Film review: Kingdom of Heaven

The Times Literary Supplement, No. 5330, UK
May 27 2005

It’s God Guignol by Robert Irwin

Kingdom of Heaven is set in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the years
immediately preceding the recapture of Jerusalem from the Crusaders in
1187 by Saladin’s Muslim army.

Earlier attempts to make films out of the story of the Crusades have
been dire. Virginia Mayo, playing Berengaria in King Richard and the
Crusaders (1954), caught the essence of that film with the words “War!
War! That’s all you think about, Dick Plantagenet!” As for Richard
the Lionheart’s appearance in the Egyptian film-maker Youssef
Chahine’s Saladin (1963), Time Out’s film critic described Richard as
a “red-wigged mongoloid given to [uttering] lines like ‘We can take
Acre by lunchtime!'” The film as a whole was enough to “boil your
brains”.

Kindom of Heaven is in many respects a much better film than its
precursors. Its visual mix of the chivalric and heraldic with the
Oriental and exotic has proved o be a gift to the designers of sets
and costumes, as well as to the cameramen. It is as if a continuous
diorama of Orientalist canvases by Jean-Leon Gerome were being
unscrolled. Tableaux featuring rich tapestries, ornate stucco, golden
ewers and the leper King of Jerusalem in silk robes and a chased
silver mask alternate with desert landscapes of dust, flies, corpses
and carrion.

Everything appears as if painted with the bright colors of the
world when it was younger. Though the Alhambresque decor of the King’s
palace in Jerusalem certainly owes more to fourteenth-century Granada
than it does to twelfth-century Syria, it is nevertheless successful
in suggesting the mixture of the exotic and the feudal in the Kingdom
at its height. Sir Steven Runciman evoked that life of mingled danger
and opulence, in his History of the Crusades: “Revellers like the
wedding guests at Kerak in 1183 might rise from the table to hear the
mangonels of the infidel pounding against the castle walls. The gay
gallant trappings of life in Outremer hung thinly over anxiety,
uncertainty and fear”.

Ridley Scott, previously the director of Alien and Gladiator, is
successful in reproducing the fearful and violent tenor of the times.
He is a specialist in the direction of scenes of bloody and
fast-moving action. Indeed, his reliance on scenes of surprise
violence, swift dagger blows and unpremediated decapitations is such a
mannerism that, rather than being shocked by them, one waits
impatiently for them to be over. It is a Grand Guignol version of the
war between Christians and Muslims.

The real history of the kingdom in the 1180s makes a good story,
rich in telling incidents and images, as I noted in an essay on the
historiography of the Crusades: “the youthful Saladin playing polo,
the playmates of the young leper prince Baldwin sticking pins in his
arm, the shocking promotion of handsome but foolish Guy de Lusignan to
rule as king-consort in Jerusalem, the swashbuckling pirate raids of
Reginald de Chatillon in the Red Sea…the ill-fated encounter of the
military orders at the Springs of Cresson…the waterless slog of the
Christian army towards their doom at Hattin, Guy’s drink of sherbet
and Saladin’s beheading of Reginald of Chatillon”.

Why then should anyone wish to ditch such a splendid story and
substitute a fiction based on narrative cliches that seem designed to
pander to adolescent dreams of wish fulfilment? Balian in the film
(but not in history) starts out as a blacksmith in France, but he is
also the illegitimate son of the Crusader lord of Ibelin. The
narrative tactic of making the Crusader lord of Ibelin start out as an
outsider provides a pretext for Eastern affairs to be explained to him
and the audience. It may also appeal to the democratic sympathies of
American audiences, as hard work and gritty courage, rather than noble
birth and wealth, will make the fictional Balian a leader of men in
the Kingdom. The ensuing plot owes a little to Walter Scott’s Talisman
(specifically the encounter with an unrecognized Saladin in the
desert), but perhaps more to G.A. Henty’s historical yarning. As in
so many of Henty’s juvenile historical romances, an untried youth sets
out for exotic parts, becomes truly a man, wins the approbation of his
seniors and ultimately the hand of a fair lady. The villains that
Balian is up against are very villainous indeed. One wonders what
possible sort of fun they get out of being so very evil and so
brainless. Kingdom of Heaven seems to be telling us that medieval
people were just like us, only much stupider. One person who would
certainly have enjoyed this film, if only he were alive, is William,
Archbishop of Tyre. William died in 1184, but he would have been
delighted to see the polemical and malicious portraits of Guy de
Lusignan, Reginald of Chatillon and the Patriarch Heraclius that he
presented in his History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea being given
renewed currency in a film in the twenty-first century. The
historical Guy de Lusignan, confronted with Saladin’s invasion of
Palestine in 1187, faced far more difficult and dangerous choices than
either Guy or Balian in the film

Balian, as played by Orlando Bloom, is earnest and quiveringly
alert (in a way which brings to mind his role as the elf Legolas in
the film version of The Lord of the Rings. He is unfailingly pious,
though not in any really medieval way, as there is a great deal of
stuff about the desirability of a multi-faith Jerusalem and about the
real heaven as something that is to be found not in any patch of
earth, but within one’s heart. Kingdom of Heaven is visually
inspiring and thus well worth seeing, but, sounds of battle,
neighboring horses and grunting camels apart, not worth listening to.
It would have been a much better film, if the director had dispensed
with both script and stars.

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