FILM REVIEW: “Kingdom of Heaven” (2005, 145 min.), directed by Ridley Scott

Pamela K. Taylor

Posted May 3, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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FILM REVIEW: “Kingdom of Heaven” (2005, 145 min.), directed by Ridley Scott

By Pamela K. Taylor

I went to see Kingdom of Heaven this week � after all, friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers were bound to ask me what I thought of it. I have to admit I was a little apprehensive, despite CAIR�s stamp of approval. After all, this is a movie about the Crusades, told from the point of view of a Crusader, albeit a reluctant one. And it�s made by Hollywood � that bastion of evil, violent, fanatical Arabs.

I’m glad to be able to say I was pleasantly surprised. Salahuddin, although rather severe in appearance was decent � he comported himself with dignity, honor, restraint, and compassion toward enemy and friend alike. His comrades at arms, such as the amiable Imad, were marked by chivalry, principles and a sense of humor. These were characters you could empathize with, if they weren�t exactly the heroes of the piece.

The hero of the piece, Balian, wasn�t exactly a typical hero either. He is a decidedly dark character � the movie opens with him murdering a priest in a fit of rage and despair over his wife�s suicide, the priest�s insistence that she is burning in hell, and his theft of her necklace. Fleeing a probable death sentence, Balian joins his father for a trek to Jerusalem to seek forgiveness for himself and his wife, and to take up his father�s position as a minor lord. Neither he nor his father have any interest in kicking Muslims out of the Holy Land � he because his faith has been shaken, jaded by too much death, and his father because he has lived with Muslims and found out they are just people too.

Various reviewers have suggested that Balian�s tolerance for people of other faiths smacks of modern cultural relativism. However, the rallying cry for Balian and his knights was not so much tolerance of all creeds, but rather safety for the innocents who happened to be caught in the path of a war they did not create and did not desire. As a simple blacksmith who has been swept up in the Crusade � and knighthood � mostly against his own will, Balian�s interest in protecting the townspeople, people who like himself were unwittingly caught up in the Crusade, seemed reasonable. His indifference to matters of doctrine is also credible given his struggles with his own faith, not to mention its clerics and their rulings. Coupled with the historical fact that many Crusaders settled in the Holy Land, living side by side with their Jewish and Muslim neighbors peacefully, and I found Balian�s tolerance to be quite believable.

The bad guys of the movie were in fact a Christian sect � the Templars, depicted as a particularly vehement, ruthless and unscrupulous group � and war itself. At times the gore � very reminiscent of director Ridley Scott�s earlier film, Gladiator � detracted from the plot line, at least for me. Clearly, aside from its commentary on the idiocy of provoking war over religion, Kingdom of Heaven, is designed to convey that war is hell incarnate. And it conveys that message almost too convincingly.

It was an odd experience watching this movie. Usually I relate to the heroes and want the bad guys to fail, just as the director intends. I expected to like Balian, and to be rooting for his cause, which I did. But at the same time, I related very strongly to the Muslim characters, who weren�t exactly good guys, while at the same time not really being bad guys either. Their invasion of Jerusalem was portrayed as justifiable and as a result of much deliberate provocation; their restraint in the face of brutal attacks and the murder of Salahuddin�s sister was admirable; but nonetheless the assumption was that they would rape and pillage the city once they conquered it, much as the Christians had done when they came into power. It was a strange, disorienting sensation, feeling stirrings of pride and connection to the invading army, against whom the hero was rallying the troops. I both hoped they took Jerusalem and dreaded that they would. It was like the good guys and bad guys were the same characters, and I was rooting for them both to succeed and to fail. Very bizarre indeed!

The only thing the movie really lacked was a soliloquy for Salahuddin. In the end, when it is clearly only a matter of time until the Muslim army overruns Jerusalem, Salahuddin offers a cessation of hostilities and safe passage to Christian lands for all the people in Jerusalem who wish it � a breathtakingly generous offer Balian cannot refuse, although he has come forth to declare he will not surrender the city, no matter what the terms. Ridley missed a golden opportunity when he neglected to balance Balian�s stirring speeches rallying the troops to defend Jerusalem and the simple townspeople with a similarly moving speech from Salahuddin. The audience is left to wonder if this offer is simply Salahuddin being canny � saving his men from further carnage � or if it is an act of compassion, of principle, of faith, a personal choice, or a reflection of Islam. I ached for him to proclaim in ringing tones, �Our faith teaches us not to harm the innocent. We have avenged our caravans, repaid those who attacked us unjustly, who cast us out of our homes and our holy places without cause. Take your women, your children, your merchants and fisherman. Go if you will, to Christian lands, or stay if you will as neighbors living in peace. La kum deenukum wa liya deen � to you your ways, and to me mine. Let that be the rule in Jerusalem, as it is written in the Holiest of books, the Noble Qur�an.�

Scott has been quoted as saying that the 145 minute theater cut is not the �real� movie, the 200+ director�s cut, which will be released on DVD is. I hope that Salahuddin gets his soliloquy in that version, even though that might be too much to ask for in a Hollywood movie, as fitting as it would be.

Other than shortchanging Salahuddin, some excessive gore, and a vapid, Disneyesque romance that seemed to serve no greater purpose than to give Balian a fair maid with whom he could ride off into the sunset, Kingdom of Heaven was a pretty decent movie. There are a few annoying bits � like the prayers of the local Muslims in Balian�s fiefdom, where rather than standing shoulder to shoulder, they spread out across a field. Given that the adhan has just been called, people in the know can presume they are praying sunnah, preparatory to praying Magrib in jamaat. But most moviegoers will only be confused by this departure from the stock footage of men praying shoulder to shoulder that had become synonymous with salat on television. One wonders why Scott chose to do it this way � perhaps to show that he, unlike many other directors, actually took the time to visit a mosque and see how people actually pray?

Whatever its faults may be, coming at a time when conflict and tension between religions � and within religions, between groups advocating different interpretations � is at an all time high, Kingdom of Heaven delivers a much needed and much appreciated message of peace, tolerance, and a return to getting on with life, packaged in a very surprising vehicle - a movie about the Crusades.

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