Kingdom of second thoughts

Kingdom of second thoughts May 10, 2005

C.S. Lewis once said no book was any good to him until he had read it twice, and I often say that this is how I feel about films. Alas, in my line of work, I am frequently called upon to offer opinion after carefully reasoned opinion when I have seen the film under discussion only once, and I must often compose my thoughts within mere days if not hours of that one viewing; and thus, I am often apprehensive about seeing certain films a second time, lest my second impression of them be very different from my first, and already published, impression.

While I have long been resigned to this fact with regard to my newspaper (and now website) reviews, I have typically made a point of seeing films twice before writing anything for magazines like Christianity Today or Books & Culture. After reviewing Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998) for a Christian newspaper here in Canada, I sat through it a second time while preparing this magazine article, and I remember thinking, “Hmmm, this isn’t as bad as I remember it,” until about the two-hour mark, after which the film got boring again. I left the theatre with my views of the film basically unchanged, but I had a deeper understanding of why I held the views that I did.

I say all this because I just got home from seeing Kingdom of Heaven a second time. I first saw the film over a month ago, on the junket, and I wrote my review for Christianity Today nearly as long ago, though it was not made public until last Friday. The first time, I went into the theatre with a fairly low view of Ridley Scott’s skills as an historian in general, and skeptical that the world needed yet another pre-modern combat movie; but I came out of the theatre basically impressed. This time, however, I entered the theatre with the criticisms of my friends and colleagues ringing in my ears, and the weaknesses stood out a fair bit more.

Most drastically, where I remember once liking the music, I was now annoyed by the repetition of a certain motif used in all the combat sequences. This may seem a trivial point, but I saw the film with my sister Michelle, who is studying music at the University of Victoria and whose mere presence can make me more attuned to a film’s musicality or lack thereof. I remember watching Run Lola Run (1998) with her, and her exclaiming “Oh brother, that’s Charles Ives’ ‘The Unanswered Question‘!” during a certain sequence. Something like that happened again with this film: as Salah-ad-Din slashes Brendan Gleeson’s throat, a choral piece comes on, and Michelle suddenly groaned and said she couldn’t believe they were playing the Lutheran hymn ‘O Sacred Head Now Wounded‘ over this medieval scene.

Moving on to more weighty subjects, I find the film’s rather fey portrayal of Sir Guy de Lusignan, the main Knight Templar baddie, a much bigger problem than I remembered it. I suppose characters like this are par for the course as epics like this go — who can forget the outrageously effeminate Prince of Wales in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995)? — but actor Marton Csokas’s voice and mannerisms reminded me of his previous performance as an elfin king in the Lord of the Rings films (“Nine there were set out from Rivendell…”), and I was also reminded of Sir Ridley Scott’s previous reliance on Michael Wincott, the typecast bad-guy actor of another decade, in 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992).

Speaking of which, I cannot believe that I wrote so many articles on this film and never, not once, made an explicit comparison between Kingdom and 1492. I made a point of watching the latter film, along with a handful of Crusade-themed films, just before the junket, and I was struck by the fact that both of Scott’s films followed such a similar storyline. Both films are set in a world defined by medieval religious prejudices, and both films are about a man who sets sail for a “new world” and briefly finds peace and harmony as he builds a civilization there, until in-fighting among the Christians brings everything he has worked for crashing down around him, and he ends up in obscurity again.

What made the Wincott role in 1492 particularly galling, given the film’s higher aspirations, was that I had seen that actor just a day or two before, playing one of the main bad guys in Kevin Costner’s noisy, clumsy, ham-fisted action movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991). So I see Sir Guy in Kingdom in a similar light, now. I do not think Csokas, as an actor, will be as easy to pigeonhole as Wincott — see also his brief, and more morally ambiguous, role in last year’s The Bourne Supremacy (my review) — but certainly his interpretation of this particular character is a bit too movie-ish.

That said, I would still defend the film from some of the criticisms that have been lobbed its way, though my defense may seem a little back-handed.

For example, I still stand by my claim that this film is better than Scott’s earlier epic Gladiator (2000; my review), for all the reasons I cite in my review of the new film. True, Kingdom of Heaven is not the revenge-quenching crowd-pleaser that Gladiator was, but I can’t say that bothers me. What’s more, Gladiator has always been a bit of a letdown for me, as it begins with a fantastic battle sequence and some fine, eloquent performances, and then gradually dissipates into smaller and smaller fights that are puffed up beyond their true significance by a bit of bafflegab about Rome and the mobs and giving the Empire back to the democratic people who don’t seem to deserve it exactly and who cares anyway, bla bla bla. Kingdom of Heaven, in contrast, starts small and works its way up to the big stuff, which is suitably impressive. (On second viewing, I may wish it had done a better job of working up to the big stuff, but it does get there.) I particularly noted, this time around, how the film emphasizes that the battle lasts a few days, whereas I remember one e-pal complaining that The Return of the King (2003) had compressed the Battle of Pelennor Fields to, oh, maybe a few hours.

