Kingdom of Heaven Film Critique

By Ramon Cattell


The film Kingdom of Heaven stars English actor Orlando Bloom, best known for his performance in the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, as Balian of Ibelin, a blacksmith living somewhere in English-held France. The film is set between 1184 and 1187, when the crusader state of Jerusalem fell to Saladin and his Islamic army. The film begins with the burial scene of a woman, who it is said has committed suicide, and therefore, according to Christian tradition has been condemned to hell for eternity. It is soon revealed that this woman is the wife of Balian, who is back in the village working in his shop, when a traveling band of crusaders descends upon the village looking for the blacksmith himself. When he is found, the leader of the band, the Baron of Ibelin, tells Balian, that he is in fact his illegitimate son and heir to his lordship, and asks him to return to Jerusalem with him. Balian initially refuses the offer, but after realizing he has nothing left to keep him in France, and that he could rescue his dead wife's immortal soul from hell by crusading in the name of Christianity, he catches up with his father and the other crusaders outside of the village. On their travels to the holy land, Balian's father is fatally wounded, and he leaves his lands and title to his only surviving son. The hero of the film is shown to be a fair and reasonable man throughout the movie, even if Orlando Bloom seems aloof and bored while portraying him.

After Balian arrives in Jerusalem, he quickly becomes acquainted with the city's political scene, and the major players within it; people like Guy de Lusignan, husband of Princess Sibylla, sister of King Baldwin IV, King Baldwin himself, and Raynald of Chatillon. The characters in Kingdom of Heaven, for the most part, tend to be very linear and unchanging throughout the film. Either they are evil and foolish, like the Templar Knights, led by Raynald and Guy, or they are wise and noble, like King Baldwin, or Balian. Princess Sibylla is the only character who shows a modicum of depth, although even in this instance Sibylla, while she does err, she atones for her sins by humbling herself and giving up her station in order to both pay her penance as well as regain Balian's favor, and in the end she comes off as a truly good person all along.

The intentions of the protagonists and antagonists are made clear soon after Balian's arrival in the holy city. The "good guys" are intent on preserving the peace King Baldwin has secured for the people of Jerusalem, and maintaining the status quo that has been in place for six years. It is a fragile peace that has been set up with Salah al-Din (Saladin), one that is contingent on the city being open to all faiths, and the premise that violence between Christians and Arabs be kept to a minimum. Guy and Raynald, who embody everything that is "bad guy", are bent on disrupting the ceasefire that is in place, and going on the offensive against the Muslims, who vastly outnumber and surround the Christians. The Templar Knights’ logic behind these seemingly suicidal tactics is that God will not allow a Christian army to be defeated by heathen forces, and any argument with this logic may elicit cries of blasphemy from a quick tempered mob. Again the writer and director are guilty of pigeon holing the one dimensional characters they maintain throughout the movie. The hands of the level headed protagonists are forced by the fanatical cries of "God wills it" by the blood thirsty, warmongering of the Templar Knights.

It is an act of treachery, orchestrated by Guy and Raynald that sets the war for Jerusalem in motion. Their attack on an Arab caravan brought Salah al-Din out of Damascus with an army of two hundred thousand troops, and it conversely took King Baldwin himself, stricken with leprosy, leading his army, to persuade the Arab king to turn back. This selfless act cost the king his life, after he made peace with Salah al-Din; the toll of travel was too great on his diseased body, and he died, but not before asking Balian to save Jerusalem, at the expense of his conscience. King Baldwin’s proposal was that Balian marry Sibylla, and that Guy, along with any knight who refused to swear allegiance to Balian, would be executed. It was without even a moment’s hesitation that the character of Lord Balian perpetrated the action which spurred the major gripe I have with this film: he refused, telling the King that, “[he could] not be the cause of that.” Thus, again the events were set in motion for the final battle for Jerusalem.

King Baldwin IV died, and with Balian’s refusal to compromise the chivalric code, Guy de Lusignan is crowned king, and immediately sets out to make war with the Arabs. After Raynald butchers a Muslim village, and kills Salah al-Din’s sister, there is no turning back; war is imminent, and again the stereotypes that have run throughout this movie prove to be as repetitive as my critique of it. The noble and wise Balian, tells the arrogant and foolish Guy, that he will be damming the Christian army if he proceeds with his strategy of meeting the Arab forces outside the city walls, away from water, and the arrogant, foolish Guy brushes Balian off. The outcome of the battle is never in question. The only question left is, how will Balian fend off the massive army of Salah al-Din now that the Christian force has been decimated.

From here on the film take a very Hollywood-esque overmatched epic battle sequence; preparations are made to fight a battle against unimaginable odds, Balian’s strategy is shown in bits and pieces as to not give away the whole of his genius, until the climax that is, (those with little heart state the obvious,) that the hero must save himself and bring them along of course; the hero scoffs; an inspirational speech ensues, it’s all very Braveheart. The battle is indeed epic; I must give the filmmaker that; one of the best I have seen. On the first night Jerusalem is bombarded by flaming projectiles from both trebuchets and catapults. On the second day Salah al-Din’s siege towers reach the walls, where they are pulled over by ballista bolts with rope attached, connected to weights. Eventually the walls are breeched and Balian and his civilian army, make their last stand. Balian’s valiance in combat, along with the chivalric portrayal of the Arab king, leads to generous peace terms from Salah al-Din, that is, safe passage for every man, woman and child, back to Christian lands. Balian surrenders Jerusalem under these conditions.

For all of my grievances with the linear character building, and the typical storytelling, Kingdom of Heaven has more than a few redeeming aspects. Overall the positive portrayal of rational individuals over religious fanatics gives the message of Kingdom of Heaven a very modern air, that I cannot say with any confidence would have been present during the time in which this movie was set. To regularly go against the teachings of the church would have been contrary to one’s health; however, this movie was not meant for a medieval audience so I guess this can be forgiven. Beyond the anti-religious message that I find rather anachronistic, as far as I can tell from my basic knowledge of the period and some historical research I did on the characters in the movie, Kingdom of Heaven seems to go to greater pains than most Hollywood films in trying to stay historically accurate. It seems some dramatic license was taken with Balian’s character, and the love story can be verified as rumor at best, but in order to tell a dramatic story that will fill theaters, some contamination of history is necessary. I enjoyed the film, and felt it had its share of wonderful performances, such as Edward Norton and Ghassan Massoud as King Baldwin IV and Salah al-Din respectively. However, my favorite detail of the film would have to be the cinematography; the shots that Ridley Scott put together were inspired, with nearly a dozen views that were nothing less than breathtaking, from panoramic vistas of 12th century Jerusalem, to the most realistic battle formations I have ever seen on screen, to a flock of hundreds of vultures circling over the freshly fallen bodies of a recent battle. All in all, Kingdom of Heaven did a better job than I had anticipated with a subject very few storytellers have had the courage to tackle.

For an interesting discussion on the “historical epic” Kingdom of Heaven by history professor Nancy Caciola (University of California, San Diego, Hamid Dabashi (professor of Iranian Studies, Columbia University NY) and Donald Spoto (professor of theology).
Consult the Christianity Today website's interview with historians concerning Kingdom of Heaven (3/8/08).

See also a review “It’s God Guignol” by Robert Irwin which appeared in the TLS 27 May 2005 (http://tls.timesonline.co.uk).

Recommended reading on the Crusades:

Hans Eberhard Mayer, The Crusades 2nd edition Oxford University Press, 1988.

Jonathan Riley Smith, Oxford History of the Crusades. Oxford University Press, 2002.

Sir Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades, 3 vols. Cambridge University Press., 1951-54.