Kingdom of Heaven (2005): How a culture of ignorance destroys meaning

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Following on from the success of the ‘sword and sandal’ epic Gladiator, Ridley Scott has delivered another impressive foray into historical spectacle with Kingdom of Heaven. Offering authentic scenery and sets, highly atmospheric, evocative photography by John Mathieson, and the large-scale spectacle of Jerusalem and warfare in the age of the crusades, it lives up to expectations of a visually powerful foray into the holy land of the Middle Ages.

Scriptwriter William Monahan has taken elements of authentic characters and events to present a story of an individual’s pilgrimage to seek redemption in a world scarred by the hypocrisies of religious fanatics and mercenaries gouging out their fortunes through rapine and pillage. Our protagonist might not have gained quite the redemption he sought, but he acquired instead wisdom, integrity and honour as part of his epic quest.

This review is a bifurcated foray, looking first directly at the film, in what might appear to be an overly laboured review, and then expanding on the topic of the ‘rich meaning’ that is suggested here to be the cause and justification for deeper examination than might be expected for a film of its kind. The aim is to explain a little bit about how a multi-layered, or richer than superficial meaning might be both constructed and decoded.

Scott’s vision

Between them, Scott and Monahan managed to create a bold allegory that resonates with the contemporary frictions between the West and Islam. At the time the film was made and released, the world had witnessed a terrorist attack on New York, a US-led ‘war on terror’, continuing military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran’s emerging regional ambitions to lead an Arabic Islamic confederation of states, and renewed tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, all of which revolve around the same unresolved tensions between Islam and the West that we are exposed to in the film.

It might have been coincidental, but the film’s release also roughly coincided with a time in which the traditionally almost unquestioning support of Israel by the West came under close scrutiny from public commentators, and dissenting voices within Israel gained wide international coverage for opposing hard-line Israeli policies on Arab affairs in the region.

Against this backdrop, Kingdom of Heaven offers up a multi-layered rejection of the traditionally doctrinal US-led Middle East foreign policy of the West by pointing to its ideological bankruptcy and dubious motivations.

Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) emerges from the narrative as a symbol of the past, carrying with him a sense of shame about his life-time’s deeds, which were about carving out a Christian empire in the Middle East, and atoning for some his actions by seeking to reconcile himself with his bastard son, Balian (Orlando Bloom). He, like some contemporary policy-makers, was hoping to pass on whatever wisdom he had acquired to a new generation that might realise a future Godfrey has seen only in tantalising glimpses of possibility — the kingdom of conscience, the kingdom of heaven as personified by the Jerusalem of King Baldwin (Edward Norton), existing in détente with the Sultanate of Egypt. So too, it is tempting to see possibilities today for Western, or more specifically, American foreign policy in the Middle East. Policy that might bring about real change by leaving behind old enmities to embrace a brighter future in which the modern Israel lives in peace with its Arab neighbours. That, at least, might be a contemporary kingdom of heaven, so to speak.

Balian’s illegitimacy in the film may be symbolic of what is considered today as a maverick approach to Middle East policy: a naively idealistic divorce from the ideologies of the past and a focus on only the present. Our hero’s illegitimacy is expunged in the film by his integrity and honourable actions. Honour, integrity, righteousness and a rejection of doctrine as an excuse for avarice, lust and violence. An intriguing and provocative prescription for a foreign policy mired in centuries of cynicism, distrust, betrayal and lies.

The ambush sequences in Mediaeval France near the beginning of the film were great story-telling as well as suggesting a powerful moral lesson: the sins of the past do exact their toll in the present. If, as I’ve read but not seen myself, Scott’s film implies the ambush to have been motivated by Godfrey’s nephew’s greed in trying to wrest his title and lands from him by murdering both him and his son, it might also be seen as an indictment of a cynical Western political process that destroys idealism and devours some of its best and brightest individuals through its own deceits and crimes of state.

Godfrey’s death and formal hand-over of his title and estates, as well as the shipwreck which sees Balian arrive in the holy land with nothing but a sword and a horse, neatly strips him of political baggage-by-association and frees him to act without paternal restraint. In his awakening to the hypocrisy of religion as opposed to the possibility of a pure and sacred faith, he discovers that god will not speak to him directly, but that virtue or its absence is evident only in the individual actions of every man. It is a particular message he is given three different times in three different contexts — from his father about his duties as a knight and vassal to King Baldwin, from the Hospitaller knight (David Thewlis) about the hypocrisy of the church when preaching the will of god and Christ as an excuse for murder and pillage, and from King Baldwin himself about disobeying even a king if righteousness demands it. It is tempting to infer that god may not have spoken to Balian, but that he spoke through Balian instead.

