Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Review: Kingdom of Heaven

I thought I'd repost a film review I wrote way back in May 2005 on the sort of historical movie "Kingdom of Heaven" which, whilst exciting in many ways, did not necessarily give us a good understanding of the period. I've made a couple of small alterations but have essentially left the text as it was.

A for intentions, but shaky on the facts

Yeah, yeah, I know - it's a film not a historical text book. I'm okay with that - I really am.

So the hero of the film has about as much in common with his real life counter part as chalk with cheddar. So they miss out an entire King - I'm really not too worried if the odd King gets dropped from history - after all if you owe your place in history to who gave birth to you then you can't complain if someone wants to scrub you out of their Hollywood blockbuster can you? So there were a lot of explosions for the 1100's - you've got to admire the sheer chutzpah of Ridley Scott for giving Saladin's armies industrial strength fire power.

But there were some historical inaccuracies that I was less comfortable with frankly - and some I thought were quite misguided, but any hoo you'll see why, let's go back a bit first.

Kingdom of Heaven is Orlando Bloom's first big budget film where he plays the leading role. As a film it all rests on his ability to convince us that he is a God fearing, newly promoted knight in the Holyland capable of holding his own against the strongest and the toughest and able to valiantly lead armies to heroic defeat, twice.

Hmmm. Leaving aside the fact that I reckon my Mum punches harder than Orlando Bloom I couldn't help but feel a little wary of how Hollywood might decide to take on the Crusades in the current climate. Well, on that score I was pleasantly surprised. Kingdom of Heaven is a liberal anti-war propaganda film. It takes on hereditary peerages (easy target?), bigotry, Islamophobia, the greed of the rich and the dishonour of the war mongers. It even takes on the hypocrisy of organised religion. Nice one. A for the intentions of the film makers.

So why the grumpy start to the review? Well, I'll tell you.

Partly it's simply because as a story its clunky. Full of flawed explanations and character sketches. Every time it makes a worthy stab at making a progressive point it either does so in a heavy handed way or a way completely unsuitable to the setting of the Middle East in the twelfth century. I'm genuinely not a stickler for historical accuracy, stories have their own logic that should take priority over anything inconvenient like facts, but an important part of story telling is plausibility.

Balian (Orlando Bloom) is a tragic hero, whose wife commits suicide and feels deserted by God. One of the bravest themes to this film is the discussion of the Grace of God and redemption - in the religious rather than filmic sense. This is a strong theme but completely undermined by the pointlessly tacked on (as always) love story. Orlando has all this 'inner conflict' and 'searching for redemption' due to his strong moral convictions and grief for his wife - does it then make sense for him to shag someone else's misses just because he fancies her?

Whilst the moronic Hollywood formula might insist on a certain number of seconds of leading actor's bum the character he played would not have operated within the same moral framework of a twenty first century liberal. He would not have fallen in love with and then had sex with another man's wife without understanding he was committing a sin.

Which leads me onto a second, even bigger, grumble. The object of his affections (Eva Green) was 'based' upon a woman who, in real life, became the Queen of Jerusalem. The real life character was an energetic political player, talented, wicked and loyal to her husband (as it happens), Guy de Lusignan, who she manoeuvred into powerful political positions against the wishes of many at court. To downplay this strong historical politician into an eyelash batting love interest and deny her any real agency of her own, beyond what the men in the film choose for her is, frankly, sexist in the extreme and a real missed opportunity. Sorry to bring that up. She is very pretty though, in a conventional, bland sort of way.

Slightly more positively, the portrayal of Muslims as people with honour does not, as some reviewers have suggested, imply that Muslims were saints - there are plenty of faults on view too but it does redress the balance. Most portrayals of Islam over this period have been of a people bordering on savagery. The facts are that, at this time, Middle Eastern society was more cultivated and had a more robust code of ethics than the European robber barons and that they might have had some legitimate grievance when they objected to their lands being invaded by a bunch of racist psychopaths and subjected to robbery, murder and pillage.

These are simple facts and not an attempt to paint Muslims as anything other than human beings who wanted to live their lives, shock. In this I think the film is both very welcome, timely and accurate - whilst some have suggested that Saladin was not evil enough in the film I'm really puzzled by this criticism. Saladin is played, correctly, as an intelligent and urbane dictator. Likable but cruel. Ruthless in war, but cunning rather than blood thirsty for the sake of it. Some of the Europeans at the time cannot be described in this way. The Pope had given Crusaders carte blanche to commit whatever sin they choose and fear no reprisals in the after life, as they were doing "God's work", and many seized the opportunity with both hands

In the film Saladin personally beheads a prisoner for rudeness (the incident is factually accurate of course) which does rather imply that those who are complaining that Saladin is portrayed as a crochet loving old lady who helps with meals on wheels are wide of the mark. Just because he doesn't feast on the still warm corpse does not mean he is portrayed as a saint.

