Few films more deserve a re-evaluation than Ridley Scott’s epic tale of crusaders and power-politics in 12th century Jerusalem. Like many others, I first saw the film as the cinematic version, a full hour shorter than the later ‘director’s cut’.
Missing from that studio version was all subtlety, to the point that some scenes seemed to be barely coherent, and the characters appeared often as shallow clichés, leaving in play only a series of disjointed battles: spectacle for the masses, I suppose the 20th Century Fox studio executives calculated, like the grey, unimaginative, cowardly accountants they are.
After all this time, writing about Kingdom of Heaven again is less review than looking at the cultural meaning it has acquired, and less plot précis than spelunking in background details.
Ridley Scott’s career began with slick advertising film-making, transferring his eye for detail and atmosphere to big-budget crowd-pleasers, from the visually breath-taking The Duellists (1977) to the acclaimed but ridiculous The Martian (2015). His résumé is one of the most impressive in contemporary film, even if not all his films were box office successes, or critically lauded.
What has remained a constant is an interested, engaged perspective on the world as seen through the eyes of his characters. With most of his films, it would be a mistake to assume there is only a shallow, fixed, literal narrative in play.
In the early 2000s, Ridley Scott was already working on a project talking about the Middle East, tentatively titled ‘Tripoli’, about American adventurer Lieutenant William Eaton’s exploits.
Instead he worked with screenwriter William Monahan to use real characters for fictional purposes to highlight the mess of successions in Mediæval Europe, the nature of middle sons (Scott was one himself), and illegitimate children nevertheless rising to prominence. Through their eyes, we gain insight also into the hypocrisy of historical and contemporary discourses about religion, chivalry, honour, duty, and even noblesse oblige, which might have preoccupied Scott quite personally after being knighted in 2003. He said in 2005: ‘Chivalry is just good behaviour; it’s quite simple, really, yet we don’t seem to be able to apply it.’ I think he meant as much today as in the 12th century.
What we see in the longer version of the film shows us how hollow political rhetorics are, then and now, about faith, public duty, and a willingness to choose war rather than peace as consequence of rejecting new ideas and fresh blood.
We get to witness Mediæval France from Balian’s (Orlando Bloom) perspective: bereaved by the death of his infant child and suicided wife, tormented by his psychopath brother (Michael Sheen), priest of the village, who acts more like a demon than a man of god.
Geoffrey (Liam Neeson), the second son of the noble family ruling the village, returns after his crusades, which have made him Baron of Ibelin in the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem. Balian is his illegitimate son by the village blacksmith’s wife, and he wants him to join him in the ‘kingdom of conscience’.
Not shown in the studio edit, Geoffrey’s never-named older brother (Robert Pugh) is lord of Balian’s village, and while dining with Godfrey and is men, he plots with his own son (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) to murder Geoffrey for his title and possessions.
The illustration of Balian’s illegitimacy as respectable throughout the story, added to the middle child status of his father, speaks about a sense of egalitarianism. It says that formerly ‘illegitimate’ ideas about Middle East peace have always existed, and have always been defeated by self-interested people mouthing hypocrisies, defending methods and policies that have consistently failed but remain orthodoxy even now, and inflicting terrible consequences, in the process, on people who don’t deserve them.
Balian ends up killing his brother when he realizes what was done to his wife’s corpse by his sibling’s command. He joins Geoffrey on the road back to Jerusalem, not long before his cousin uses the excuse of a murder arrest to effect the plotted assassination of Geoffrey. A common enough theme in history.
Not knowing about Geoffrey’s brother and his treachery makes the ambush sequence in the film seem like gratuitous violence, albeit magnificently choreographed and observed. Not knowing about Balian’s previous battlefield experience makes his sudden emergence as a solid swordsman seem preposterous.
There are astonishing scenes showing the German man-at-arms Odo (Jouko Ahola) teaching Balian how to fight with a sword, and then dying in the ambush, fighting to the last with axe and sword after already having being shot with a crossbow bolt in the throat.
Balian becoming Baron of Ibelin is almost a Candide tale. Shaped, to look at the accident of succession in an uncertain political environment that some demand is willed by god, littered with acute observations that make the broad sweep of history seem less impersonal and more real, the way characters in a fiction function most powerfully.