It is worth noting that there is no attempt to portray matters as different on the Islamic side. Quite the opposite. Honour and integrity in the face of demands for savagery justified in the name of Allah is what reveals Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) as a principled, civilized man in spite of his rôle as a great and terrible warrior king.

Taken together as a theme, these characteristics are a significant symbolic condemnation of party-political or doctrinaire politics, organised religions, and all the hypocrisies they engender.

The German knight (left), and Liam Neeson as Godfrey of Ibelin.

The intricacies of the plot suggest that Balian’s approach is seen as iconoclastic and even sacrilegious at first, but admirable all the same, and vindicated by his success and growing reputation for reliably honourable action. It is very much an existential approach to revealing heroic characteristics, dealing with each character, Saladin and Balian, on their own merits and according to values that are self-determined to suit particular circumstances rather than ideologically derived and rigidly imposed regardless of circumstance.

If the symbolism holds true, the film’s condemnation of violence cloaked in the name of religion or god is much more a condemnation of contemporary militant Islamic states and movements than of the West, even if the finger was more squarely pointed at the Europeans in the film itself. That’s because Islamic fanatics today appear far more ready to commit willfully savage acts of violence in the name of god than their stated enemies do.

The development of the story into the specific Christian-Islamic conflict of the era, and the fictional romantic entanglement of Balian with Princess Sybilla (Eva Green), sister of King Baldwin of Jerusalem, and thus its future Queen, brings us to contemporary issues of enormous import: Balian as the Western outsider can be regarded as a symbol for the West, striking up a friendship with the King and Princess of Jerusalem, who can likewise be seen as symbols for Israel and its population in general.

The King and Princess are threatened not only by extremist forces within, but also the Islamic forces Saladin can bring to bear from without. It is a situation that closely corresponds to the contemporary issues faced by Israel and its allies: Islam threatens by way of Iranian-sponsored terrorists, while hard-line Jews inside Israel are undermining any chance for peace through demands for more Jewish settlement on the West Bank, and by virulently opposing the possibility of a Palestinian state.

It is the machinations of Baldwin and Sybilla that bring about the downfall of Jerusalem, though I must say that for my tastes Balian’s linchpin moral qualms about participating in these machinations were a little too naïve and noble to be entirely credible. His refusal to countenance the execution of Sybilla’s husband, the bloodthirsty Guy of Lusignan (Marton Csokas), and to marry Sybilla, guaranteed that the succession to the throne passed to Lusignan, and that there would be an unwinnable war provoked by the psychopathic Templar knight Raynald of Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson).

As an aside, it was interesting to note that the character of Princess Sybilla seemed to have been styled on Eleanor of Aquitaine, who had undertaken a voyage to the Holy Land as part of a crusade in 1148 CE, when she was wife to King Louis VII of France. She was renowned as an independent, headstrong and wily lady who circumvented the customary rôle of women of the day and was as formidable a politician as any man of her era, including her later husband, Henry Plantagenet, King Henry II of England, against whom she plotted with their sons. Like Sybilla in the film having to give up her crown, Eleanor had to surrender the dream of an Angevin empire in France and Spain to keep the peace in Europe. The Angevin lands had, at that time, the potential of being the birthplace of a renaissance centuries earlier than the Italian one. A real-life kingdom of heaven, perhaps.

The denouement of the film is about the defeat of Lusignan’s army, and Balian’s defence of the people of Jerusalem, which succeeds only by surrendering the city itself. This might equate to a contemporary defence of Israel and/or Jews against their enemies, but a willingness to consider cessation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank of the Jordan to make a peace by establishing a Palestinian homeland.

The treatment of Muslims in the film is neutral. Symbolically Imad ad-Din (Alexander Siddig), who is encountered by the shipwrecked Balian during a desert duel sequence, and again after a suicidal cavalry charge at Kerak castle, is portrayed as a principled man who repays honour with honour, reinforcing the central theme that the character of men is found only in individual men and their concrete actions, not in aggregates who are subject or beholden to fixed doctrines.

