The Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

Rated PG-13 Our Content Rating: V-0 ; L-2 ; S/N-4 Running time: 145 minutes

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.”
Psalm 122:6-7

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!
Psalm 133:1

I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 8:11

The Kingdom of Heaven

(Note: there might be a spoiler or two toward the end of the review, and definitely a few in the reflection/discussion section!)

Film scholars have often observed that historical films always tell us more about the issues of our times than about the historical setting of the film itself. This is especially the case with Ridley Scott (director) and William Monahan’s (writer) film. Imagine, a bloody, violence filled epic preaching tolerance, justice and compassion. This is worlds apart from the old potboiler-creator Cecil B. DeMille’s The Crusades or any of the other medieval epics so popular during the Fifties. At a time when some are predicting a “clash of civilizations,” and some Christian leaders present a distorted view of Arabs and their religion, along comes a movie in which the villains are “Christians” and the leader of the Saracens shown as the one who best incarnates Jesus’ Beatitude, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”

Our story starts with Sir Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) back in France in search of his illegitimate son before starting out to rejoin the crusaders in Palestine. It is not a good time for reunions. When in 1184, he catches up with his son just outside a French castle, Balian (Orlando Bloom), a blacksmith and armourer, has just lost his wife. He is in no mood to accept either the news of his parentage or the invitation to join his father on a crusade. Balian’s wife had taken her own life, so the local priest refused her burial in the cemetery, and even snatched from her throat a small crucifix necklace. Bad idea. When, after Sir Godfrey leaves, he visits Balian and taunts him about his wife burning in hell, the blacksmith, seeing the familiar necklace, flies into a rage and kills the priest, thrusting him into the intense fire of his smithy. Knowing that he will have to face the justice of the local lord, Balian flees, catching up and joining his father’s party. They are attacked by soldiers sent out to bring the killer back, but although the travellers defeat them, Godfrey is mortally wounded. He clings to life for a time, and his dying bequest is instructions in knighthood and its bestowal upon his son.

After an eventful journey, our hero reaches Jerusalem, which was still in Christian hands, having been taken from the Muslims at the climax of the First Crusade over eighty years earlier. Balian, carrying his father’s sword, is spotted as being the son of Godfrey and taken to the headquarters of the King of Jerusalem. The city is ruled by King Baldwin IV (Edward Norton), who tries to keep peace between Muslims and Christians, extremists upon both sides making this difficult. The king also is hampered by his facial leprosy, which he covers with a silver mask. He is aided by his trusted advisor Tiberias (Jeremy Irons) and Hospitaler (David Thewlis) who see in the newly arrived Balian a worthy candidate for serving the king and his pacific cause.

Arrayed against the King’s desires are Reynald (Brendan Gleeson) and the evil Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), both of them Knights Templers who hate Muslims with a passion worthy of a Hitler or Goebbels. Their lust for killing Saracens is held in check by King Baldwin’s practice of executing Templars who violate the truce with the Muslims—upon his arrival at the palace Balian sees several of these knights being hung for their crimes. There is, of course, a romance—this is a Hollywood film after all, though, other than one love scene, the love affair is very restrained. Sibylla (Eva Green) is the sister of King Baldwin but unhappily married to the boorish Guy de Lusignan. One gathers that this was a political marriage, with the king hoping that his sister, who also seeks peace with the Muslims, might curb somewhat Guy’s desire to disrupt the peace by banning the pilgrimages of Muslims and Jews to the Holy City. However, Sibylla has scant influence upon him, Guy joining forces with Reynald in assaulting Muslims whenever they can in the hope of destroying the peace. Their cruelty will eventually earn its own reward.

Rounding out the major cast is Syrian actor-director Ghassan Massoud as General Salah al-Din, better known to us as. Saladin, the sultan of Egypt and leader of the vast Muslim army, has retaken much of the land and the cities that surround Jerusalem. Some of today’s Christian fanatics will not be pleased with the favorable way in which Saladin is portrayed, but this is one part of the much fictionalized film that is true to history. Whereas the crusaders who had conquered Jerusalem in 1199 had put its largely Muslim inhabitants to the sword, Saladin tended to be merciful toward those whom he conquered.

