Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Film Review - Kingdom of Heaven

The onslaught of television advertisements in recent days [May 2005] touting the release of Ridley Scott’s potential summer blockbuster, Kingdom of Heaven, give its audience the impression as though the film should be perceived as a sequel of sorts to the film which resurrected the director’s career, Gladiator. Or more likely this has become a reflex of audience members who have been swamped in the last few years with historical epics, particularly from the ‘swords and sandals’ genre, which the Best Picture winner, Gladiator, sparked off in 2000. Hollywood movie studios quickly put into production big-budgeted epic dramas such as Troy in May 2004 and Alexander, helmed by cult-director Oliver Stone, in November 2004, but none of them approached the level of success, commercial or otherwise, as Scott’s film had. Kingdom of Heaven, though set against a later time period then Gladiator, could easily fall prey to the inadvertent backlash this Oscar winner caused five years ago.

The story for Kingdom of Heaven, historical accuracy aside for the moment, is vapid, lethargic, and reflects a twinge of familiarity with Scott’s previous work, Gladiator, though unquestionably far from the superior quality existent in that film. Reflecting on the events which took place during the time and place of the film, the internal struggle for control of the throne during the reign of King Baldwin IV, as well as after the death of King Baldwin V, would have resulted in a much more fascinating storyline then is presented here. Though surely historical imprecision can be blamed on Gladiator as well, the creative liberties taken by Ridley Scott in the time period in which it was set against were not as exaggerated as this and at the very least there was a creative storyline to back it up where history lapsed.

Women may swoon over him and men envious of his dashing good looks and masterful skill with the sword will desire to be him, but the more intelligent audience members will see right through the glitz and glamour of Orlando Bloom and abhor the fragrant hypocrisy and shallowness underneath in the character of Balian. Ridley Scott portrays Balian as a man of true moral fiber because he has not been corrupted by the fanaticism of religion, whether it is through Christianity or to a lesser extent, at least in his mind, Islam, when in fact he is the direct opposite. What the Hell is wrong with this guy?! We refuse to knock off a corrupt and morally destitute individual and marry his wife, which in effect would have saved the city of Jerusalem from having to engage in an unnecessary conflict thus saving the lives of thousands who would have had to have fought in that battle, on the basis that it was not the ‘right’ thing to do. On the other hand though, we will bang that very same wife on the side when she comes a calling and believe it to be all fine and dandy the next day. Anyone else notice the blaring hypocrisy in all of this?! Balian of Ibelin, butchered in terms of his historical significance, was in fact married to the step-mother of King Baldwin IV, the leper king, and plotted to seize control of the throne for the Ibelin bloodline through her. History aside, the audience has no emotional connection with Balian which makes the actions of the film all the less captivating.

Eva Green was clearly not an inferential choice on the part of director Ridley Scott for the role of Sibylla. In spite of her character being a woman from the Byzantine Empire, which is located in modern day Eastern Europe, her French accent is glaringly obvious and a bit distracting to the concentration of the audience. Again, historically speaking, the director of Gladiator has a disaster on his hands. Sibylla, who was indeed the sister of King Baldwin IV (one of two actually), was not forced to marry Guy de Lusignan but was in fact captivated when she met him and requested permission to marry him. Again, historical precision apart, the romantic angle expressed through the characters of Balian and Sibylla does not work in the least. The perception from the audience’s point-of-view is that the fling between the two is at most a royal princess on a booty call. The idea that Sibylla is trapped in a consortium she never wished for and no longer desires, though to be honest there were no sign indicating that it was a difficult or unloving marriage, and is able to roll in the sheets with this hunk she hardly knows feels more like something out of Desperate Housewives then fairy-tale romance. Guy de Lusignan, portrayed effectively, albeit in the opposite direction in which the audience should feel toward him, by Marton Csokas, is treated quite unfairly in Kingdom of Heaven, to a certain extent that is. True, he was seen early on as somewhat of a scoundrel having attacked the agents of his lord, King Richard the Lionheart, which led to his exile, but he certainly was not the villain that the film makes him out to be either. He led his crusaders into battle against the Muslim Saladin not on the basis of bloodlust but rather the misguided advice of Gerald of Ridfort who had sought to contend the advice of Raymond of Tripoli, a man in a secret alliance with Saladin and who had advised the king not to attack Saladin.