Green as Sybilla.

Green as Sybilla.

More complicated is Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), whose time on screen is even shorter than Imad ad-Din’s. In appearance he is strikingly similar to Western stereotypes of contemporary mullahs, with the full beard and black turban that are iconic of the type. This symbolism is unlikely to have been accidental and evokes the notion that a modern analogue might be a warrior Ayatollah, like Khomeini. We are left with very much a flavour of modern Iran, an Islamic state that openly yearns for a return of the caliphate of the late first millennium, just as the real Sultan Saladin of Egypt may have been yearning to reunite the caliphate which had split apart in his era.

This comparison of the fictional Saladin with contemporary Iranian mullahs becomes particularly piquant when we consider the present Iranian intransigence about the existence of the state of Israel, and the on-screen Sultan’s reaction to Balian’s question after the climactic battle about what Jerusalem was worth; Saladin’s answer that it was worth nothing and everything points at the strongly symbolic rôle that Israel plays in Middle Eastern politics, particularly in terms of the debate about the future of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which are both regarded by some as the logical territory for a mooted Palestinian state.

One of the few sequences featuring Saladin has him square off against one of his nobles, or commanders, who badgers him about re-taking Jerusalem, arguing that it is Allah’s will to do so. Saladin explains carefully that the art of war is more complicated than religious zeal would indicate and thanks the man thus rebuffed for his visit. Saladin is clearly no simple-minded zealot, but a strategic thinker and visionary of his culture. Nor is he a disrespectful barbarian. We are shown how he picks up and replaces on its pedestal a crucifix in Jerusalem just after he has taken the city, signifying his respect for a faith he does not share.

Given these politically charged themes, it was disappointing to see the film end on a twee note: Sybilla can have her man only by renouncing her crown of Acre and Tripoli, and Balian walks away from a conflict that remains unresolved, as we witness in the scene in which King Richard of England seeks Balian, the defender of Jerusalem, but finds only a man insisting he is a blacksmith. This is a symbolic retreat from the political realities of the world that smacks of idealistic cowardice. If there is a failing in the film, this is it.

Norton as the masked leper King of Jerusalem.

On the conventional level of filmic narration I found few unforgivable flaws, though I must say that Orlando Bloom gave a somewhat somnolent performance despite the favourable reviews he attracted. Liam Neeson and Jeremey Irons (as Raymond, Count of Tiberias, the Marshall of Jerusalem) were, as always, a pleasure to watch, but the stand-out performance was undoubtedly that of Brendan Gleeson as the psychopathic monster, Raynald of Chatillon. I’m not sure that I agree with the critics that Edward Norton displayed anything extraordinary in his portrayal of Baldwin, but I was impressed by the fierceness with which Ghassan Massoud imbued his portrayal of Saladin.

I was also taken with the supporting rôles played by David Thewlis, Godfrey’s sage Hospitaller friend, and Kevin McKidd as the unknown man-at-arms who accompanied Balian at Messina. Other characters who struck me as powerful presences were the German knight who died at the ambush in France and the bald-headed Ibelin lieutenant in Jerusalem (try as I might, I cannot identify the actors who played them).

Those critics who seek to condemn the film on the basis of historical inaccuracy are being somewhat narrow-minded. It is unapologetically a work of fiction, but the best of fiction often has a large quantum of vérité to it; this lends authenticity and realism to a story in a way that even the best pure flight of fancy rarely matches when it comes to suspending the disbelief of an audience. What I see when I look at Kingdom of Heaven is a representation of how we, today, might imagine the European intervention in the holy land in the late 12th century, populated by characters the audience can understand both in terms of a stated historical context, but also because they act under circumstances and in ways that have contemporary analogues.

This is a story-telling device referred to by literary critic James Wood, and summarised by journalist Luke Slattery thus —

In “How Fiction Works” the critic insists that “real literature involves a resistance to convention; it is not enough for a great work to strike us with its truth”, it must also “shake habit’s house to its foundations”. Realism is bound symbiotically to an aesthetic category he calls “lifeness”.

‘Without fear or favour,’ The Weekend Australian, Review, 19-20/12/2009, pp 16-17.

