Saturday, May 07, 2005

Thy Kingdom Come... A Review of "Kingdom of Heaven"

Yes, Kingdom of Heaven shows the brutal clashings of great armies. Yes, bloodied blades hack mercilessly at any limbs within their arc, showering the screen with crimson. Yes, massive fireballs rain down on besieged cities. And yes, the desert undulates with men and horses like a colony of ravenous ants across a leaf blade.

Make no mistake, this film is an epic from a director who is its modern day master, Ridley Scott (Gladiator). It has all the staples of the genre that have so entranced my class at the University of Colorado where I have been lecturing on the Epic Film all semester.

And yet, there is something so much more to it.

That the film has monolithic battles, larger-than-life characters, and breathtaking special effects is hardly the point. As great as those elements are, they are not what sticks with the viewer long after the house lights have been raised and the delighted audience has trudged back to their cars.

Kingdom of Heaven pulses with a greater message. It is concerned less with action (though it has plenty) and more with human motivations. It is more interested in honor, justice, and personal righteousness, especially in the face of overwhelming odds.

Our first clue that this is a very different sort of epic comes in the first few minutes when we meet Balian (Orlando Bloom in a role that, while not earth-shattering, will nonetheless obliterate the beloved stereotypes of him we all hold). In his blacksmith shop, etched into a beam above his head, is a phrase in Latin. When asked what it means, he replies, "What is it that makes a man if not that he makes the world a better place."

This better world, this "new Jerusalem" is the primary theme in the film, resonating through each and every frame. But this new and better world is not the stuff of earth. It is a metaphysical world, one composed entirely of will, heart, integrity and truth.

When Balian's father (Liam Neeson) describes the holy land's capitol as a "new world, a better world than has ever been seen," we quickly realize that he is referring to something far more personal than stone and mortar. "There you are not what you are born but what you have it in yourself to be. A kingdom of conscience--peace instead of war, love instead of hate." This idea of a kingdom within one's self is reinforced by the Hospitaler Knight, played by David Thewlis. What God wants, he tells Balian, is his mind and his heart, not his sword or the sinews that power it.

But Balian does not feel God. Indeed, he came to Jerusalem to find God and that God's absolution, but hears only his own voice echoing back at him from the void. He cannot discern God's voice, God's will, or even God Himself.

And yet he is faithful. If he cannot hear God's voice, he will continue do God's will. He has taken an oath and to that oath he will hold.

"Be without fear in the face of your enemies. Be brave and upright that God may love thee. Speak the truth always, even if it leads to your death. Safeguard the helpless and do no wrong; that is your oath."

If Balian cannot discover God's will, he is surrounded by men who think they can. The film is populated by characters who claim the cross of Christ but obviously do so because it is a means to personal power and advancement. When Balian comments that some rogue knights are simply doing "what the pope would tell them to do," the Hospitaller replies, "Yes, but not Christ, I think." In this film, those who shout God's name the loudest, love Him the least. At best, hypocrisy and at worst, spiritual treason is the rule of the day. "You have taught me much about religion, your Grace," Balian says to Jerusalem's bishop. It is not offered as a compliment.

This treacherous hypocrisy is not the sole domain of Christendom. Outside the walls of Jerusalem, where the Muslim army waits, equally extreme voices vie for the ear of the historically just and benevolent Saracen ruler, Saladin. The film is not interested in sainting Christians nor in demonizing Muslims. Both sides have heroes. Both sides have monsters. Extremists always think they hear God's voice and channel his will.

With the exception of the Thewlis character, a sort of knight/priest, we have almost no positive portrayals of Christianity. Still, among even the non-believers, Scott finds men of daunting moral stature. Baldwin, the King of Jerusalem (Edward Norton in a fascinatingly deprecating role--his entire part is played from behind a silver mask to conceal his character's debilitating leprosy) is a sort of Middle Ages Martin Luther King, Jr. He has a dream--peace instead of war, love instead of hate--and though it may last for only the briefest of moments, the fact that it existed at all is a triumph. At the conclusion of the film, when Balian surrenders Jerusalem to Saladin, he tells Queen Sibylla that surrendering a city means nothing so long as the ideal still stirs within the human breast.

The film postures a world in which most Christians and Muslims might be able to peacefully coexist were it not for the extremists on both sides. This moderation has upset some Muslims and Christians viewers. The film leaves no doubt as to which side of the camp they fall into.

Developed before the "war on terror" began, Kingdom of Heaven is profoundly relevant for our troubled times. In this era of intense religious and political fervor, Scott aims to understand both the Christian and the Muslim side of history and show that co-existence is possible if the voices championing jingoism, intolerance, xenophobia and religious war rhetoric are ignored. Some will see the film as a politically correct take on our post 9/11 world. Others will see it as a template for future harmony and racial concord.

The movie is, above all, about the personal codes of its heroes, both Christian and Muslim, and how those codes translate into everyday life and living. They are not practical, after all, if they cannot speak to our lives in both times of serenity and times of trial. There can be no compromise, no concession. Virtue must always trump vice. Mercy must always supersede justice. And honor must always be victor over iniquity. "Honor," to quote another superlative Liam Neeson film (Rob Roy), "is the gift a man gives himself."

"It is a kingdom of conscience or nothing," Balian says.

These are men of honor--on both sides. This is a unique world in which a beautiful, if tenuous, balance reigns. For every corrupt man there is man of righteousness and integrity, intent on making his life a noble service to others and to God.

"Who do you think you are," a character demands incredulously of Balian near the film's climax. "Will you alter the world?"

Yes, perhaps he will. When the kingdom of heaven is born within us, can we do any less?


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Ut In Omnibus Glorificetur Deus