Geoffrey’s death and Balian’s passage to the Middle East, including the fight for the horse in the oasis, are a rite of passage that is not completed until no divine revelation comes to him at Golgotha, and his father’s soldiers embrace him as the legitimate heir to the Ibelin title.
Watching Balian irrigate the barren lands he inherited talks about human hope for a future, but watching him defend Kerak castle against Saladin’s cavalry shows us how the machinations of others can end that hope in a blink. All this seemed like a jarringly sentimental irrelevance in the studio edit, which did not explain that Balian was an ‘enginer’ with skills in designing and building war machines, likely a cavalryman in French battles, and knowing of the importance of water and food for besieging and besieged troops. It also cements Balian’s reputation as a truly chivalrous knight.
Balian’s romance with King Baldwin’s (Edward Norton) sister, Sibylla (Eva Green), tells us of the personal entanglements we all experience in dealing with real, as opposed to idealized, situations, even if our experiences might be more mundane than what we see on-screen.
The scenes showing us the bad guys-the magnificent Brendan Gleeson as Raynald de Chatillon, and the most malevolent Marton Csokas as Guy de Lusignan-as well as those showing us Balian’s new allies in King Baldwin and the Marshall of Jerusalem, Tiberias (Jeremy Irons) are just setting the scene for the coming grand finale.
It is here, in Balian’s refusal to avoid the tragedy of de Lusignan’s malignancy and de Chatillon’s monstrous sadism, by marrying Sibylla, that Scott and Monahan failed to be sophisticated, resorting to the simple-minded cliché of high-mindedness to excuse abetting the disaster Balian knew was coming. Yet, without Balian’s lapse back into an irresponsible juvenile character, we wouldn’t have had the inevitable climactic scenes of the annihilation of the Christian army and the siege of Jerusalem itself.
Kingdom of Heaven has only one major flaw that irritates me still: it is Orlando Bloom’s sleepwalk through his rôle. There are quite a number of film stars who are no actors, but in the ensemble cast Scott put together, giving the main rôle to the least capable performer seems like a curious lapse of judgement.
If not Bloom, then who else might have done a better job? Ben Wishaw, James McAvoy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Leonardo di Caprio? Even Kevin McKidd (the English Sergeant at Messina) would have brought more depth to the performance.
Otherwise, so many performances made it difficult to nominate the best, but certainly the most conspicuous performance came from Brendan Gleeson as the monstrous Raynald de Chatillon, revelling in bloodlust and giving us a glimpse at Trumpian cruelty and narcissism a full decade before we all got to see it far too closely for anyone’s comfort.
I’m not sure that I agree with those critics who said Edward Norton displayed anything extraordinary in his portrayal of Baldwin, but I was impressed by the fierceness, yet thoughtful judgement with which Ghassan Massoud imbued his portrayal of Saladin.
Ridley Scott has become famous for large-scale spectacle, and we certainly get it in the scenes of massive armies farcing each other, and a huge set of Jerusalem. Ian Blair quotes Ridley Scott in an interview for the now defunct Studio Daily:
I think the set of Jerusalem is the biggest built since Ben-Hur. We used 30,000 extras, shot in Morocco and Spain, and shot 1.2 million feet. We had to start principal photography in January 2004, so we only had five months of pre-production.
Also, I believe in going for the real thing first, so [for the siege scene] we built the three towers weighing 17 tons, and then you can clone them much easier. The basis of what you see is three real towers, so when you see all the close ups and the towers come down, it’s all real – 17 tons going over, and it’d better be right. I’m not going to make that stand up again. Then I made four catapults, the arm swinging 56 feet. They’d flip a 100-pound ball about 400 meters and do serious damage. They were surprisingly accurate.
Perhaps only sitting in a cinema can do justice to the sound of hundreds of hooves in a cavalry charge, and the earthshaking ferocity of the Mediæval artillery bombardments (by catapult loaded with incendiary ordnance), but you get the feel for it even from a 5.1 surround sound home set-up.