I also am not bothered by the idea that the film puts forth the view that it would be a really good idea if religions were more tolerant and less extremist. My friend Jeff Overstreet has said that the film idealizes the notion that there is nothing in the various religions worth “arguing” over, but I disagree; what we see in this film is not mere argument, but outright slaughter, and if the film is saying there is nothing in the various religions worth killing our fellow human beings over, then I cannot dismiss that message quite so easily. To say that religions should be less inclined towards violence is, I think, to say that religions should be more Christian, i.e. more Christ-like; indeed, the film even emphasizes this point when the David Thewlis character says that the pope may want Christians to kill Muslims, but Christ would not want them to do this. I think it is even an open question whether Christians should have fought back against the original Muslim conquest of their lands. (As a cradle Mennonite who attends an Orthodox church, I am obviously still grappling with the question of church-state relations, which inevitably means I am still grappling with the question of officially sanctioned violence.) In contrast, where is there any indication within the film that Islam has doubts about the propriety of violence? In short, there is no such indication. And I question whether the Koran could ever provide evidence of such doubts on the same scale that we find them within the New Testament. Like the one character in the film says, “Their prophet says, ‘Submit.’ Jesus says, ‘Decide.'” To say that both faiths should be less violent and less bent on conquering each other is ultimately to say that both faiths should be more Christ-like.

I am likewise not bothered that the film does not put as many nasty Muslims on the screen as it does nasty Christians, all in the name of “balance”. I don’t particularly like playing these kinds of identity politics games, and I think it is especially unfair to demand that a film provide equal numbers of characters on both sides of a battle when the film in question is all about a particular man’s spiritual journey on one side of that battle. There are three basic Muslim characters: one is a warmongering zealot, one is a faithful warrior who doesn’t harbour any particular ill will to the Christians, and one is Salah-ad-Din, who is somewhere between the two characters — he plays nice but clearly has expansionist goals. If we count the faithful warrior’s servant, who keeps attacking Balian (Orlando Bloom) long after he has been told to stop, then two out of the four Muslims with significant speaking parts are warmongering zealots. And then there are the Christian characters, of whom there are many: apart from Balian, who today we would call an agnostic, the film’s biggest stars and therefore its most attractive personae (Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, Ed Norton, even David Thewlis) are all identified with the more peaceful, pragmatic and even idealistic side of the equation, and then there are those nasty Templars on the other side. If the Templars get more screen time than the warmongering Muslims, it is mainly because the Christians get more screen time, period.

The one thing that does bother me about the film’s portrayal of Christianity is that the clerics who represent the official Church are consistently on the nasty side of the equation. There are three, I think: the priest in Balian’s village, the person who tells pilgrims to kill infidels, and the Patriarch of Jerusalem (who admittedly had his problems). Only one is an outright warmongerer, but all three seem to exist mainly to tell our heroes how bad they are or how God has abandoned them or something of that sort. Well, okay, there is a fourth guy who belongs to the “organized church” in some way, namely the David Thewlis character, who is a Hospitaller, i.e. a member of a military monastic order. Thewlis is what Scott has called a “good man, underlined,” and we see him taking Liam Neeson’s last confession and performing similar acts of spiritual guidance. But the average moviegoer today probably doesn’t meet many monastic soldiers, whereas there are many opportunities to meet priests and even bishops, so it is not impossible that people might come away thinking that those good clerics are no longer around but those bad clerics still are.

But like I say, I don’t particularly care for the sort of criticism that limits its focus to counting the number of sympathetic characters on our side and their side, etc., at least not with a film like this. The real question propelling this film is what role God plays, if any, in human affairs — and this is a question that transcends religious differences. The theme comes up so often in the dialogue — “You’re in the hands of God,” “If God has purpose for you…,” “It was the end of his time. All is as God wills it,” etc. — that I think we fail as critics if we marginalize this in order to focus on the identity stuff.

That said, I may have failed as a critic, myself, by not noticing some of the weaknesses that were more apparent to me today than they were a month ago. Why was it that I did not notice them before, I wonder? Was it the junket experience? Was it because I had just read the relevant sections of James Reston’s book and was tickled by all the historical references that I caught, instead of looking at the movie as just another movie? Was it because I went in with such low expectations that what stood out for me were the things I liked more than I expected? Was it because the film had a strong finish that obscured the weaker, earlier parts? Who knows.

And the scary thing is, I might completely revise my opinions again if I see the film a third time!

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