In the same article, Slattery quotes Wood on realism —

Certain avant-garde writers, and certain literary websites entirely peopled by those who feel themselves at odds with mainstream fiction, despise the very notion of the real or talking about the real. But it seems to me that they’ve got the wrong idea. It’s not about correspondence — about copying, about exactness. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to respond to all the different kinds of realities disclosed by all the different writers that we read, whether it’s Kafka or Defoe or WG Sebald or Proust. There’s some vividness on the page, a vividness that is clearly connected to our own aliveness. How it’s connected is interesting.

Defence of Jerusalem.

Defence of Jerusalem.

I would argue that far from sterilising a story in historical fact, and the ambiguity of an open-ended continuum, Scott has molded characters and events to offer contemporary audiences a vicarious experience of the past as a reminder that the history of the conflict between Islam and the West is long and still far from resolved in our own times.

Those critics who charged Scott with being too critical of the West and too sympathetic to Islam might do well to consider that the virtues revealed in the actions of individuals in spite of their ideological heritages exist on both sides. Just as we can assume they exist on both sides of the contemporary conflicts that are linked into the meaning of the film.

The blank look …

There were some odd moments in a recent conversation I had with a colleague about the movie. Jason is a brilliant systems engineer, but he had a distinctly blank look on his face when I suggested certain reflections on current Middle East politics that I had picked up in Scott’s film.

Jason’s favourite scenes in the movie were of the ambush near the beginning, and of the defence of Jerusalem near the end. Unquestionably Scott is very skilled at making historical conflicts come alive. But Jason did not see these sequences as part of a deeper narrative. To him they were just spectacle.

The conversation didn’t last that long, but I couldn’t help thinking about it over the following days. I did some homework and discovered that Ridley Scott had delivered a much longer version with more intricate plot-lines, but the studio bosses had determined that three hours was too long for an audience to sit though and insisted that a third of Scott’s work end up on the cutting room floor, along with added plot intricacies, like letting audiences know that the ambush near the beginning of the film was led by Godfrey of Ibelin’s nephew in an attempt to snare succession to Ibelin’s title and lands by killing him and his son. And that Princess Sybilla had a child at the time of her affair with Balian and King Baldwin’s death, offering a clear path of succession to the throne of Jerusalem, and therefore postponing the intrigues surrounding the elevation of the dastardly Guy of Lusignan until the child had died.

However, none of these embellishments, known or unknown, could account for Jason’s blank face when I spoke about embedded political messages. To explain that blankness I had to look deeper than the film itself.

A culture of ignorance

It didn’t take me long to identify some assumptions I had made in my conversation with my colleague. One was that I had regarded him as a peer, a contemporary, rather than locating him in Generation Y, with its reputed pop philosophy and short attention span. I had imagined him to have had a grounding in the liberal arts, including politics and history, as part of his degree. That wasn’t the case.

Jeremy Irons as Count of Tiberias.

Another assumption I made subconsciously was that most people share at least some of my interest in current affairs, political theory, philosophy and historiography. Jason clearly does not.

The gap between my appreciation of the film and Jason’s is substantial, but not, I suppose, an isolated case. This gap in the ability to derive a ‘rich’ meaning from artistic endeavours is mostly glossed over in mass media coverage of the arts, particularly when it comes to film critique, which tends to focus excessively on superficialities, such as an unduly fawning adoration of film stars, not because they are good actors, but because they are stars, or unnecessarily laboured descriptions of special effects, or sensationalist departures into real or imagined controversies attached to the film. It seems there is little effort by notionally well-educated reviewers to pass on the benefits of their education by offering readers explanations of meanings that might run deeper than literal readings of scripts.

Paradoxically I failed in the same way to illuminate my thinking in my conversation with Jason: not only did I fail to link any of my interpretations to the film stars, the effects, or a titillating controversy, I also did nothing to explain how I had arrived at my own political observations.

Identifying just how I had come to my conclusions in a way Jason had not, and how to put this into words that might make my thinking more clear to him, was much harder than I had bargained for.

It brings me uncomfortably close to the question whether I should ‘dumb down’ my appreciation of the world around me to ensure that my colleagues, friends, and acquaintances can apprehend my meanings more readily, or whether I should persist in pursuing my interests at my level, unapologetic for my years of taking the time to learn, to read and to think critically, and mindful of the fact that doing so might be labelled by others as arrogant and elitist.

