Retro Review: Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: William Monohan
Composer: Harry Gregson-Williams
Starring: Orlando Bloom, Eva Green, Ghassan Massoud, Jeremy Irons, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Marton Csokas, Liam Neeson
Genre: Historical/Religious Epic

Ridley Scott is a bold director who paints in broad brushstrokes. He makes massive films with big ideas like Alien, Blade Runner, Legend, Black Hawk Down, Gladiator, Robin Hood, Prometheus, and The Martian. Even when he’s not totally on point, his vision is massive and the scope of his films is enthralling. In the early 2000’s, he brought his particular style to a massive epic action film set during the Second Crusade. 

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Extreme violence and gore throughout. Characters are stabbed, crushed, and maimed throughout the film. Numerous characters die painful and grizzly deaths. Characters also commit mass murders and rape. A character suffering from extreme leprosy is briefly depicted.

Language/Crude Humor: Mild language including b******, d***, and h***.

Drug/Alcohol References: Characters casually drink wine. 

Sexual Content: Two characters have an extra-marital affair and share a sex scene; no graphic nudity is shown. 

Spiritual Content: Characters in the film are explicitly either Christian or Muslim. Characters discuss themes of redemption, religious radicalism, and religious oppression. 

Other Negative Content: Extremely negative depiction of religion and Christianity, themes of violence and oppression, characters are murdered and raped by religious knights. 

Positive Content: Themes of tolerance, peace, and personal redemption. 

Review

Few major Hollywood films really get stuck in the craw of Christian audiences quite like Ridley Scott’s 2005 historical epic Kingdom of Heaven has. It’s one of the most notorious films in his filmography and caused arguably the largest dust-up of any film he’s ever directed. It’s not hard to see why. As a director, Mr. Scott is many things. He’s an atheist, modernist, and distinctly critical voice of modern warfare. He’s not terribly interesting in religion, but when he does explore it, he has a distinctly negative portrayal of it. When he filmed his critically panned Moses epic Exodus: Gods and Kings, he depicted the God of the old testament as a petulant child raining cruelty and death onto the evil and innocent alike. In his newest Alien sequel, Alien: Covenant, he portrays the android David as a wannabe demi-God who slays the alien race that created humanity before learning to create life himself. As we see, Godhood is a toy of the cruel, ambitious, and malevolent. 

We see very much the same religious ambivalence in Kingdom of Heaven. Set against the events of the Second Crusades, we meet a young blacksmith named Balian who is drawn to the Holy Land to be forgiven of his transgressions. There, he finds himself caught in the machinations of a good pluralist king trying to keep the peace between his rambunctious Templar extremist knights and their rival military faces under the guidance of the great Muslim leader Saladin who wishes to march an army of 200,000 men into Jerusalem. 

Kingdom of Heaven is a post-modernist fairy tale and a retelling of somewhat accurate historical events, but done so through a thoroughly modern political lens (circa 2005). Most of the characters represent real life counterparts, but they’re boiled down into basic archetypes and singular one dimensional personalities for the purpose of expressing one theme: The utterly reprehensible nature of the Crusades, and by extension, the utterly reprehensible actions of then-modern America in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. 

It was part of the wave of Hollywood films released after the terrorist attacks designed to fundamentally critique the American military’s actions during the War on Terror. By extension, the film is meant to criticize the western world’s relationship with the religion of Islam. The genre in question encompassed dozens of films from major directors like Steven Spielberg’s Munich and War of the Worlds; Kathryn Bigalow’s The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty; Paul Greengrass’s World Trade Center, United 93, Green Zone, and Captain Phillips; Ridley Scott’s own Body of Lies; and smaller war films like In the Valley of Elah, Redacted, Rendition, The Kingdom, Lions for Lambs, Brothers, and Grace is Gone. To varying degrees, these films all sought to scrutinize how the west approached the concept of war, our relationship to the Muslim world, and the politics of operating a “war on terror” in the first place. 

Kingdom of Heaven is something of a liberal fairy tail that re-contextualizes the Crusades as an oppressive western religion dominating a rival religion and bringing slaughter and imperialism to the Middle East. Keep in mind, I don’t say that as a slight. That’s merely as a description of what the film is. You can take it or leave it as a modern parable depending on how much you agree with the thesis. Kingdom of Heaven is a mostly ahistorical retelling of events and boils a lot of the history out to make the narrative cleaner and more presentable to explore the theme.   

Regardless of your or my individual thoughts on the depiction, Kingdom of Heaven is a massive undertaking of a film. The theatrical cut released in May of 2005 was critically panned for its horrific screenplay. In reality, the film had been chopped to bits in the editing bay following a negative test screening. A second director’s cut of the film was released in December of the same year, and was received to near universal acclaim with 45 minutes of footage restored to the cut. 

As a film made in the tradition of the historical epic, it’s a film of incredible grandeur and spectacle. Kingdom of Heaven is one of the largest looking films of its time, and manages to make the weight of its characters decisions feel larger than life. The vistas are all enormous and present Jerusalem and Medieval Europe as massive lived-in spaces with hundreds of extras and huge sets. As History Buffs points out in a review, Scott extends his theme of religious oppression to the setting itself. Medieval France is a dank, lowly place filled with grime to symbolize the oppression of living under the theocracy of the church, while the coastal cities in Medieval Palestine are all bustling, culturally pluralistic paradises where the sunlight bakes the warm sands. This is, broadly speaking, a melodrama, and the film does everything it can to to speak to its audience through broad visual symbolism.

