So there were a
lot of explosions for the 1100's - you've got to admire the sheer chutzpah of
Ridley Scott for giving Saladin's armies industrial strength fire power.
But there were some historical inaccuracies that I was less comfortable with
frankly - and some I thought were quite misguided, but any hoo you'll see why, let's go back a
Kingdom of Heaven is Orlando Bloom's first big budget film where he plays the
leading role. As a film it all rests on his ability to convince us that he is a
God fearing, newly promoted knight in the Holyland capable of holding his own
against the strongest and the toughest and able to valiantly lead armies to
heroic defeat, twice.
Hmmm. Leaving aside the fact that I reckon my Mum punches
harder than Orlando Bloom I couldn't help but feel a little wary of how
Hollywood might decide to take on the Crusades in the current climate. Well, on
that score I was pleasantly surprised. Kingdom of Heaven is a liberal anti-war
propaganda film. It takes on hereditary peerages (easy target?), bigotry, Islamophobia, the greed of the rich and the dishonour of the war mongers. It
even takes on the hypocrisy of organised religion. Nice one. A for the intentions of the film
So why the grumpy start to the review? Well, I'll tell you.
Partly it's simply because as a story its clunky. Full of flawed explanations and
character sketches. Every time it makes a worthy stab at making a progressive
point it either does it in a heavy handed way or a way completely unsuitable to
the setting of the Middle East in the twelfth century. I'm genuinely not a
stickler for historical accuracy, stories have their own logic that should take
priority over anything inconvenient like facts, but an important part of story telling is
Balian (Orlando Bloom) is a tragic hero, whose wife commits suicide and feels
deserted by God. One of the bravest themes to this film is the discussion of the
Grace of God and redemption - in the religious rather than filmic sense. This is a
strong theme but completely undermined by the pointlessly tacked on (as always)
love story. Orlando has all this 'inner conflict' and 'searching for
redemption' due to his strong moral convictions - does it then make sense
for him to shag someone else's wife because he fancies her? Whilst the moronic
Hollywood formula might insist on a certain number of seconds of leading actor's
bum the character he played would have thought he was going to hell for even
thinking about this - let alone do it and feel just dandy.
leads me onto a second, even more grumpy point. The object of his affections
(Eva Green) was 'based' upon a woman who, in real life, became Queen of
Jerusalem. The real life character was an energetic political player, talented,
wicked and loyal to her husband (as it happens), Guy de Lusignan, who she manoeuvred into powerful
political positions against the wishes of many at court. To downplay this strong
historical politician into an eyelash batting love interest and deny her any
real agency of her own beyond what the men in the film choose for her is,
frankly, sexist in the extreme and a real missed opportunity. Sorry to bring
that up. She is very pretty though, in a conventional sort of way.
Slightly more positively, the portrayal of Muslims as people with honour does
not, as some reviewers have suggested, imply that Muslims were saints - there
are plenty of faults on view too but it does redress the balance. Most
portrayals of Islam over this period have been of a people bordering on
savagery. The facts are that, at this time, Middle Eastern society was more
cultivated and had a more robust code of ethics than the European robber barons
and that they might have had some legitimate grievance when they objected to
their lands being invaded by a bunch of racist psychopaths and subjected to robbery, murder and pillage.
These are simple
facts and not an attempt to paint Muslims as anything other than human beings
who wanted to live their lives, shock. In this I think the film is both very
welcome, timely and accurate - whilst some have suggested that Saladin was not evil
enough in the film I'm really puzzled by this criticism. Saladin is played,
correctly, as an
intelligent and urbane dictator. Likable but cruel. Ruthless in war, but cunning
rather than blood thirsty for the sake of it.
Some of the Europeans at the time cannot be described in this way. The Pope had
given Crusaders carte blanche to commit whatever sin they choose and fear no
reprisals from God for them, as they were doing God's work, and many seized the
opportunity with both hands
Saladin personally beheads a prisoner in the film (the incident is factually
accurate of course) which does rather imply that those who are complaining that
Saladin is portrayed as a crochet loving old lady who helps with meals on wheels
is rather erroneous. Just because he doesn't feast on the still warm corpse does
not mean he is portrayed as a saint. There was a real, internal, conflict taking
place in the camp of the Crusaders and Saladin used that civil unrest to his
best advantage to destroy the Crusaders' army at Hittin and then take Jerusalem where
Balian did indeed lead
the defence of the city and negotiate safe passage to the survivors (in stark
contrast to when the Crusaders first took Jerusalem when they massacred everyone
they could find - oh stop bashing the Crusaders Jim!).
