Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven
I saw Kingdom of Heaven Sunday. The film has many virtues, with its attention to costume and scene. I could quibble. Medieval European swords of the 1100s could not be wielded in the way they were shown here; they were very heavy. And I doubt that whatever the catapults were throwing in the way of fiery material would explode like bombshells on impact. Even bombshells didn’t explode until the 18th century, as I recall. The history is not entirely wrong, though predictably liberties are taken.
I’ll have something to say with regard to history in a moment. Here let me complain about the lack of character development. There is no reason why, in an epic, character has to be kept constant. Characters can learn and change even in the midst of large scale change. Nobody in this film seems to. Everyone ends the film as they began it. Instead, we are given a medieval morality play where each character is a virtue or vice and stays that way throughout.
The highly unlikely Balian of Ebilin presented here, as a bastard ironsmith belatedly recognized by his noble father, the previous lord of Ebilin, is used to represent Humanism. (That is, the loss of faith without a concomitant loss of ethical values). Tiberias represents loyalty. Baldwin IV represents resignation in the face of tragic fate (his leprosy). Saladin, as in most of the medieval chronicles, represents chivalry. Etc.
Some historians have complained that cynicism about religion and humanism of the sort Balian professed did not exist in the 1100s in Europe. I disagree. You see it in the young Abelard, I think. And in Muslim figures such as Omar Khayyam and Hafez the poet.
With regard to history, I thought that Scott and his screen writer, William Monahan, seem to me to have missed a great opportunity. The fact is that Saladin, no less than his Christian rivals in Jerusalem, was less interested in fighting for a faith than in consolidating power. So, he spent a lot of time and energy taking (Muslim-ruled) Aleppo and subduing (Muslim-ruled) Mosul when he could have put the energy into defeating the Crusaders.
Although the divisions among the Christians are shown, they remain somewhat vague. Raymond III of Tripoli was not a complacent courtier of Guy de Lusignan, but a major rival who had his own power base. Moreover, Raymond III of Tripoli made an alliance with Saladin against his Christian enemies in Jerusalem.
If the film had shown Saladin giving the Christians breathing space while he attacked the Muslim ruler of Aleppo, and had been clearer about Raymond III’s alliance with Saladin, it could have cut across the Islam/Christianity binary division and showed the warriors as human beings rather than as members of a particular religion.
Indeed, the really big opportunity missed here was of making Saladin the protagonist. He comes across as the most admirable figure in the film, as it is.
Come to think of it, that last is a real accomplishment given the atmosphere in the US nowadays, and makes up for a lot of the film’s flaws.