David Thomson, in his book “Have You Seen?” said of Anthony Mann and Charlton Heston’s Bank Holiday stand-by El Cid, that it is “one of the last authentic epics in American film history,” although admitting that today it is “rather awkwardly anti-Islamic in its basis.” At the time of writing (2008) he didn’t think “there are other actors, directors or writers who could approach the monumental narrative with such enthusiasm and faith.”
Whether he, like many other critics, dismissed out of hand Ridley Scott’s 2005 medieval epic Kingdom Of Heaven, or simply forgot it, I don’t know (although I suspect the former). For me, though, the film, in its extended Director’s cut, with overture, intermission, and entr’acte, is a masterpiece of story telling and world building, probably surpassing the slightly stuffy tone of its knightly antecedent. From an ambitious, literate script by William Monahan, it seeks to retell the story of the siege of Jerusalem in the twelfth century, between the crusades, framed by the fictionalised life story of its little-known defender Balian. Here, the hero (Orlando Bloom) is reimagined as a humble, elevated blacksmith in France (and also a skilled artificer, or engineer), mourning his wife who committed suicide after their baby’s death. Sought out by a knight, Sir Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), he is told he is the man’s illegitimate son, and joins him on his return to the Holy Land. He tells him “A man who, in France, had not a house, is, in the Holy Land, the master of a city. He who was the master of a city begs in the gutter. There, at the end of the world, you are not what you were born, but what you have it in yourself to be.”
Where Christ died, he seeks to find solace for the cruel fate of his wife (as a suicide, she is buried in an unmarked grave, head separated from her body, on the orders of the grasping, venal priest, (Michael Sheen) his half – brother no less. The gravedigger remarks apropos that for an unmarked grave, to be buried at the foot of a crossroads marker is telling – symbolic for the hero’s way forward, too. When Balian realises his half- brother’s desecration, he stabs him with a red hot blade, snatching his wife’s stolen cross back and condemning him to a taste of the fiery hell that awaits as the forge burns around them.
A Kingdom of conscience
Monahan and Scott are careful in their portrayal of Saladin and his Saracen followers, painting the crusades as essentially land grabbing in the name of the Pope – the shadow of 9/11 lies heavy over the film, and their even-tempered sympathies are probably why it did so poorly in the American market in its theatrically truncated form. Whilst Balian’s questioning of faith is understandable, for a medieval time frame, when God-fearing permeates every aspect of life, pretty much every sympathetic character is virtually agnostic – the leprous King Baldwin IV (a silver-masked Ed Norton) and Marshal of Jerusalem Tiberias (Jeremy Irons) under whose rule and stewardship Muslim, Christian and Jew live, trade and worship freely in an exaggerated state of détente; even Godfrey’s warrior / medic monk, the Hospitaller (David Thewlis) – “religion is for fanatics…holiness lies in right action and courage for the defenseless.” Nearly every other major Christian character is a rabid fanatic, especially Templars Guy de Lusignan (Martin Csokas) husband to Baldwin’s sister Sibylla, who comes to inherit power; and his dog Raynald (Brendan Gleeson), who he entreats silkily, “Give me a war.”
According to Gleeson, “Reynald revels in mayhem. He is malicious and savage, but at the same time has this daft notion of chivalry. In a way, he is everything that was wrong with the Crusades. These were the people that made the Crusades a mad, imperialist, xenophobic kind of hedonism. Everything Reynald does is driven by avariciousness and lust.”
It is up to scholars to judge how accurate, even-handed, or even outright careless the film-makers are with history. Does the story engage, involve, and drive forward to a satisfying denouement? Absolutely. Scott and Monahan have taken the essence of historical truth and cast historical fiction that rings out like metal in Balian’s forge, resonating with present concerns. The film’s themes of peaceful co-existence and religious / ethnic divide take on even more relevance than in 2005 – the caravan of dispossessed leaving Jerusalem’s Saracen siege under Balian’s negotiation, carrying what little they can, invokes images of the Syrian refugee crisis. Will anyone in impoverished Europe want these casualties of war upon their shores?
Monahan had long been fascinated by the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, especially the reign of Baldwin IV. “It was a period of equilibrium between the Crusader state and the Muslims, There is a balance of power. It is partly a practical truce, but there is also a kind of fascination between the cultures. The mutual respect for peace is maintained by King Baldwin IV and Saladin, who are both at odds with extremists in their respective camps. People are coexisting. The Latin Kingdom has stood for almost a hundred years at this point. And it’s only a mistake—greed, ambition, fanaticism—that begins to shake it.”
Scott felt that “King Baldwin really followed the Muslims’ lead, when they had controlled the city, in allowing those of other faiths to practice their religion, Anyone could come and go as they pleased, and worship as they pleased.”
The film is stunningly realised -production, sound and costume design – every detail meticulously researched and applied. The budget for silks alone, for banners and gowns, must have been massive. And the score by Harry Gregson-Williams is sublime, a mix of medieval, middle-eastern, choral and classical styles. For the funeral of Baldwin, Scott re-used the classical piece Vide Cor Meum (See My Heart) composed for his earlier film Hannibal by Patrick Cassidy and Hans Zimmer.
