KINGDOM OF HEAVEN

Directed by Ridley Scott. USA. 2005.


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Ridley Scottís crusader epic Kingdom of Heaven has plenty to offer those who like big action movies with battle scenes galore and huge computer-generated armies. The look of the film, recreating the 12th century, is pretty impressive too. I am more interested in the church history aspect, the crusade to save Jerusalem from the Moslems under Saladin in 1187.

The first thing to say is that this is the "Hollywoodised" version of history, where accuracy is sacrificed in the name of entertainment and/or of making political points. Notorious examples in recent years are Braveheart (Scottish freedom-fighters against English tyrants) and Saving Private Ryan (the D-Day landings as an all-American venture). Kingdom of Heaven, as well as incorporating some highly inaccurate facts about some of the individuals involved, presents the Christians as unspeakably vile barbarians while the Moslems are not nearly as bad. The truth is that most people on both sides behaved, by our standards, appallingly. We should always remember that the thought-forms of that age regarded holy wars as an admirable and God-ordained concept, and we should not judge either the Christians or the Moslems from our 21st century standpoint. The filmís hero Balian (Orlando Bloom), an historical character who is given an obligatory but wholly invented love-interest, is in charge of organising the defence of Jerusalem.

Do the inaccuracies, and the slanted viewpoint, matter? Not necessarily. Unless a film actually claims to be a genuine historical reconstruction, a quite legitimate artistic licence can be allowed provided that viewers are not deliberately misled. One of the greatest historical epics, Tarkovskyís Andrei Rublev, about the Russian icon-painter of 600 years ago, is almost entirely fiction, simply because hardly anything is known of his life. Kingdom of Heaven can be criticised for reinforcing the prejudices of those on the militant fringes of Islam that the Moslems were the wholly innocent victims of Christian aggression, though it should be said that Saladin was, relatively speaking, a highly civilised man with a deep sense of honour.

The filmís main message comes near the end, when Balian and Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) negotiate a peaceful end to the stand-off over Jerusalem. Ridley Scott is saying, I think, that in the post-9/11 world this is how conflicts should be resolved. Platitudinous, and more easily said than done.

And what of the filmís merits as a worthwhile entertainment? It largely depends on whether you like huge bloody long-drawn-out computer-generated battle scenes and other standbys of the action movie. Personally I find them boring, however technically accomplished they may be. But donít let that put you off; if you want to learn something about this crusade, and are not particular about historical accuracy, Kingdom of Heaven may be just the film for you.  But my favourite crusader film, which is wholly fictitious, remains Bergman's The Seventh Seal.
 

Alan Pavelin
 
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