But I want to come on to the real problem area, and it's connected to this brave
attempt to portray a genuinely devout person. Balian (Bloom) is the only person
anxious about the Grace of God and the fact that he does not
feel it. In fact he is consumed with self doubt which drives him to be the best
God fearing Knight he can be. This person who is uncertain in their faith is the
only person who is also actively attempting to be good - those with the certainties of the
are the least God fearing bunch.
I like that, what I'm less easy with is the way
in which Balian expresses his faith. Four hundred
years before Spinoza he has a confirmed and vigorous enlightenment view of a
personal relationship with God, unmediated by the Catholic Church (the Church
that told him that invading the Holyland was a Good, with a capital G, thing to
do). Five hundred years before the Levellers he comes within a cat's whisker of
telling a churchman that the land is held in common for everyone to share and
that the social positions of the rulers and ruled are illegitimate because they
are 'unearned'. Hey, I like the ideas, course, but I'm finding it hard to
believe in a medieval knight holding these views - or least having held them for more
than five minutes before he was sentenced to death for heresy.
For a real taste of the ideology of the times read
this fascinating contemporary monk's account of the Crusades by Ralph of Coggeshall.
Some of the religious metaphors were verging on bonkers though. Attempting to
show the Knight Balian as a humble blacksmith (with more than a few hints at the
parallels between Balian the blacksmith and Jesus the carpenter) was just
irritating and unnecessary, particularly as this is the second time Bloom has
been cast as a blacksmith (Pirates of the Caribbean being the other occasion)
and Bloom could not look less like a brawny blacksmith, who spends their days
bashing red hot iron into shape, if he tried.
In fact every 'goody' is someone with modern liberal values, and every 'baddy'
is one who scorns these values for something closer to naked bigotry and greed.
I'm not saying that bigotry etc. did not exist - but I do find it a little
tiresome that every 'bad man' must be all bad and every good one must be all
good. So it's not enough that Guy de Lusignan be in favour of war with Saladin,
he has to hate his wife with a vengeance and pick meaningless quarrels with all
and sundry. He's even grumpier than me! At least Ed Norton had leprosy so the pretty = good, deformed = bad
equation we get so often (particularly in Bond films curiously) was not present
this time (Bloom excepted).
But it was this attempt to foist modern values on feudal times that leads to a
total misrepresentation of why the hawks were hawks and the doves doves.
Question; where does religious understanding and tolerance come from?
film shows a new comer to the Holyland bringing with him a new insight and
distance to the
conflict but in fact the reality was that it was those who were born and brought
up in the Middle East, like the soft spoken King with leprosy and the real Balian, who had
developed an understanding of their Muslim brothers and sisters and were
prepared not just to coexist but had adopted many of their customs and cultural
habits. These were the doves - and the hawks, like the real
life Guy, had come from Europe in search of loot and glory and had no such
openness to ideas other than their own. By reversing the roles (Balian becoming
the new comer and Guy the old hand) Ridley Scott is saying that greed, violence
and bigotry were simple moral choices and born of a cycle of war, when the
reality was that the closer the enemies were socially and culturally the more
the bigotry and casual violence was undermined. It is understanding that opens
the door to peace and not simply good leaders making moral choices.
The lesson the film tries to teach us is that violence corrupts and it takes a
good man, walking a lonely path, to fight for good. I'm not knocking the
sentiment but it's moralistic bollocks. The lesson of the period is that peace,
love and understanding (gag) can only come through talking to each other,
learning from each other and living side by side - the hatred and bigotry of the
times were a product of war propaganda, the forcible seizure of wealth on behalf
of a small minority of rich Westerners and being able to see the 'enemy' as
alien and inhuman. Those who understood Muslims were far more resistant to their
demonisation. Now that is a radical message for the neo-cons to put in
their pipes and smoke.
There aren't many films about the Crusades so let's have more, and for all the
faults of the film I recommend seeing it - once it comes out on TV. It's just
such a shame that the truly radical anti-war message of the period was passed
over in favour of the usual formula. Explosions plus tacked on love interest
plus big name star equals any old film.