My recent history kick has been surging as of late. I love it, though, when I can see a film about the past that dovetails so well with my faith, and in this case it is Kingdom of Heaven (2005). I remember being struck by it when I saw it as a younger man, but then again I was more easily struck at that point in my life. Since then, I have become a little bit more cynical as to the veracity of the historical events presented. After a recent viewing of this film, I watched a video on YouTube by a guy who specifically reviews history-based movies. To put it mildly, he was not pleased. As a historian myself, as much as I might sympathize with him, but also as a Christian and practicing Catholic, I feel like the point of the film was not necessarily to give a detailed and accurate rendering of the past. Despite this, and the various moments that are critical of the Church, I am oddly okay with all of it.
Kingdom of Heaven gets right in on the critique of the Catholic Church by having a priest (Michael Sheen) giving empty comfort to main protagonist Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) over the death of his wife. I say “empty” because the last thing the clearly distraught Balian would want to hear is that his deceased spouse was writhing in hell because of her suicide. Saying this leads to Balian murdering the priest and fleeing his post as a blacksmith to catch up with Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson). This latter character, as it turns out, is Balian’s long lost father come to give his son his landed heritage in the Holy Land. On the way there, though, medieval French authorities (best description I could think of because it is a little ridiculous, historically speaking) attempt to bring Balian to justice. During the resulting kerfuffle, Godfrey is mortally wounded and Balian must go on by himself. When he finally arrives in Jerusalem, having survived a shipwreck along the way, he finds an uneasy peace between Christians and Muslims. The troublemakers are the Templar Knights, led by Guy de Lasignan (Martin Csokas), who are your mustache twirling villains bent solely on war with Islam under whatever pretext they can think of, be it religious or otherwise. Keeping the peace is the more enlightened, but leprosy-wracked, King Baldwin IV (Edward Norton). Making matters worse is the fact that the king’s sister, Sibylla (Eva Green), is married to Guy, thus making the warmonger next in line to be king upon Baldwin’s imminent death. When this inevitably happens and Guy ascends the throne, he sends his lieutenant Reynald de Châtillon (Brendan Gleeson) to kill the Muslim ruler’s, Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), sister, thus triggering the long anticipated conflict. The resulting utter defeat of the Christian army by the vastly outnumbering Muslim army means the beginning of the end for the Christian kingdom. Nonetheless, Balian takes command of the Jerusalem garrison in a losing effort to defend the Holy City. After acquitting himself well, Balian eventually is forced to surrender the city and returns to France.
That is quite the turn of events for somebody who begins and ends Kingdom of Heaven as a humble blacksmith, and that is what makes the movie for me. The pleasure that I gain from it, though, is tempered by the moments in it that bash my religion, as mentioned above. If you have not guessed it already, the film is set during the time of the Crusades. If you are unfamiliar with these wars between Christian Europe and the Islamic rulers of what is basically now Israel, I will simply say briefly that they are rife with stereotypes about the cruelties that went on during it. When Islam arose in the the seventh century in what is now Saudi Arabia, it swept westward conquering everything in its path, including early Christian sites in places like Jerusalem and Egypt. The Crusades, the first of which was launched in the eleventh century, sought to reconquer that territory. They were successful at first, as you might have been able to guess from my summary above, but only for about a century before being kicked back out again. The stereotypes are in how cruel the Christians were in not only fighting these wars in the first place, but in wishing to kill in the name of God. Were there people at this time who, like the itinerant preacher in one scene, claimed that “to kill an infidel is not a sin?” Yes. Were there those that believed in a sort of racial superiority of Christianity, saying that no army led by Christ could be defeated? Yes. But if you are relying on this film for giving you a picture of what this time was like, just understand that doing so is little like going into your yard, looking at a tiny pebble, and using that to draw conclusions about the whole of the Milky Way Galaxy. I wish there could have been more characters like the Hospitaler (David Thewlis). Hospitalers (or, more specifically, the Order of Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem–you can see why it is shortened to Hospitalers) were an order of monk-knights who were formed to protect and care for pilgrims to the Holy Land. The Hospitaler teaches Balian about right behavior from a Catholic perspective, telling the younger man that God wishes for hearts dedicated to Him more than anything else.
Speaking of Balian, throughout much of Kingdom of Heaven he protests that he is far from God. However, what makes him a sympathetic character (and this can be taken in a Catholic sense or not) is the oath he takes as a knight about his assumption of his hereditary titles: “Be without fear in the face of your enemies. Be brave and upright, that God may love thee. Speak the truth always, even if it leads to your death. Safeguard the helpless and do no wrong; that is your oath.” This comes as part of a quasi-religious ceremony (the Hospitaler is on hand, anyway) and comprises the principles by which Balian conducts himself for the rest of the movie. Of course, marring that somewhat is his tryst with Sibylla, but I guess nobody, not even the supposedly “perfect” knight, is in fact perfect. The best moment, though, comes when Baldwin and Tiberias (Jeremy Irons) make a clandestine offer to Balian to replace Guy as next in line for the throne. The plot involves murdering Guy and marrying Sibylla, but none of it was on the up-and-up and thus Balian refuses. It leads directly to the destruction of the kingdom, but it went directly against his conscience and the God-centered oath he took. God desires nearness to us, and despite Balian claiming to not know his Savior, the knight takes some very definite steps toward the true Heaven by not going along with the coup. Well done.
Kingdom of Heaven is rated R and quite violent, but thankfully the affair between Balian and Sibylla is not graphic. If one day I am blessed with a son, I would love to raise him to be like Balian, and he turns out pretty much as I suspect Godfrey would have hoped. To face such temptation and turn away from it is admirable, but probably a cinematic lesson for a more mature audience. And in spite of its historical and religious problems (honestly, how could somebody who grew up to be a blacksmith know how to do half the things Balian does), I feel it is worth a watch.