Let me say it people, even at the risk of eternal damnation. I liked Kingdom of Heaven.
I even liked Orlando Bloom’s second assay as a blacksmith. Has everyone forgotten ‘Pirates of the Carribean’ already?
So am I, like Saladin, now destined to be a heathen in Limbo?
What I like about the film is that with all its attention (and occasional telescoping of) historical detail, it is essentially a film about Now. And makes no bones about it.
The real Balian of Ibelin was not a bastard French blacksmith but part of the second generation of Crusader nobility, born and brought up in the Levant, and familiar with Jerusalem al his life. And it was his brother who was having a fling with Sybilla. But that story wouldnít have given Scott and Monahan (screenplay writer) the opportunity to show wretched cold nasty Europe with its terrible weather and its fanatical greedy venal Churchmen now, would it? It wouldnít give them a chance to show on screen that looking from the West, Jerusalem wasnít just important for religious reasons; it was also a land of wealth and opportunities. And yes, I liked every little pot shot at the Church. they flew thick and fast, and were ahistorical and gratuitious, but they firmly anchored the film well in the twenty first century. Score one for the liberal conscience. And what is wrong with that?
On a blog dominated by historians, it might seem a trifle irrelevant to say that any representation/statement about the past can never really be separated from the present context in which it is made. But Iím saying it anyway. The film, towards its end, in white text on black, makes explicit the connection between the struggle over Jerusalem and the Holy Land, then and now. So what is the present context of Jerusalem which is sought to be projected onto the past?
Despite the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, Israel and Palestine seem as miles away from peaceful co-existence. And Israel like Crusader Jerusalem, is perceived as a client state of the West ñ certainly by a lot of us in South Asia. So then, to project back on the late twelfth century, in the interregnum between the second and third crusade, Jerusalem as a fragile tenuous idea of coexistence to be protected at all costs, is to talk to us about the twenty first. When Ed Norton as Baldwin IV hits Reynard de Chatillon across the face, growling , ìI am Jerusalemî, you know that itís true. In this film at least, Jerusalem is an idea of tolerance and coexistence, and itís an idea believed and kept alive by a few. ëJerusalem is finishedí, says Jeremy Irons when Baldwin IV dies. For Jerusalem, in this film, is a ëKingdom of Conscience or nothing.í Now if thatís not a scathing comment on the state of Israel and a lament for all that it could not be, what is it? Score two for the self flagellating liberal (white) conscience, and I still have no problems with the movie. It is a warning about ‘blowback’. Right, Sepoy?
I have no problems with the Muslim characters being ‘two dimensional’. For the film is not really about the crusades as such, but about the ëKingdom of Heavení as imagined/desired by those who rule and defend it. Who happen to be white, and (at least nominally) Christian ñ that being the whole point of the Crusades. More of Saladin would be superfluous given that, nein? Though what little we have of Saladin is so magnificent that one of the major dissatisfactions of the movie is that you donít have more of him. The fact that Scott chose Ghassan Massoud, a superlative actor but one not seen in Hollywood flicks before, and hence not being burdened by previous archetypes of the middle eastern terrorist says something about the cut out, doesnít it? And the cut out’s dilaogues, shiver me timbers! When Balian expresses his fears of a sack of Jerusalem like that in the First Crusade, all our man says is ‘I am not those men, I am Salahuddin.’ That is such good Hindi film cinema!
Yes I did have a problem with the European blacksmith coming and teaching Arabs irrigation techniques, for we all know that irrigation technology actually travelled the other way. And like Lawrence of Arabia, most firangis are ëdesert loving Englishmení whereas the Arabs dream of the ëvanished gardens of CordobaíÖ.
Which reminds me, that maybe I have too much of an Al-Andalus hangover, but throughout the film I was reminded of the culture of Al-Andalus as portrayed by Maria Rosa Menocal. Like in her book? The Ornament of the World, the vanished past in this film is constructed as the most fragile of ideas of deliberate syncretism, which couldnít survive the vagaries of time and intolerance. It didnít help that the architecture, the costumes, everything looked like Moorish Spain. And oh yes, apparently, the Crusader knights took no interest in the cultivation of land whatsoever, leaving that to their Muslim peasant subjects, concentrating on living in, and defending, their cities. Balian of Ibelin is definitely a break from the norm in being a hands on sort of agriculturist. But perhaps that is what the film wanted to highlightÖ ëyour father was important, but his landÖí he never bothered with. And yes, Guy di Lusignon was as much of an asshole in ëreal lifeí as in the film. As was Reynard di Chatillon, who threatened to disrupt the trade and pilgrim routes to Mecca and Medina, and so basically, really had it comingÖ.
And finally, it would be interesting to see what Natalie Zemon Davis has to say about the film, for this film is truly, in all senses approved by her, a ëthought experimentí about the past ñ hinting at a vanished, if slightly improbable past and hoping for an invisible, and still slightly improbable, future.