This, I think, is a larger question that faces the Western world in general. Is ‘book learning’ something that should be locked away in our academies or something that should be visible publicly in all walks of life and in all activities, including watching movies? It is irresistible to link this to the theme of the film: would we be better able to resolve Middle Eastern tensions if there were a much more open, informed debate about them, and if all concerned were able to approach the issues with integrity, honour and without allegiance to ideology or the hatreds of the past?

I know which path I have chosen for myself, no matter that I question it from time to time. Only you, as my reader and critic, can decide and act for or against a wider course of action.

The habit of education

I think it starts in early childhood, with parental encouragement for (or indifference to) education, discussions at the dinner table of current affairs and topical issues, the ready availability of books and newspapers or magazines, and the value placed on an eclectic range of interests (other than, though not excluding, sports and pop music). I suspect that if the habit of acquiring knowledge and searching out new information does not begin early on, it will never develop into a life-long reflex.

After long reflection on this topic in other contexts, I also suspect that the real Australian ‘cultural cringe’ has less to do with xenophobia than it does with an ingrained disdain for knowledge and education. In that light exposure to anything new, or to the notion that there might be gaps in one’s understanding of the world, might lead to a hostile rejection of the new, and resentment of those who don’t react the same way.

Ghassan Massoud as Saladin.

Ghassan Massoud as Saladin.

Even if parental encouragement for absorbing information were absent, most children should be able to access the ideas and knowledge I’m writing about through formal education at school. However, it seems to me that this is less and less the case as school curricula become softer and more ambiguous in key areas that requires academic rigour and intellectual discipline. Not least of these areas are history, politics and literature.

Most important, however, for the kind of knowledge I’m talking about in terms of evaluating a film like Kingdom of Heaven, is the education that takes place after school has finished. Our academies are supposed to instil not only specialist knowledge in the disciplines, but also an appreciation of the methodology of learning as a life-long pursuit, of the forms of academic debate, of the utility of the scientific method, and, on top of it all, they are meant to offer a basic grounding in the history and key features of our native culture, if not also of other cultures. I get the feeling this is, unfortunately, not the case any more.

Jason could probably pull apart most computer hardware, analyse it, improve on it and put it back together in better order. He could probably configure, deploy and patch most server software. He has a university degree to prove it. But he has difficulty stringing together coherent sentences, differentiating between Premiers and Prime Ministers, or India and Indiana, and he certainly has no grounding in history. He is the product of an education system and a culture in which such knowledge is not valued as an end in itself. A culture of exclusion which makes many of its members unable to share in the richness of their historical and cultural heritage. A culture of ignorance.

I would expected that a typically Australian response to this observation might be: ‘So what? Do ya fink yer better ‘n us or somefing?’ The question itself defies any sensible answer at all, but an appropriate one might be that there is nothing dignified about wilful ignorance, nor is there anything shameful about education or engaged speculation. So, no, I’m not arguing a ‘better’ proposition, but I do argue that a little education and interest in the subject matter almost certainly expands horizons to greater possible meanings contained in Kingdom of Heaven. Here’s why.

The siege of Jerusalem

The siege of Jerusalem

Storytelling and myth making

The preoccupations of my childhood included stories about the ancient Greeks and Romans, stories about knights, Robin Hood and the crusades, and descriptions of the science behind astronomy and spaceflight. All three preoccupations, among others, have developed through the years into interests that have been ever more developed and refined through the assimilation of ever more information and insight. This has occurred organically and has not been driven by any conscious effort so much as picking up on new bits of information almost as an aside. It was as if I had acquired an instinct for spotting and picking out bits of new information about topics of interest to me from the flood of general information we are all presented with in our daily lives via television, newspapers, magazines, books, conversations, films and our professional endeavours.

All three of the mentioned areas of interest have a direct, though not exclusive, bearing on how I interpret a work like Kingdom of Heaven. Greek and Roman history gave me both a first-hand acquaintance with writers of those civilizations and the history of their epochs. Among the many books I read were translations of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, which I took to be rollicking good adventure yarns to begin with, but, over the years, also recognised as prototypes of Western storytelling and myth-making. In other words, they defined not only the concerns of their own era, but also established modes of storytelling that have been re-used and adapted repeatedly in Western culture, including in film. Homer’s Odyssey, itself probably owing much to earlier stories about Hercules or Gilgamesh, establishes the mode of myth-making that uses the heroic quest as a vehicle for submerged messages about key human concerns, such as how people relate to each other, how they define sin and redemption, and how we come to think of people as noble or heroic. In other words, the story on the surface contains another story, possibly several of them, that are more to do with a particular way of looking at society, human relations, morality, politics and religion than is evident in the direct action of the narrative.

