. So he orders the digging of a well, and the diggers hit water about ten feet down. Really makes you wonder why nobody thought of that before. Sybilla drops by for a one-night stand, which is shown in perfunctory fashion. Apparently Balian is over his grief for his dead wife by now. The film's R rating is not for sex or nudity but for gobs and gobs of splatter in the battle scenes.

Guy and the Templars are doing everything they can to provoke a war, and finally manage. Balian and his crew are called to Kerak Castle, the fief of Guy, where the Saracens will strike first. Balian declares he will hold off the Saracens until the King can arrive, and charges headlong into an overwhelming force. Amazingly, most of the knights survive and are taken prisoner. Balian discovers that the Arab he spared is actually high in the ranks of the Saracen army. The king arrives, claps the Templar leader in irons, and temporarily mollifies the Saracen leader Salahuddin. Salahuddin is played with weary dignity by Ghassan Massoud, a Syrian actor who gives Salahuddin the air of an aged warrior who has seen too much killing.

But the rigors of the trip have sapped the King's strength. On his deathbed, he offers Balian command of the army and the hand of Sybilla, offering to have the slimy Guy executed for his well-known crimes. Balian declines, causing both Sybilla and Tiberias to upbraid him for trying to be the perfect knight. You have to wonder if there weren't a hundred nobles in Jerusalem better qualified than this rank newcomer. Why not Tiberias, who would do the sensible thing in a heartbeat? The king dies, Guy ascends the throne, releases the Templar, who promptly sets about provoking a war in earnest by massacring a caravan with Salahuddin's sister.

Before the Saracens can strike, Guy masses his army to take them on. Balian warns that Salahuddin wants him to do just that and that he cannot hope to travel without water. Predictably, the army is slaughtered. The Templar Master's head ends up on a stake and Guy is captured.

The Saracens mass before Jerusalem, with Balian organizing the defense. Salahuddin muses to his aide that perhaps it would have been better if he had killed Balian, to which the aide replies "perhaps I might have, if I'd had a different teacher." The inevitable happens. The Saracens breach the wall, Balian secures an offer of safe conduct, and the Christians lose Jerusalem. Balian returns home (apparently all that stuff about killing the priest being forgotten) and declines an offer to go on Crusade to recover Jerusalem. Then Sybilla shows up and she and Balian go riding off.

The Arabic

The Arabic greeting "as-salaamu aleykum" is pronounced differently in the film than I learned it, a difference I wrote off to regional dialect differences. However, Arabic-speaking viewers have pointed out that it is actually incorrect. Since it's the only Arabic Bloom speaks in the film, it would seem he could have gotten it right.

More problematic is a scene where Salahuddin recites a prayer over his dead soldiers. Arabic-speaking viewers have pointed out that the prayer is abridged from the Koran, and since the Koran has been preserved absolutely without change over the centuries, abridging a section of it could be offensive. Would it have broken the bank to include an intact passage?

The History

The following are documented facts about the Crusades:

The Critics

"Osama bin Ladin's Take on History"

One critic described the film in those terms even before it was made. Reviewing movies before they come out is so efficient, and cheaper, too, what with the cost of tickets and popcorn.

With due allowance for creation of fictional characters, simplification of complex events, and the need to recreate lost dialog, the overall history of the film is not bad. Certainly there are a lot of far worse historical films.

For a chronicle of military and political ineptitude, coupled with sheer hubris, the Crusades have no comparison in history. The Crusaders had victory in their grasp four times. They won the First Crusade in battle, had a trade almost in hand in the Fifth and Seventh Crusades, and negotiated a victory in the Sixth Crusade, and in the end they still managed to lose it all. Where else can we find a war that was won four times and still finally lost?

The Fifth through Seventh Crusades illustrate the Crusader mentality to perfection.

It is historical fact that the Crusaders massacred Jerusalem in 1098 and Salahuddin did not in 1187. It is historical fact that cruel and treacherous Christians provoked the Saracens to war and then marched their army to annihilation in the desert in 1187.

Christians Portrayed as Villains

In this case, the key Christian figures were villains. Deal with it.

1 Peter 2: 20: But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it?

The Religious Issues Are Blurred

Some critics have pointed out that the only noble figures on the Christian side are effectively agnostics, people who have lost all their confidence in religion, and who soldier on because they feel an obligation to their knightly oaths or the people who depend on them for protection. There's little discernible difference between Tiberias and Balian versus Salahuddin as far as professed beliefs are concerned.

It might indeed be fascinating to try to produce a film that tries to reproduce the religious issues as they were seen at the time. Such a film would plunge most 21st century Americans into an utterly alien setting. It would be a world in which one side sees it as literal fact that Christ conveyed the definitive message from God, was crucified and rose from the dead, and the other sees it as literal fact that Mohammed conveyed the definitive message from God and Christ was merely a great prophet. These facts would be as real to the participants as World War II or atoms are to us. The other side would be guilty of purveying false ideas, every bit as real a crime to them as quack medicine or junk-bond fraud is to us. Regardless of how realistically and even-handedly the actors play out the issues, American audiences are likely to see the whole thing as completely foreign, thinking "how could people behave like that?" People who already see their religion in concrete terms would cheer and wonder why nobody else got it.