There was a real, internal, conflict taking place in the camp of the Crusaders and Saladin used that civil unrest to his best advantage to destroy the Crusaders' army at Hittin and then take Jerusalem where Balian did indeed lead the defence of the city and negotiate safe passage to the survivors (in stark contrast to when the Crusaders first took Jerusalem when they massacred everyone they could find... oh stop bashing the Crusaders Jim!).

But I want to come on to the real problem area, and it's connected to this brave attempt to portray a genuinely devout person. Balian (Bloom) is the only person anxious about the Grace of God and the fact that he does not feel it. In fact he is consumed with self doubt which drives him to be the best God fearing Knight he can be. This person who is uncertain in their faith is the only person who is also actively attempting to be good - those with the formal certainties of the Church are portrayed as the least God fearing bunch.

I like that, what I'm less easy with is the way in which Balian expresses his faith. Four hundred years before Spinoza he has a confirmed and vigorous enlightenment view of a personal relationship with God, unmediated by the Catholic Church (the Church that told him that invading the Holyland was a Good, with a capital G, thing to do). Five hundred years before the Levellers he comes within a cat's whisker of telling a churchman that the land is held in common for everyone to share and that the social positions of the rulers and ruled are illegitimate because they are 'unearned'. Hey, I like the ideas, course, but I'm finding it hard to believe in a medieval knight holding these views - or least having held them for more than five minutes before he was sentenced to death for heresy.

For a lively taste of the ideology of the times read this fascinating contemporary monk's account of the Crusades by Ralph of Coggeshall.

Some of the religious metaphors were verging on bonkers though. Attempting to show the Knight Balian as a humble blacksmith (with more than a few hints at the parallels between Balian the blacksmith and Jesus the carpenter) was just irritating and unnecessary, particularly as this is the second time Bloom has been cast as a blacksmith (Pirates of the Caribbean being the other occasion) and Bloom could not look less like a brawny blacksmith, who spends his days bashing red hot iron into shape, if he tried.

In fact every 'goody' is someone with modern liberal values, and every 'baddy' is one who scorns these values for something closer to naked bigotry and greed. I'm not saying that bigotry etc. did not exist - but I do find it a little tiresome that every 'bad man' must be all bad and every good one must be saintly. So it's not enough that Guy de Lusignan be in favour of war with Saladin, he has to hate his wife with a vengeance and pick meaningless quarrels with all and sundry. He's even grumpier than me! At least Ed Norton had leprosy so the pretty = good, deformed = bad equation we get so often (particularly in Bond films curiously) was not present this time (Bloom excepted).

But it was this attempt to foist modern values on feudal times that leads to a total misrepresentation of why the hawks were hawks and the doves doves - and for me this was the film's biggest flaw.

Question; where does religious understanding and tolerance come from?

The film shows a new comer to the Holyland bringing with him a new insight and distance to the conflict but the reality was that it was those who were born and brought up in the Middle East, like the soft spoken King with leprosy and the real Balian, who had developed an understanding of their Muslim brothers and sisters and were prepared not just to coexist but had adopted many of their customs and cultural habits. These were the doves - and the hawks, like the real life Guy, had come from Europe in search of loot and glory and had no such openness to ideas other than their own.

By reversing the roles (Balian becoming the new comer and Guy the old hand) Ridley Scott is saying that greed, violence and bigotry were simple moral choices and born of a cycle of war, when the reality was that the closer the enemies were socially and culturally the more bigotry and casual violence was undermined. It is understanding that opens the door to peace and not simply good leaders making moral choices.

The lesson the film tries to teach us is that violence corrupts and it takes a good man, walking a lonely path, to fight for good. I'm not knocking the sentiment but it's moralistic bollocks. The lesson of the period is that peace, love and understanding (gag) can only come through talking to each other, learning from each other and living side by side - the hatred and bigotry of the times were a product of war propaganda, the forcible seizure of wealth on behalf of a small minority of rich Westerners and being able to see the 'enemy' as alien and inhuman. Those who knew Muslims personally were far more resistant to their demonisation.

Now that is a radical message for the neo-cons to put in their pipes and smoke.

There aren't many films about the Crusades so let's have more, and for all the faults of the film I recommend seeing it - once it comes out on TV. It's just such a shame that the truly radical anti-war message of the period was passed over in favour of the usual formula. Explosions plus tacked on love interest plus big name star equals any old film. Unfortunately.

1 comment:

dmk said...

Thanks for reposting this - I didn't know much of the history of the time, so you've filled in a few blanks. Excellent review, I'll have another look at the film now.