Uneven “Kingdom of Heaven”

Finally rented "Kingdom of Heaven".

It was a gorgeous, lovingly filmed pageant, with great production values, stirring battle scenes, convincing acting and exotic backdrops.

Unfortunately, the plot was pretty thin and at times dull.  Also, as much as I like Orlando Bloom, his boyish persona just didn’t measure up in this role, especially opposite the august Ghassan Massoud (Saladin) or Marton Csockas (who plays his rival and the story’s villain).  The Independent   noted cattily that, far from being a heroic presence in the film, Orlando Bloom  "always looks like he’s a student backpacking around the East on his gap year."   Brutal, but dead-on.

This movie had all the makings of greatness–with a better plot, this movie could’ve followed in the glorious footsteps of Russel Crowe’s "Gladiator"–but even with some stirring scenes it never lives up to its promise.

I was disappointed by the film’s treatment of Christianity. 

My understanding from the media is that Ridley Scott consciously chose to make the film sympathetic to Arabs and Muslims as a corrective to contemporary prejudices.  For that I can only applaud him.  Unlike most in Hollywood, he appears to have a moral compass and an understanding of the high stakes involved the way popular culture portrays an already widely feared and misunderstood minority.

So, this film turns the tables on the Western sense of superiority towards the "uncivilized" Muslim world by painting the Crusades and the Christian religious establishment that launched them (i.e., the Pope and Church in Rome, which was then the undisputed spiritual capital of Christendom) in a highly unflattering light.   I was reminded a bit of how Joseph Conrad brutally exposed the hypocrisy and inhumanity of Colonialism in Africa in his sublime and subversive Heart of Darkness (random trivia:  HoD was the topic of Edward Said’s doctoral dissertation). The crusaders and the clerics egging them on–In one scene, a priest along the road in Europe insistently reminds knights on the way to Jerusalem, "To kill an infidel is not murder.  It is the way to paradise."–are portrayed as greedy, violent, hypocritical and intolerant.  The Christian West’s is knocked off its high horse in its relationship with the Muslim world by implying that it all began with the "Original Sin" of aggression and persecution by the West.

I don’t really have that much of a problem with this message. It’s oversimplified, to be sure, and some Christians would argue (as does this medieval historian in an intriguing article in the Catholic Crisis Magazine) that the Crusades were, by the standards of the time, actually an understandable reaction to the military threat posed by an aggressive and rapidly expanding Muslim empire.  But, context or not, I think it’s fair to note that these campaigns often failed woefully to live up to Christian principles (as is shown by the sacking of Constantinople, the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church, in 1024 and various pogroms and massacres of Jews by crusaders in and en route to the Holy Land).  And subsequent Christian/Muslim relations during the era of Colonialism weren’t exactly much more inspiring.  This black & white picture is not all misleading, I think, and it’s probably healthy for the ascendant West to be reminded of its sometimes ignoble past.

At the same time, I wish Scott had made more of an effort to show that the Crusades’ moral failings resulted not from the message of Christianity itself but from the greed and venality of men.  Just as Muslims are right to deny that terrorism is condoned by Islam, a Christian is justified in pointing out that the excesses of the Crusades are not sanctioned by Christianity.  I wish that point had been made in this film.  I wish some "good Christians" were shown, even if only in passing, just to establish that contrast for the record.

I don’t think his message was actually anti-Christian, so much as secular–if anything mildly anti-religious, as the moral of the tale is clearly that religion more often than not brings out the worst in people–but these subtleties are unlikely to be picked up on by most viewers.  The average person (which in America means Christian and, increasingly, Evangelical) will probably interpret this movies’ favorable portrayal of Muslims and the absence of positive Christian characters as an assault on their faith. 

This is also a tactical error on Scott’s part.  If he wanted this film to combat prejudice, he would’ve done well to ensure that its positive message wasn’t overshadowed by needless controversy.  The way it stands now, Christian conservatives can, with some justification, accuse this film of bias, and use the ensuing controversy to prevent it from reaching its audience.


Update (2006-01-13):

Check out Zahir’s  insightful and entertaining review of the film.  His observations about the dark side of Saladin as a historical figure vis-a-vis Shiah Muslims are particularly interesting. 

I am not trying to judge him by modern Pan-Islamic norms, but it would be interesting to see whether Saladin’s chivalry towards non-Muslim opponents on the battlefield (e.g., sending over doctors and ice to assist an ailing opposing general) applied equally to his Shiah Muslim foes.

Another issue I have with the film is how anachronistic it feels.  Little attempt is made to present the story in a manner that is any way historically authentic.  Baillian and the other do-gooder Knights Templar (who in the real world also participated in the slaughter, as this massacre of Jews in the Rhineland in 1096 shows) sound more like modern secular humanists than medieval Christian knights. 

My wife Shabana made an interesting observation:  The good guys in this film are basically all "Americans".  Hollywood tends to do this with all stories set beyond America’s shores–I’m still smarting from the Disney rendition of  Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, which was so execrable that I half expected Keifer Sutherland to say "Don’t have a cow, Your Grace!" to Richelieu.–but the artistic offense is especially egregious in a movie chroncling one of history’s first great clashes of civilizations.