To see the difficulties, consider the 1983 film The Prodigal, bankrolled by a number of evangelical ministries. The first three quarters of the film are not bad, in fact, far above average for religious message films. One character is a tennis pro who becomes a boy toy for a spoiled rich girl; another is a Christian who, instead of being a one dimensional plaster saint, is active in a tenants rights group and as a result is roughed up by a slumlord's goons. The character definition, dialog and production values are remarkably good.

And then the Billy Graham crusade that forms a backdrop to the film finally comes to town and the film degenerates into a nonstop string of platitudes. Think of it. People who have spent a lot of money and time creating believable characters and pretty decent production values finally get to sell their message and they can't think of any other way to express it than with cliches. Over and over the actors repeat the mantra "accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior" (a phrase, by the way, which is not in the Bible) without once attempting to describe or act out its concrete meaning in daily life. It's as if they feel that constant repetition will make the meaning clear, just the way some people believe that speaking English louder makes it more comprehensible.

When a film does try to use authentic dialogue that people really immersed in a belief system might use, the results often come across as stilted or artificial. The reason The Prodigal fizzles like a leaky balloon is that it resorts to dialogue that makes sense to people who are already evangelical Christians, and to nobody else. Ted Turner's wonderful Gettysburg is so excruciatingly faithful to period manners and dialog it is sometimes unintentionally corny. The authentic Soviet dialogue of Enemy at the Gates is entirely true to form; it's how people in Stalinist Russia actually expressed political ideas, but it strikes a lot of people who are not familiar with Soviet history as hokey. A film that actually tried to portray the religious intrigues of the Middle Ages in authentic dialogue would come across as, well, Byzantine. After half an hour of arguing over whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son or from the Father through the Son (and this was a real hot-button issue for a long time) the average movie goer would wonder when the explosions and helicopter chases were going to start.

Whose Imperialism?

Islamic activists have used the Crusades as symbolic of Western Imperialism. When Spanish soldiers in Iraq wore the Cross of Santiago on their uniforms, commentators cited it as a horribly insensitive reminder of Western Imperialism. Tradition places the grave of St. James (Santiago) at Compostela in northwestern Spain, and when his symbol was carried into battle in a victory over the Arabs, he came to be called Santiago Matamoros (killer of the Moors).

We can debate the extent of Arab settlement in Palestine and Mesopotamia before the Arab invasions of the seventh century, although it is certain that none of these areas were ruled by Arabs before then. But in Spain the issue is crystal clear. The Arabs never lived in Spain before 700 A.D. So the Cross of Santiago is not a symbol of Western Imperialism; it is a symbol of the West resisting Arab imperialism. Similarly, from the perspective of medieval Europeans, the Crusades were not imperialism, they were part of an effort to roll back Arab imperialism and return the Levant to Christian control, a process that had already recovered Sicily and half of Spain.

How long do people have to occupy a region before we agree they're the rightful occupants? I think we can all agree that whatever North Africa was in 600 A.D., those cultures have been assimilated and the people who live there now are the rightful inhabitants. Whatever wrongs befell those lands during the conquest, the present inhabitants had no part in them. The problem gets thornier when we get to rival groups that have long-standing claims to the same plot of land. The Spanish may have had every right to reconquer Spain; the Arabs may have had no right to invade it in the first place, but when Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the remaining Muslims in 1492, they included Arabs whose families had lived in Spain for 700 years, and who knew no other home than Spain. Put another way, the time between the Arab invasion of Spain and their final expulsion is over 200 years longer than the time from 1492 to us. On the other hand, if we set a time limit after which occupation becomes legitimate, we give a free pass to imperialism; if you can hold a piece of land long enough, it becomes yours.

A really provocative question, not addressed by any historian I know of, is this. How much of the imperialism that was so prevalent in European history since 1500 is grounded in the fact that Europe was itself a target of imperialism for much of its history? First we have the heroic defense of the Greeks against Persian invasion. Then we have the imperialism of Rome and the Germanic invaders. Then Arab imperialism overwhelmed the Greek-speaking Levant, the Romanized coast of North Africa and advanced into Spain. The Vikings and Magyars harassed Europe from the north and east. Turkish invasion of Byzantine Anatolia was a root cause of the Crusades, and the Mongol invasion of 1241-2 narrowly avoided exterminating Europe altogether. Finally, even as Europeans were planting empires of their own, the Turks were advancing in the Balkans. Is it entirely inexplicable that Europeans, once they got the upper hand, would assume that imperialism was natural and become imperialists themselves?


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Created 16 May, 2005,  Last Update 02 June, 2010

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