This is one spectacle which does have soul, in that its ideas and characters are more than those usually depicted by such historical epics. I suspect that the real Jerusalem under King Baldwin IV was not as ideal a place as depicted, perhaps a bit further from the kingdom of heaven than claimed, but this depiction nonetheless serves the film’s message well—that perhaps there could be peace between the three religions, all of whom regard Jerusalem as their Holy City, were we able to curb fanaticism and learn to “disagree agreeably.” About 40 years after the events of the film, the real life Francis of Assisi actually went to the Holy Land to preach that message (of course, it included his trying to convert the Sultan) and try to put an end to the war between the crusaders and the Saracens. Is there anyone pressing this agenda now?

The film has great sets depicting Jerusalem in great detail, and the battle scenes will hold the attention of those who love such things, gushing blood and severed limbs and heads, but the ending of the film between two seasoned warriors who nevertheless do not believe that violence really settles things, will satisfy peacemakers as well. If you feel that some of the incidents in the film are a bit sketchy, then you will be glad to learn that this much trimmed-down version will be supplemented by over an hour of additional scenes when the DVD is released. Something very much to look forward to—but do not wait until then to see this spectacular film. Only the big screen of a good theatre can do it justice!

For reflection/discussion

1) What do you think of Godfrey’s oath “to be without fear in the face of your enemies? Speak the truth, even if it leads to your death. Safeguard the helpless and do no wrong”? How close does this seem to the ethics of the kingdom of heaven?

2) What do you think of Godfrey’s promise to his son, ‘‘you are not what you are born but what you have it in yourself to be”? How is this similar to the attitude of those who colonized the New World, and especially of those who settled the American West? From what you know of the Crusades, how did this work out in the lives of many of the crusaders? What various motives are suggested for Europeans to embark upon a crusade? (Note that the Jerusalem kingdom is referred to in the film as a new world.)

3) What do you think of the cry heard several times during the film, “God wills it!” What are some of the things very alien to the ethics of Christ that supposed followers of the Prince of Peace have engaged in in his name? Do we still hear God or Christ used to cloak the speaker’s plans?

4) How is the result of Balian’s mercy upon the Saracen warrior whom he defeats in the desert a good example of Ecclesiastes 11:1?

5) What is one of Balian’s basic motives for coming to Jerusalem? How is this an example of salvation by works? How is his faith struggle perhaps more modern than medieval? Is this struggle understandable in the light of all the happenings of the past hundred years? How, or where, do you think God can be seen in the terrible occurrences that have destroyed the lives of so many people?

6) What do you think of the Hospitaler’s answer to Balian when the latter says he is outside the grace of Christ? How is “holiness in right actions”?

7) What do you think of King Baldwin’s conversation with Balian, when he says “your soul is in your control, that one cannot stand in judgment before God and excuse one’s acts by saying that one was told by others to do so. How was this the excuse of Nazis at the war crimes trials? When have we heard this today, of late in Iraq? (See Romans 12:2)

8) How is it shown that Saladin and Baldwin are kindred spirits?

9) At what point is Balian tempted to sell his soul? What do you think of Sibylla’s comment, “There will come a time when you will wish you had done a little evil to do a great good”? What do you think —can we do a little evil to do a great good? What are some examples of this? And yet what too often happens to the one doing “a little evil”?

10) What do you think of Tiberius’ confession about why he thought he was fighting for God? Can you hear an echo of Jesus’ warning to Peter about taking up the sword? (See Matt. 26:52)

11) At the end of the film, while Balian and Saladin look at the battered walls of Jerusalem, the Christian asks the Muslim “What does it mean to you?” Saladin starts to walk away, and replies, “Nothing”. Then he turns around and declares, “Everything.” Do you think this might still be true for those who claim Jerusalem for their own faith and peoples?

12) Where do you see God in this film? How is the church depicted? Do you think this is this a fair or accurate picture? How has the church often failed its Master? But also, what did the church do then (and now) that “git it right”?

For trivia buffs: What do you think of the snow-capped mountains supposed around Jerusalem? And when was the crossbow, of which we see quite a few, actually invented?