What did director Ridley Scott expect? Three days after its ballyhooed opening, Kingdom of Heaven, the “Gladiator”-director’s Crusades movie, has proved itself at most a box-office mediocrity, at worst a potential flop. At the Sunday screening of “Kingdom of Heaven” I attended (admittedly it was a matinee), only seven people shared the theater with me–not good.
The movie’s got a few problems–its two-and-a-half-hour running time feels almost as long as the two-and-a-half-centuries-long Crusades themselves, and lead-Crusader Orlando Bloom as the blacksmith-turned-knight Balian of Ibelin isn’t a powerful enough actor to carry his role. But the worst flaw of “Kingdom of Heaven” is that Scott, like many a Hollywood director before him in recent years, decided that he wanted to make a politically correct film. As Sam Goldwyn (I think it was he) famously said, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” The message Scott sent in “Kingdom of Heaven” is that values and ideals–religious, patriotic, and so forth–aren’t worth fighting for. That’s a blue-state message, focusing on the pointlessness and “ambiguity” of everything so dear to blue-state hearts. Trouble is, it’s a red-state country these days, and it’s filled with red-state moviegoers. What if Scott had made a “Braveheart” or a “Lord of the Rings”–or for that matter a “Gladiator”–out of the Crusades? All three films celebrated values and ideals that were indeed worth fighting for. They were runaway hits even though neither “Braveheart” nor “Gladiator” had what could be called happy endings. “Kingdom of Heaven” is just a downer.
That’s too bad. “Kingdom of Heaven” features some memorable performances. The most outstanding is Edward Norton’s as the chivalrous, leprosy-stricken King Baldwin of Jerusalem, who, with his disease-eaten face hidden behind a silver mask, does his entire performance solely with his eyes and body. Massoud Ghassan as Saladin and Liam Neeson as Balian’s knightly father, Godfrey, are both nearly as compelling onscreen as Norton. “Kingdom” is also a visually beautiful movie, featuring thrillingly blocked-out battles between Crusaders and Saracens and a tactile sense of what it must have been like for Western Europeans of the 12th century to find themselves suddenly in a sunny Mediterranean land of palm trees, hot winds, oranges, and exotically garbed people.
The movie could have been a thoughtful exploration of what it means to know the will of God in a world in which everyone, like you, is humanly flawed, and to do right in a difficult, ultimately demographically doomed struggle in which some of your enemies, such as Saladin, exemplify the nobility of character that many of your comrades in arms lack. (The Crusader kingdoms lasted for an amazing 200 years, almost as long as the United States has been a legal entity, but the Westerners were always vastly outnumbered by the adherents of a powerful Islam that had been on the aggressive for five centuries before the Crusaders tried to do something to save the remnants of a once-Christian civilization in the Middle East.)
But Scott decided instead to go for the easy Vietnam/Iraq parallels. The Crusaders are obviously a stand-in for you know which Western army fighting a few hundred miles east of the Holy Land today. It’s not that every single Crusader in the movie is a villain–but every single villain in the movie is a Crusader. As for the Muslims, the notions of “fanatic” and “jihad” are simply non-existent, and Scott never asks what they (outsiders all–the historic Saladin was a Kurd) were doing occupying lands that had once (and in the case of Syria, quite recently) belonged for hundreds of years to the Christian Byzantine Empire. Somehow the Muslims belong in the Holy Land, but the Christians don’t. As for the Jews and their claim to the land promised by God to their ancestors–well, “Kingdom” was filmed in Muslim Morocco, so although we hear once or twice about Jews, we certainly don’t see any of them in Ridley Scott’s Jerusalem.
The lesson that Scott tries to teach is that all religions are about the same, that the holy places of any religion are equally meaningless (tell that to the Bhuddists whose statuary in Afghanistan was blasted to smithereens by the Taliban), and that it’s better to give up and walk away from a place than to stand and fight for what one believes in. The one Christian cleric in “Kingdom” who’s not crude, thievish, piggish, fanatical or all four, the Knight-Hospitaler Tiberius (David Thewlis), deserts his friend Balian and flees Jersusalem just as the city is about to be attacked brutally by Saladin. His point? Oh–war is hell. So much for friendship, courage, loyalty, and the rest of it.
After Balian and his band of men, vastly outnumbered by Saladin’s army, manage to defend the beleaguered city heroically and in a brilliant bit of strategy, Balian (warning: plot-spoiler ahead))…surrenders Jerusalem and walks away, too, with all of the Christians, like the American troops in Saigon in 1975. True, escorting his people to safety on the seacoast might have been the best Balian could do, but in the end, Scott turns him into the John Kerry of the Middle Ages: Proto-Winter Soldier Balian gives up his knighthood (sort of like throwing away your medals), returns to his blacksmith shop in Provence, and when Richard the Lionheart shows up a few years later to induct his talents for the Third Crusade, makes it clear that he’d rather ride around the mountains with his heiress-new wife, Sybilla (Eva Green), the former queen of Jerusalem who’s decided it would be more romantic to take up with a farrier.
So it’s not surprising that not many people want to sit through two and a half hours of steady disillusionment and the systematic undermining of religion, patriotism, and meaningful human action–which means that Ridley Scott is not likely to have a hit on his hands. “Kingdom of Heaven” does have one thing going for it, however: It’s not so politically correct that it features women Crusaders. But I keep thinking sadly about how much more it could have been had Scott found something of value in Western culture to believe in–or at least tried to understand why so many in the medieval West believed in the Crusades and were willing to die in them, even when they were led by imperfect or bad men.