Paradoxically, while I am a huge fan of the history of the Medieval Middle East (in particular, of the Eastern Roman Empire) I didn’t watch "Kingdom of Heaven" in the theaters. Instead, I waited for a sick weekend and rented it from the local store.
Ridley Scott set out to do a relatively accurate depiction of the goings-on during the destruction of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. For those that don’t know, in 1099 the First Crusade marched into Jerusalem and captured the city from the Saracens (Muslims). A hundred years later, the resurgence of Islam that came from the Turkic tribes of Anatolia forced the destruction of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem.
Just as the notorious internecine warfare between Muslim states enabled the Christians to gain land, their own constant dissonance was their undoing when the Muslims found their unity under Saladin. Indeed, most of the movie tries to deal with this disconnect: a small country on the border of giant empire, and yet its inhabitants are constantly at odds with each other.
First things first: Christians don’t come out of this movie in a positive light. We are represented as reckless, treacherous, murderous, uncivilized, and if I had a few more to pile on, they would be all deserved. The Muslims don’t look much better, of course, but we spend little time with them. They have disagreements, but they all respond to the same lord. They kill in cruel ways, but only if provoked.
Unfortunately, one has to admit the picture is quite accurate. When the Christian army conquered Jerusalem, the butchering of civilians was endless; to the point that historians report that soldiers had to wade in ankle deep blood. The Muslims, on the contrary, let every single soul in Jerusalem out and escort them to safety.
Let’s just day I am happy that Ridley Scott didn’t do an account of the Fourth Crusade, an even more vicious attack by Christians, this time directed at Constantinople, a very Christian city.
Now as for the movie. It’s Ridley Scott, so you know the cinematography is great. The script, as usual, could use a little trimming and I doubt many viewers would have minded if the relationship between the hero and the heroine had become a little more passionate.
The acting, again as usual, is what sets one Ridley Scott apart from the other, and in this case it’s a mixed blessing. The hero, Orlando Bloom, is in one word horrible. I don’t know why he was cast, since the part required a lot of good acting, but there is just not much coming out of that guy. He has the same detached and slightly out of place look no matter where he stumbles. His rage looks bored. His passion looks bored. His anger looks bored. His sadness looks bored. Once in a while you watch a movie where it is apparent how much the actors had fun. Not so with Kingdom and Bloom.
The rest of the cast does much, much better. Liam Neeson is a grand father, the dude we all wished we had had as father. Jeremy Irons is Tiberias, the powerful force for the good – and he’s quite convincing. The two bad guys (Marton Ksokas and Brendan Gleeson) convince us that their interminable scheming is for what they believe, not just because they are evil.
But most of all, Ghassan Massoud has the same effect on this movie as Marlon Brando had on The Godfather: you are just waiting for his every appearance. His Saladin is chivalrous out of belief in Islam, not out of calculation or weakness. There is never any doubt that he would be able to commit the most evil crimes, but he doesn’t because God Is Great. And his spectacular rendition alone makes us feel ashamed of being Christians, not the human frailty of the Christian characters.