This extends to the cast as well, as it makes its characters look and feel like they’re taking part in historical events that will forever alter the European and Arabian worlds for centuries to come. Edward Norton, Eva Green, David Thewlis, and Marton Csokas all play their roles with varying degrees of seriousness. They really feel natural in such an intensely historically setting. The court of King Baldwin is the center of the film’s narrative, as the drama between these leaders and their temptations is what drives the plot and eventually earns the blowback of the Muslim leader Saladin. Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud carries the role of Saladin with gravitas and makes you believe he’s the kind of man who could rally hundreds of thousands of men to his side merely by how he speaks. His cool head and moral strength is intended as a contrast to the chaos of the Christian court who bickers as to whether God demands innocent Muslims ought to be slain or not. 

Orlando Bloom is famously the odd man out in the film with his disinterested and wooden portrayal of Balien. A lot of criticism for the film upon release centered around his performance. Still, he does provide a fascinating counterpoint to the rest of the film’s characters. As we meet him, he’s suffering from the suicide of his wife following a failed pregnancy. When he commits a murder in a crime of passion after discovering the local priest beheaded his wife and stole her necklace, he joins his father on a journey to Jerusalem where he’s promised the opportunity to have his sins abdicated by crusading for the Lord. 

Jerusalem proves to be a difficult place for Balien. Once he arrives, he finds himself alone on the hill where Christ was crucified and hopes to feel His presence his stop at Christendom’s holiest spot. Instead, he feels empty. He fears God has abandoned him. Yet, he still moves forward in his mission. As his father’s son, he inherits all the respect and nobility his father held in the court of Jerusalem. He’s introduced to the leper king Baldwin IV, a good king who keeps peace in Jerusalem by maintaining a pluralist regime and respecting different religions. He also meets Guy de Lusignan, a Templar knight and religious radical who stands to inherit the throne who seeks war with the Muslim armies accumulating in Damascus. 

Balien wants none of this situation. He sets to work on his own mission of living up to his father’s wishes of being “the perfect knight.” This proves to be a difficult title for him, as he’s offered numerous chances to seize power and be handed responsibility for the entire kingdom should he choose it. He forgoes the opportunities so he can maintain his personal perfection as a knight. The consequences of this choice are dire as the radical Templar gains the throne after Baldwin’s death. Guy selfishly rides off to battle with his Templars and is promptly slaughtered by the army of Saladin. In the end, the protection of Jerusalem falls upon Balian regardless of what he desires. 

Sadly, his arc is something of a loss of faith story. By the time the film reaches the siege of Jerusalem, Balian no longer cares about the religious consequences of his actions. He’s forced to cremate the dead from the first day of battle to protect the city from disease. He laments to a priest that any God that wouldn’t understand their need to forgo traditional Christian burial is no God worth worshiping. By the story’s end, he’s retreated from his nobility and land to his original home where he’s forgone the possibility of glory or redemption. 

As a Christian, that’s a sad story to watch. At the very least, though, there is something to be noted in his quest to be the “perfect knight” that rings true. Balian’s desire to live as a chivalrous man in an unchivalrous culture does ring distinctly to modern ears. There is a fascinating religious dimension to Balian I think speaks to the heart of a Christian living in guilt for his sins. He feels alienated from both his earthly father and his eternal father in heaven and seeks his redemption through his actions. Sadly, he’s unable to find such redemption the more he’s sucked into the worldly Christians around him. As David Thewlis’ character laments, “I have seen rage and madness in the eyes of many men who are religious. Godliness is what is here [his head] and here [his heart]. It is about what you do each day to your fellow man.” The story seems to echo the words of Christ lecturing the Philistines for their hypocrisies. It’s a religious dimension in a film that otherwise disregards the faith it’s exploring. 

Kingdom of Heaven is neither an easy nor pleasant story at times. It’s a difficult story for an earnest Christian viewer and disregards historical accuracy for the glories of modern political critique. As such, its reputation is mired in controversy no matter who you ask. As journalist Robert Wisk reported, when the film was premiered in Beirut in 2005, it received multiple standing ovations from its audience of mostly young Muslim men who applauded it’s portrayal of Saladin as merciful and kind to his enemies. It found less nuance in its depiction of Christians who are treated mostly as oppressive theocratic cowards, rapists, and murders. It’s a distinctly modern parable that seems to be grasping for some eternal truth, yet ultimately comes to reject such hopes. 

Positives

+ Beautiful visuals and cinematography + Spectacular casting + Epic action scenes and battles

Negatives

- Vast historical inaccuracies - Weak central performance by Orlando Bloom - Terrible theatrical cut

The Bottom Line

Kingdom of Heaven is a fascinating film from a fascinating director. It's enraging, complex, shallow, sensitive, nuanced, and spiteful all at once as it explores complex themes of faith and politics. It's controversial for how it explores its theme, and yet it's also immensely entertaining as a three-hour-long epic about the Crusades. Results may vary depending on what you bring into the film.

 

7.7

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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