Kingdom of Heaven presents its narrative in this mythic mode: it is a tale of a heroic quest which offers up layers of meaning about many more issues than the action describes directly. Deciphering hidden or allegorical meanings requires some knowledge about the context of the story: its historical background; perhaps some knowledge of the life and times of the author; knowledge of events and people referred to; knowledge of people and events who are not referred to directly, but were or are prominent in the era in which the story is told; and so on.

Allegorical meaning is conveyed through symbolism, where one thing stands for another, the way an apple may represent the original sin, or metaphor, where a literal sequence of people and events offer meaning about a parallel but different group of people and events, the way some westerns about conflicts with Indians can be thought of as alluding to the cold war conflict between America and the former Soviet union.

Knowing of these methods of story-telling alerts me to the possible presence of metaphorical and allegorical meanings embedded in the literal narrative of any story. Hidden messages embedded in literal narratives are sometimes referred to as sub-texts, but I prefer the term ‘hyper narratives’, used here to evoke the sense of hyperlinks to other meanings, because they can exist or link to perceptions outside the conventions of normal story-telling.

Admittedly, my knowledge of these story-telling dimensions was significantly enhanced by my own university studies about semiotic and other communications theories, which not only told me about the famous works of my culture and their hyper narratives, but also what clues to look for in order to discover possible hidden meanings when reading other ‘texts’. When I say texts, I include not only written works of fiction, but also all cultural artefacts that can communicate meaning to an audience, including, for example, scientific research, advertising material and paintings.

Though I acknowledge I studied these theories specifically, reference to them in the mass media is quite common today, and their existence is hardly an arcane secret. All it requires to pick up on these theories and look for the hyper narratives is an interest in fully exploring the potential for meaning and how it is communicated.

So, in terms of Kingdom of Heaven, I instinctively looked for a hyper narrative that could be inferred from the main themes, action and dialogue of the literal story. But more on that later.

Bloom as our hero, Balian of Ibelin.

My life-long interest in the ancient Greeks and Romans led me, by way of a quite natural development, to an interest in the history of my own culture and society, particularly in terms of how it was derived from, but different to, its Greek and Roman predecessors. The period of history one must study to make sense of this melding of one culture into another is the European dark and Middle Ages, precisely the period in which the story told in Kingdom of Heaven is set. It is also the era of Robin Hood and King Richard the Lionheart, who makes an appearance at the end of the film. Just like my interest in the Greeks and Romans, my interest in the history of Europe, and the crusades in particular, has developed over the years into a much more sophisticated understanding of the events and people that made up the period, thus offering me personally interesting insights into the historical context that is the setting of Kingdom of Heaven.

Given my more general interest in history and contemporary politics, I also have a fair grasp of the issues that surround the current friction between the West and the Islamic world. That allows me to compare and contrast the film’s fictional Mediaeval setting with what I know about the realities of those times, and with the realities of my own times. Being able to do so certainly opens up possibilities for detecting many more meanings in the film than would be possible without this knowledge or interest.

My fascination with astronomy and spaceflight might at first glance be entirely unrelated, but on closer examination has a direct bearing on my topic. It was this interest that made me aware that the practice of modern astronomy, and the mathematics used to make the observations and calculations that today underlie all spaceflight, have their origin in Arabic development of Greek ideas at a time in which the Roman Church in Europe suppressed such scholarship and persecuted those who pursued it.

Thus I became aware at an early age that the Islamic civilisation of the Middle Ages was considered by many historians to have been far more advanced than Europe in scientific scholarship and other areas of academic inquiry that were proscribed by the Catholic Church. It has been suggested by more than one historian that the Islamic societies of the Middle Ages were also far more ‘civilised’ than their European counterparts.

Ironically Scott was criticised by some for having represented Islam as less barbaric than the Europeans in his story, revealing a critique based very much on contemporary ideological allegiances evident in modern cultural and political frictions.

My point is that I am far from alone in reading meanings into the film that were not overtly scripted into the plot.

