Ridley Scott has done fine work such as the parable about creation, Bladerunner. His Kingdom of Heaven is a film about the Crusades (a series of Christian invasions of Muslim Palestine a thousand years ago), about religious wars and the clash of Islamic and Christian cultures. But it is a film about wars of religion made for citizens of a multi-faith and no-faith world. For a modern world in which Islamic and Christian (or, mostly, ex-Christian) societies now confront each other with an animosity unknown since the 17th century. A world in which religious fanaticism is called on to cancel out the immense technological superiority of the “Christian” countries by making Islamic zealots into human bombs.
Scott’s film, which tells a story about the Muslim reconquest of the 100 year old Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, could have explored the nature of religious fanaticism and thus perhaps told us useful things about the world we live in. It does nothing of the sort.
It does the opposite. In Kingdom of Heaven, present-day considerations and understanding are anachronistically projected into the past. This is an invertebrate “liberal” message-film which operates by crude stereotyping. The story is an implausible pastiche of old movie plots. The hero refuses to be King of Jerusalem — because it would mean killing the villainous dimwit in line to be king — and vast evils follow.
As “costume epic” it is splendid, with wonderfully convincing recreations and battle scenes.
Scott does an “Eastern” translation of the old Western movie clichés about the bitter white-and red-skin enemies making peace and learning to respect each other. The Kurdish leader of Islam, Saladin, is here Cochise, the Amerindian Apache chief, the “good Indian” of a spate of 1950s films. The knightly hero — a fugitive blacksmith who was killed a priest in anger — is equally noble.
We see a little of a hot-blooded Muslim leader urging Saladin towards religious fanaticism, but all the outright villains are Christians. The Muslims, played by Arab actors, have tremendous dignity, in contrast to some of the film’s most prominent Christians.
The leaders are merciful and humane, the Christian villains blindly and bigotedly brutal, war-provoking, evil.
The fat, slobby “auxiliary villain” — the Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, in a preposterous wild-man-of-the-mountains beard — is an out-and-out barbarian, almost a vile figure of fun. He cold-bloodedly kills Saladin’s captured sister, a dignified, dark-skinned, very impressive-seeming woman. In contrast, Saladin spares all the Christians in Jerusalem (thereby he gains Jerusalem with no costly fighting, in return for undertaking to let the Christians leave).
Here the Christians are the fanatics, the reverse of the general situation in our world; but the reversal is not illuminating or enlightening.
The basic framework of the story — the fall of the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, the enlightened character of Saladin — is historically true. Saladin has long been a fictional hero in Western literature, at least as far back as Walter Scott’s 200 year old novel The Talisman (which has been filmed).
Walter Scott had a post-Enlightenment detached sense of history and thus could focus on the “enlightened” Saladin without making the character anachronistic and without glorifying Islam. Ridley Scott gives us the outlook of what might best be called the post-Christian, “post-rationalist”, relativistic, believe-in-nothing present-day West — of the Guardian-style, softened, fight-for-nothing, self-de-beaked and self-disarmed modern British “liberal”.
As between Islam and the Crusaders, the film is seriously lopsided. Therefore the film’s “message” for today is false. In our world, it is not the non-Muslims and anti-Muslims who now shout with fanatical faith in their religion like the Crusaders in one of Ridley Scott’s scenes who shout “God Wills It!”. It is a large part of modern Islam.
The King of Jerusalem is a leper, hidden behind a Greek-chorus style dehumanising mask. Whether or not the real last Christian King of Jerusalem was a leper, I don’t know. Here his leprosy works as a powerful symbol of rottenness and historical inappropriateness at the heart of Christian Jerusalem.
The film seems to take it as given that Jerusalem should, in the nature of things, be Islamic. That the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem is an anachronism, a historically illegitimate political formation intruded into an in-the-nature-of-things- Islamic world that must ultimately prevail. The parallel with the modern world here can be read — and in Islamic countries will surely be read — as saying something about Israel and the Arabs.
There is dialogue in which it is said that neither the Christians nor the Muslims who now confront each other gave the “offence” of capturing Jerusalem, or received the offence of losing it, because it was before their time. That too in effect is a comment on Israel-Palestine today.
In our world, the religious and ethnic sectarianism, fanaticism and murder-inducing hostility of one side feeds on the idea (its own reflection) that the “other side” is murderously hostile, sectarian, etc.. Large parts of Muslim opinion see Bush and Blair in the historical perspective of the Crusaders. Some refer to them as the Cusaders”
This film gives that Islamic view of the Crusades, relieved by the demonstration that there are Christian heroes with some of the same chivalric knightliness as Saladin has.
In historical fact, the “Frankish” West European Crusaders who “took the Cross” and, urged on by Popes and the promise that those who died would go straight to Heaven, went east to conquer for Christianity the “holy places” of the Bible, were as a rule on a lower level of civilisation and culture than the Arabs of Damascus or Baghdad or Cordoba.
The Muslim armies that in the 7th century swept out of Arabia and conquered the remaining centres of the old Roman civilisation in the west had, over generations, assimilated that culture and technology and augmented it, together with culture coming from India and the East.
In the name of Christianity, the Crusades brought butchery, destruction, and havoc where they went.
Marxists look to the contradictions and tensions in feudal Europe to explain the background out of which the Crusades emerged. The Fourth Crusade, 1202-4, later than the time of this film, acting at the instigation of the commercial oligarchy which ruled Venice, occupied and sacked Venice’s rival, the Christian city of Constantinople (Istanbul).
Even so, the idea that the Crusaders — or, as here, most of their leaders — did not act from belief and spirituality — spiritual self-interest, if you like — is a-historical and anachronistic. In the film, their lack of belief in their own cause makes the Christians seem worse (though in the hero it is a virtue), and the “defensive” Muslims like Saladin better.
We are shown the chief Christian prelate as a man of no faith willing to save his life by having all Jerusalem convert to Islam (“repent later”, he adds).
Today, it is not in the world of the Muslims, who are, I think, pandered to here, that enlightenment and a higher civilisation exists, but among their opponents in their own countries and in the countries which the Islamic fundamentalists see as their enemy. It is a shame for any reason to pander to them as this film does, concocting a fable not of enlightenment but of a Guardian-style quisling spirit towards assertive political Islam,. That is towards one of the worst enemies of enlightenment and tolerance in the world we live in.
June 2, 2005