To be honest, the only character in the entire film which appears to have been accurately depicted in the screenplay was Reynald of Chatillon, portrayed brutally by Brendan Gleeson. But, as is often the case, appearances can be quite deceiving. Though Reynald was as remorseless and bloodthirsty as Gleeson illustrates him in the film, he was not specifically targeting Muslims as is the claim. He had been confined to the city of Antioch to begin with because he had led a three-week raid on a Christian island in which he and his men murdered and raped the inhabitants located there. Reynald was with King Guy de Lusignan in the battle against Saladin and did indeed have his head lobbed off at the request of Saladin himself but he was hardly what one would consider a close associate of the king as the film suggests. Unless you happen to be fully aware ahead of viewing Kingdom of Heaven, you probably would not realize that King Baldwin IV, more commonly referred to as the leper king, was played by the genuinely gifted performer, Edward Norton as his face is entirely covered by a silver mask and his voice is altered slightly from the way in which audiences are normally accustomed to hearing it. As philosophic and venerable as the film portrays him as, this was not the King Baldwin IV history remembers him as, though he was certainly no ruthless tyrant either. He did not exemplify the close-knit relationship with his sister, Sibylla, as well. Actually he was immensely hard on Guy de Lusignan for a particular incident, which was not engaging Saladin when he had the chance, and demanded that his sister request a divorce from him, which she refused. Nonetheless, audience members are not given access as to the motivating factors of King Baldwin IV and therefore do not feel obligated in a sense to be emotional involved in the actions which are to take place.

Overall, there truly can be no genuine characterization of Kingdom of Heaven then to say that it is in a sense nothing more then an atheist’s wet-dream. In a nutshell, Ridley Scott insists that religion, whether it is in the form of greedy Christianity or semi-benevolent Islam (though in this case most certainly the former then the latter), is the source of all fanaticism and that it causes more bloodshed, hatred, and violence in this world then it is worth. Talk about an inspirational message, huh?! It is also one with which historians would have the easiest time disproving with the fascist dictatorships of such noteworthy individuals as Adolf Hitler, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein, and Kim Jong Il, among others, acting as flagrant examples of the cruelty atheism has brought upon the world. And then there is the unbalanced representation of the two conflicting spiritual ideologies.

Muslims organizations in the weeks leading up to the film’s release in theaters praised director Ridley Scott for his so-called accurate portrayal of the Muslims during this time period. This unfortunately could not be further from the truth. Surprisingly, sarcasm intended, there was no question as to Scott’s portrayal of the Christian Crusaders as the common assumption of the Crusades is that they were a series of unnecessary conflicts led by greedy and land-hungry Christians against otherwise peaceful and non-violent Muslims. Beside the fact that the word ‘Crusade’ is a modern term for the conflicts of this time, Seljuks, non-Arab Muslims, were the ones who first disrupted the peace in the Eastern Empire and who pillaged the city of Jerusalem. The film claims that when Muslims ruled the city, Christians and members of Islam peacefully co-existed, yet another inaccuracy. It was not until the Seljuks realized that the pilgrims coming into the city were sources of tremendous revenue for them did they halt their persecution of the Christians but even then trips to the city were dangerous for Christian pilgrims. Furthermore, it was not King Guy de Lusignan and Reynald of Chatillion but rather Saladin himself who was the one seeking to provoke a war. In fact important pieces of information left out of the desert battle sequence between King Guy de Lusigan’s Crusaders and Saladin’s Muslim troops is that it took place in the crater of inactive volcano and that the evening before the battle, or slaughter to be accurate, took place, Muslims built fires around the crater in which the Crusaders were located and taunted them as they broiled during the night. Scenes in which Muslims are seen bowing down to the ground in the direction of Mecca are treated with distinct reverence and respect while Christian Crusaders are given the short end of the stick, being treated as nothing more then brainwashed sheep being led to the slaughter with their chants of ‘God wills it’ handled as propagandist tools of the Christian elite. Balian questions the right Jews and Christians have to the city of Jerusalem as opposed to the peaceful coexistence of all three religious factions, including Islam, and yet he fails to argue with the idea that the Muslims had a distinct right to the city of Mecca. Muslims never had a rightful claim to the city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the holiest city in all of Christendom, not Islam. The mosque which was built in the city overlooking the walling wall was a sign of mockery in the face of the Jews and Christians who they viewed as misguided followers of Allah.

The idea that the Crusades were all about land and wealth, as Jeremy Irons’ Tiberias prominently suggests near the end of the film, is a misconception which was developed by historians upset during the age of European’s imperialistic ambitions in Africa and Asia. The historical misconception is only pushed further down the throats of the susceptible movie-going public with Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven along with the belief that any relation to a spiritual theology marks you distinctly as a religious zealot. This is an unquestionable slap in the face of religious individuals who in these troubling times wish for nothing more to be reassured through the prospects of hope and peace, whether it is achieved through this life or in the next.

My Rating: * out of 5 (Grade: F+)

Kingdom of Heaven Comes Out on DVD Today!