In considering all this, it should not be forgotten that Scott himself is likely to be a well educated and thoughtful man, aware of all the complexities of storytelling I have mentioned, including the artistic tradition of telling allegorical tales or hyper narratives. He lives in the same world as his critics, and is likely to have formed his own views on some of the topical issues of this era. That makes it all the more likely that he did leave behind in his work some deliberate submerged meanings, and maybe even some that are not be so deliberate.

Historical and contemporary contexts

Anyone can easily research the film and establish that most of the major characters in Kingdom of Heaven actually existed, and that some of the events depicted took place, but we also know that Scott presented us with a fiction. That much information is available in the Wikipedia entry on the film alone. So, the characters in the film might have been based on real ones, but they are fictionally embellished, and the events as depicted in the film almost certainly did not occur as they are shown. The question becomes: why did Scott pick that particular period and location in history as a backdrop for a film?

He may have decided that the present was an appropriate period in Western and Islamic history to create an allegorical commentary on recent developments in the centuries-long friction between the Western world and Islam. In fact, this friction has become more and more topical since the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, and continuing Western intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. The issues surrounding these concrete factors also include the more abstract question of the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the efforts by Iran to make itself the leader of a pan-Arabic, Islamic, anti-Western bloc of countries.

These issues make Scott’s themes in Kingdom of Heaven — cultural tensions manifested as violence in the name of religion — highly topical in the contemporary world, but also highly controversial. It is because of this potential for controversy that a vehicle like the film might have been seen as a more appropriate means of commenting than a direct message in modern settings.

A major critique of Scott’s film has been that it is not historically accurate. This is almost certainly true, but I reject it as a valid criticism because, above all else, Scott set out to entertain and intrigue his audience, not to accurately recount history. Hollywood films are first and foremost a business proposition: they are made to appeal to as wide an audience as possible in order to make as much money as possible. There are, of course, exceptions, but not many. Documentary films are one example, but their appeal is likely to be to a much smaller audience, thus offering a much smaller financial return.

Scott’s film was clearly not intended as a documentary, but primarily as entertainment pitched at the broadest possible audience. And yet a skilled storyteller like Scott can do both: entertain and provoke thought; appeal to a wide audience with a conventional narrative and to a smaller audience with a hyper narrative.

This method of telling stories has a long history in cinema. For example, John Ford’s classic 1950s western High Noon, about a sheriff who has to stand alone against a gang of killers because the townspeople are too afraid to help him, has been widely interpreted to imply a message about the US standing alone in the world against communist enemies in the 1950s. The film can be seen as a rebuke of America’s Western allies for not being more forthcoming in their support of US policies in those times.

Perhaps it is now more clear how I derive quite complex and intricate meanings from films like Kingdom of Heaven than might be apparent to some other people. Yet I still wonder whether any of this will make any sense to Jason.

 


Codicil

  • YouTube trailer.
  • A genaeological descrition of the historical Balian of Ibelin that I cannot vouch for.
  • Author Richard Warren Filed presents a perspective on fact and fiction in Kingdom of Heaven. Again, I can’t vouch for the veracity.
  • An account of the siege of Jerusalem from About.com that sounds far less romantic than the script, but perhaps more authentic.

Credits

2004, 144/189/194 minutes theatrical/BluRay/Director’s cut, colour, 20th Century Fox/Scott Free.

Produced and Directed by Ridley Scott, written by William Monahan, cinematography by John Mathieson, music by Harry Gregson-Williams and Jerry Goldsmith (uncredited), editing by Dody Dorn (Chisako Yokoyama for director’s cut).

Starring: Orlando Bloom as Balian of Ibelin; Eva Green as Princess Sibylla; Jeremy Irons as Raymond, Count of Tiberias; Marton Csokas as Guy of Lusignan; Brendan Gleeson as Raynald of Chatillon; Edward Norton as King Baldwin of Jerusalem; David Thewlis as Godfrey’s Hospitaller friend; Liam Neeson as Godfrey of Ibelin, Balian’s father, modeled after Godfrey de Bouillon (the actual father of Balian of Ibelin was named Barisan, not Godfrey); Ghassan Massoud as Saladin; Alexander Siddig as Imad ad-Din; Jon Finch as the Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem (Heraclius, though unnamed in the film); Iain Glen as King Richard of England; Kevin McKidd as English Sergeant (seen with Balian in Messina); Jouko Ahola as Odo; Michael Sheen as the French priest (Balian’s half-brother).

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