Star Orlando Bloom is no Charlton Heston, but here his somewhat blank slate (and bulked up physique) adequately fills the boots of a lost and humble man seeking answers to an emptiness inside, finding that, where temples, churches, and mosques are built on the ashes and rubble of past conquests, there can never be peace, as long as God is invoked in the name of war. When he sparks a stone to set a bush alight, he asks the Hospitaller, “Where is your Moses? I did not hear it speak.” You could say it is an anti-Holy War film, which is probably why critics dismissed its Middle East siege tower assault and dusty mass horseback charges, bemoaning a hero to root for (spoilt as they were by nameless Orc hordes, in superficially similar Middle-Earth scenarios no doubt).
Speaking of Moses, Scott got a fair amount of criticism for casting white actors in his later Biblical epic, Exodus: Gods And kings, citing studio and distribution economics. People in foreign markets won’t go to a film with unfamiliar faces, period, he argued. After he bent over backwards to cast excellent Muslim actors in Kingdom of Heaven and have it suffer a disappointing reception, who can really blame him? Alexander Siddig is well known from Star Trek Deep Space 9 of course, and it is a pleasure to see him in the sympathetic role of Imad ad-Din that respects his heritage. He tells Balian that “Your quality will be recognised” on the battlefield, and is by Saladin’s side when they negotiate the terms of Jerusalem’s surrender.
Respected Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud is superb as Saladin, a shrewd tactician and moral man who, after early provocation by Raynald attacking an innocent trading caravan, draws back from war on Baldwin’s promise of justice. The leper king forces Reynald to kiss his ungloved ring-bearing hand and beats him with a stick until he stumbles, supported by Tiberias. Baldwin’s marching out at the head of an army (magnificently realised on screen with a huge cross at its head) has mortally weakened him, leading to full-blown conflict between Saladin and Guy de Lusignan. Upon an easy victory (Guy unwisely marched out from safety against Balian’s advice, neglecting to ensure adequate water supplies in the open desert), Saladin offers him iced water – “A king does not kill a king.” Guy refuses, insultingly passing the vessel to the butcher Raynald: “I drink water for what it is.” “I did not offer it to you,” Saladin calmly replies, signalling his men to restrain him while he coolly slits his throat.
In contrast to these warpigs, Balian fights only out of necessity, to protect all of the peoples within Jerusalem’s walls (earlier Baldwin entreated him to defend the villagers of Reynard’s Kerak estate). After a three day siege, Saladin agrees to let all the people who wish to escape, go, telling Balian, “I am not those men”, referring to previous conquerors who slaughtered all before them. As Muslim symbols are erected, Saladin respectfully replaces a heavy cross that had fallen from its place.
In its extended cut, the film benefits most from the expansion of the role of Eve Green’s Sibylla. Green stated: “She has lived all her life in Jerusalem, brought up with Christians, Jews, and Muslims. But she has been living in quite repressive circumstances. Her mother put her into an arranged marriage against her wishes. She hates her husband; she doesn’t respect his values or his pursuit of power. Sibylla and Balian are helplessly drawn to one another, despite political complications.”
She wears a mask, a front, not unlike her brother’s literal one. After her brother, Balian comes to be the only man she can truly trust. Their scenes together are tender and warm, making her tragedy later all the more heart-wrenching.
The film shares a curious directorial link with Scott’s Blade Runner, and one wonders whether it is intentional or mere whimsy of my imagining. Balian, now master of Godfrey’s estate and entrusted with keeping the Jerusalem road open to travellers of all faiths, is attending King Baldwin. Walking through the palace, his foot collides with a child’s toy, a knight on horseback. He stoops to straighten the rider’s lance and glimpses its owner through a doorway- Sibylla’s son, Baldwin the younger, the king’s nephew.
The knocking over of the toy recalls Deckard and Rachel leaving his apartment at the end of Blade Runner, and stepping on Gaff’s origami unicorn, symbolic of Deckard’s (implanted?) dream. As he ponders it, straightening the form, Gaff’s mocking words come back to him –“It’s too bad she won’t live, but then again, who does?” Is he, like Rachel, a Replicant, with a 5 year cycle? Sibylla’s odious husband Guy likewise taunts Balian, as a blacksmith in Knightly garb – inhabiting a false existence.
With Kingdom Of Heaven, the toy incident, echoing that in Blade Runner, is a kind of harbinger of doom. We do not yet know that the boy has inherited his uncle’s leprous condition. Once aware, Sibylla sees it as the cruelest of fates, a shortening of life, or at the very least, a half-life for her boy (“Jerusalem is dead, Tiberias. No kingdom is worth my son alive in hell. I will go to hell instead.”). She pours a poison draft into his ear unnoticed as she cradles him in a last, happy moment together, damning herself in her eyes. Following the terrible siege of Jerusalem, where she adopts an anonymous position in the house of healing, she follows Balian back home to France, seeking some kind of redemption. In a mirroring of an earlier shot where Balian recalled his wife planting a tree, he now kneels by the growing sapling as Sibylla smiles down on him. Leaving the burnt out forge and its memories they ride upon the crossroads and take to the road. Like Deckard and Rachel, to an uncertain future, but one most definitely their own.
“The kingdom of heaven is not what you might expect,” says Bloom. “It’s not in some afterlife. It’s a place where you can be who you were born to be, where you can be true to yourself. It’s a kingdom of conscience. It’s a kingdom of hope and of unity. It’s an ideal of a world we all should strive for, a world of peace.”