Scott is also renowned for his meticulous construction of mises-en-scéne, and Kingdom of Heaven was no exception, giving us convincing sets and props, but also the pronounced colour shift from the frigid blues of France to the progressively warmer ochres and oranges of the Middle East to colour the emotional content of the film.
I find it hard to argue that this was not a film showing a director at the height of his powers.
At the outset of any discussion about interpreting metaphors, meta narratives, and intentions as opposed to perceptions, I think it’s important to dismiss the idea that a fiction like Kingdom of Heaven has a single, immutably fixed meaning.
… the cohesion of narrative comes under pressure from external discourses, that is, production context, anecdote, history. But digital spectatorship also affects the internal pattern of narrative: sequences can be easily skipped or repeated, overturning hierarchies of privilege, and setting up unexpected links that displace the chain of meaning invested in cause and effect.— Laura Mulvey (2005). Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image, Reaktion Books, pp 27-28.
Ridley Scott’s own views, immediately prior to the release of the studio edit, were politically non-committal.
There is no escaping the parallels with our time, when leaders who try to make peace are admired, but their efforts are subverted by more radical factions.
We set out to tell a terrific story from a dramatic age – not to make a documentary or a piece that aims to moralise or propagandise. But since our subject is the clash of these two civilisations, and we are now living in the post-9/11 world, Kingdom of Heaven will be looked at from that perspective.— Ridley Scott, (29 April 2005), ‘When worlds collide’, The Guardian.
He further revealed that he used characters in the same vein as David Lean in Lawrence of Arabia, ‘whose characters never got lost in the proscenium’. It should have short-circuited the fatuous comment that he took historical liberties, as if that is not precisely what entertaining, insightful film-making is all about.
You might do a magnificent job of creating an unfamiliar world – a far place, a far-off time, or both – with the most skilled film-makers and the best technology available. But you have to make sure that world is inhabited by people whose lives and fates we care about and whose story has something to say to us.
Ridley Scott’s craftsmanship as a film maker has not been questioned, but his motives have attracted criticism, not unexpectedly from voices arguing the Christians were portrayed unduly as barbarous, while the Saracens came off looking more civilized and humane. Less expectedly by voices arguing that the film is Islamophobic propaganda.
The film focused more on the Christian side, hence greater detail is revealed about the factions on that side, but there is a signal scene showing Saladin (impressively portrayed by Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud) confronted by a fiery mullah (Egyptian actor Khaled Mohamed El Nabawy), demanding that he attack and re-take Jerusalem for Islam, or he would not be king for long. The scene tells us that Saladin is himself under pressure from extremists in his camp, the way King Baldwin is undermined by bloodthirsty Templars.
The late Robert Fisk recounted seeing Kingdom of Heaven in a Lebanese cinema, where the audience applauded when Saladin tells Baldwin at Kerak he would send him his physicians, and broke into loud cheers when Saladin replaces a fallen gold crucifix on its pedestal in the surrendered Jerusalem. If there was Islamophobia in the film, the largely Muslim Lebanese audience didn’t seem too perturbed.
Fisk also cites an interview with Ghassan Massoud, who played Saladin, that I have not seen mentioned anywhere else:
Massoud, who is a popular local actor in Arab films – he is known in the Middle East as the Syrian Al Pacino – in reality believes that George Bush is to blame for much of the crisis between the Muslim and Western world. “George Bush is stupid and he loves blood more than the people and music,” he said in a recent interview. “If Saladin were here he would have at least not allowed Bush to destroy the world, especially the feeling of humanity between people.”
Massoud agreed to play Saladin because he trusted Scott to be fair with history. I had to turn to that fine Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf to discover whether Massoud was right. Maalouf it was who wrote the seminal The Crusades through Arab Eyes, researching for his work among Arab rather than Crusader archives. “Too fair,” was his judgement on Kingdom of Heaven.
What of the Western reactions to the film? Writing too early to have seen the director’s cut, the main themes repeated endlessly in Western commentary can summarized by looking at two specific reviews.
Peter Bradshaw, writing for The Guardian, mentioned that in 2001 President George W Bush had used the term ‘crusade’ in describing his vision for a war on terrorism.
