The Shakespearen Art of Parable

#96 – Kingdom of Heaven – Ridley Scott – 2005

A Foreward: One of the reasons I think historians and experts shouldn’t by permitted to analyze (non-documentary) films is that they are incredibly picky about which films they analyze: they only go after the biggest and brightest and the ones that might win awards so as to discredit them with claims of historical inaccuracy. Now of course I’m being slightly facetious here; there is a place for historical analysis of film. The thing is, the majority of these claims of historical inaccuracy have absolutely no impact on the quality of the film. Historians don’t dispute the quality of King Lear and Macbeth when comparing their dramatizations to the legends and histories of the “real” Leir and Macbeth. They were parables. They were dramatizations using historical figures to tell tales of morality and character in a time of dramatic censorship. And while Ridley Scott probably could have told an epic tale about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, just as Shakespeare couldn’t have criticized British royalty, he would have been hung from a yardarm for suggesting that the Muslims were righteous for not wanting us there and we were arrogant for trying to “liberate” them.

Note: This is a review for the Director’s Cut of Kingdom of Heaven

                The Crusades are possibly the most oft cited case of religious fueled war and they were brutal and cruel and wholly unnecessary. In the time just before the third crusade (the famous one with Richard Lionheart of Britain) there was a period of relative peace between the Europeans and the Muslims when Baldwin IV was King in Jerusalem. This is when Kingdom of Heaven is set and our hero is Balian of Ibelin portrayed by Orlando Bloom. Found in France by his father Godfrey (Liam Neeson), he joins in on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem after his wife commits suicide. In the Holy Land, there are two rivaling factions of Europeans: One led by the King’s Brother-in-law Guy of Lusignan and the other by Raymond Count of Tiberias (Jeremy Irons). Guy’s faction wants to take war to the approaching Muslims led by Saladin, while Raymond (and the king) wants peace to continue and Jerusalem to be a place for Muslims, Jews, and Christians to live harmoniously. Balian here acts as a friend to the King and another advocate for peace as Guy and his people do all they can to provoke war.

                  This film’s greatest strength is how easily we can relate it to modern East-West relationships. As the end of the film so deftly puts it, “Nearly a thousand years later, peace in the Kingdom of Heaven remains elusive.” Whether you look at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or any form of European expansion into the Middle East, there are entitled Westerners moving in as though they own the place with the native citizens just wanting to be able to live on their land in peace. Westerners impose their standards and their lives and their violence on everyone and, well, people get angry. Kingdom of Heaven examines how though cooler heads can prevail, it just takes one idiot to start a war.

The supporting actors in this film cement these themes. Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson and Edward Norton were all deserving of awards recognition for their roles. Neeson and Irons are the hardened faithful who question whether European presence in the Levant is a good thing, Gleeson is drunken, proud, and a vehemently racist lord that almost starts a war twice, and Norton is King Baldwin the Leper. As happened to Hugo Weaving for V for Vendetta, Norton will never get the recognition for this masked role. King Baldwin suffered from leprosy (so his face was severely deformed) and he had to wear a mask at all times. Despite this obvious acting challenge, Edward Norton gives a subtle and emotional performance while lending incredible gravitas to his character.

The film is such a blend of excellent elements that the smaller ones fade into the background. The action (it is a war film after all) is arguably better than that of Gladiator and Black Hawk Down thanks to the emotional and passionate weight it is given in the plot. Eva Green’s performance as the King’s sister provides a morally questionable romantic interest for Balian. The film’s writing is wholly believable and obviously from the same pen as he who wrote The Departed (with much less swearing mind you).  This film was passed over because the studio released a pared down theatrical cut instead of the epic parable that Scott had envisioned. Luckily people are starting to see the director’s cut and see just how relevant this film is today.

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