… Ridley Scott’s achingly well-intentioned epic looks like a 145-minute dramatisation of … a modernised romantic-liberal fantasy about the Crusades, stuffed with some of the silliest supporting performances imaginable …
The film is a modern fantasy about the crusades. Did Bradshaw miss something here? Did he mean to say a liberal fantasy about contemporary Middle East politics? Or was he really claiming here that the film should not have been an entertainment? I also wonder whether Bradshaw would have found the supporting performances quite so silly had he seen the longer film.
Christopher Orr, writing for The Atlantic called it a ‘laughably ahistorical anti-war polemic’, and an ‘example of what happens when Hollywood’s commercial and political imperatives crash headlong into one another’, though he doesn’t specify what he means by political imperatives. Is he accusing Hollywood of being inveterately left wing? Not really a sound assessment, given studios are largely run by dull-witted accountants with little imagination or political nous. And why is it ‘laughable’ to present an entertainment that is not accurately reflecting history, which further begs the question: accurate by whose yardstick?
If one had a mind to–and Scott clearly hopes one does–it would be easy to read the entire exercise as a metaphor for America’s current Mideast entanglements.
Quite. Yet Orr avoided telling us what that metaphor tells us about US Middle-East policy.
These types of critique are lazy thinking and worse writing, reaching always for cliché and snark, as if these were hallmarks of good film critique. Or any kind of critique, for that matter.
The arguments about taking sides with Christians or Muslims are facile. More interesting is what an audience can glean about contemporary Middle East politics: nothing much has changed since the end of the 12th century, because short-sighted greed, violent fanaticism, and the towering odds against bringing together enough influential people and circumstances to build a lasting peace haven’t changed.
I was also drawn to speculating about what Scott implied about the neoliberal eclipse of noblesse oblige-the duty of the privileged to help the less privileged. And about the implications of injecting religious faith into politics, with its inevitable fractiousness of fanatics. A highly topical perspective on America’s declining democracy in 2005, and even more so now.
We are offered quite a parable in the sequence showing Balian creating a whole host of new knights from humble-born men, encountering along the way one of the gravediggers who interred his wife in France (played unforgettably by Martin Hancock), as living proof that social mobility works better than entrenched privilege, then and now, and that people with a humane cause can be quite as effective as selfish, greedy ideologues and fanatics. This was probably Scott’s most trenchant critique of Britain and USA: the displacement of anything resembling egalitarianism and right action by the corrosive, selfish, greed-fueled neoliberal ideology. The very same malaise that infects American and British foreign policy overall, not just in relation to the Middle East.
Scott and Monahan also constructed quite a fable around the unnamed Hospitaler knight (David Thewlis). In the studio edit, he is merely a sage and humanist counsellor to Balian. Arguing against religion as politics:
I put no stock in religion. By the word religion I have seen the lunacy of fanatics of every denomination be called the will of God. Holiness is in right action, and courage on behalf of those who cannot defend themselves, and goodness. What God desires is here [pointing to the head] and here [pointing to the heart] and what you decide to do every day will make you a good man … or not.— Hospitaler to Balian
It is a quite powerful condemnation of hypocrisy and extremism as inevitable companions of all religions.
In Scott’s edit, the Hospitaler becomes an agent of the divine, talking to Balian as he laments that a burning creosote bush does not come with the voice of god, and then somehow vanishing as if he had never been there. The burning bush didn’t speak to Balian, but the Hospitaler did. Later on, when Balian faces assassination by three Templars, the Hospitaler reappears out of nowhere to touch the seemingly dead Balian, thus resurrecting him.
Yet, the Hospitaler dies with Lusignan’s army, and god does not die. Or does he? Did the Christians, themselves, kill their own god, the way Nietzsche suggested centuries later? And by extension, can we see in Lusignan an agent of the devil, using the diabolical Chatillon to lead men to their doom? You decide, after seeing the longer film.
How the film sank from view
Timing was an issue for the film’s release in the same month as the predictably mobbed Star Wars Revenge of the Sith instalment.
It’s worth considering that in 2005, Kingdom of Heaven was one of several hundreds of films that seemed promising. It competed for my attention with Assault on Precinct 13, Constantine, Be Cool, Sin City, The Interpreter, Cinderella Man, Lords of Dogtown, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Batman Begins, Four Brothers, The Constant Gardener, Lord of War, Capote, A History of Violence, Serenity, Syriana, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Good Night, and Good Luck, Walk the Line, Æon Flux, and Munich. That’s not nearly an exhaustive list, and excludes the insufferably vacuous and boring Oscar darlings Crash and Brokeback Mountain, but it shows how much more choice we had, as audiences, than we do today.
The timing of its release was not the most important reason for the film’s poor reception. It was an incomprehensibly stupid reliance by 20th Century Fox chairman Tom Rothman (now Sony Films boss) on preview polling of American test audiences that led to a demand the film be cut back to 144 minutes, from the 194 minutes submitted by Scott.
It’s almost as if the studio sabotaged its own property, ensuring it got bad reviews, mediocre box office, and barely a mention at the Oscars. All because Hollywood relied (and still does) on allowing ignorant, vacuous marketing and American audiences to override artistic integrity and talent.
In an interview with Total Film magazine in July 2006, Ridley Scott excoriated the idea of studio decisions made on feedback from film previews: ‘It depends who’s in the driving seat. If you’ve got a lunatic doing my job, then you need to preview. But a good director should be experienced enough to judge what he thinks is the correct version to go out into the cinema.’
Scott seized the opportunity presented to him by both negative American responses to the studio edit, and the burgeoning market for home DVDs, to re-release the film as intended by him (the director’s cut) in December 2005, but the damage done by 20th Century Fox was irreparable by then.
Many critics and millions of film patrons never revisited Kingdom of Heaven to see Scott’s original intentions.
Having written about Kingdom of Heaven three times now, in 2006 my focus was on how little my peers understood of metaphor, Middle East history and the contemporary politics keeping it a trouble-spot.
In 2010 my focus shifted slightly to the imbecility of superficial, literalist interpretations, and ludicrous demands for a historical ‘accuracy’ we have no means of evaluating, even if Hollywood films undertook the pointless task of striving for it.
Today I see a broader ambition by Ridley Scott, who challenges and beguiles us with searching questions about what it means to be a middling child, an illegitimate son, in search of spiritual fulfillment, and finding only corruption and malice. But maybe also finding, there, in the interaction with hypocrisy and the challenge to corruption, whatever exists of honour, humanism, virtue, and the meaning of truth.
This is Ridley Scott’s most significant film in an œuvre that already makes him the most remarkable film-maker of his generation. What makes Kingdom of Heaven different from his other films is an insightful and mature reflection on how our antecedents shape our present. Perhaps also Scott’s mediations on what it is to be a knight, and what it means to talk about chivalry, honour, duty, and noblesse oblige–concepts much out of favour in the contemporary West.
It is possible, even in the studio-butchered version, to see a stinging rebuke of Western contemporary Middle East politics, but it’s a much more potent message in Scott’s own edit. He has admitted that in the early 2000s you could not avoid reflecting renewed tensions between the West and Arab nations.
It might have been coincidental, or Zeitgeist, that the film’s release roughly coincided with a time in which the West’s traditionally uncritical support of Israel came under closer scrutiny from public commentators, and dissenting voices within Israel gained wide international coverage for opposing hard-line Israeli domestic and regional policies that hurt the Palestinians.
What remains true in the film, then as now, and in history, during the 12th century as much as the 21st, is that those who speak most loudly about god, faith, and duty are the most likely to suborn the meanings of those terms to the service of avarice, bloodshed, and corruption. That makes Kingdom of Heaven a film retaining powerful meanings while others, relying solely on spectacle for commercial success, will age rather less well.
20th Century Fox/Scott Free, 2005, 144/189/194 minutes theatrical/BluRay/Director’s cut.
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 (also Chisako Yokoyama for director’s cut).
With Orlando Bloom as Balian of Ibelin; Eva Green as Princess Sibylla; Jeremy Irons as Raymond, Count of Tiberias; Marton Csokas as Guy de Lusignan; Brendan Gleeson as Raynald de Chatillon; Edward Norton as King Baldwin of Jerusalem; David Thewlis as the Hospitaler; 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, the German knight who dies in the French ambush; Michael Sheen as the French priest (Balian’s half-brother).