A Kingdom of Reason

If you missed Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven (2005) when it was released last spring, or were dissuaded from seeing it because of a bad review, then by all means buy it or rent it. It is one of his best films, as good, maybe better than his justly esteemed Gladiator (2000). Moreover, the film, with its excellent screenplay by William Monahan, contains lessons, with applicability to all wars, that Americans especially would do well to heed before they lose what's left of their liberty or invade another country. As I see them: the insistence upon total victory rests upon a presumption of innocence that is illusory and false; there may be villainy among one's friends and honor among the foe; war, which is nothing but organized killing, is justified only when it is in self-defense and never when its object is to spread an idea, a faith, or a form of government.

Kingdom did not do well at the box office, which is no surprise. Complexity does not sell many tickets; nor does a positive portrayal of Muslims, even when deserved or when the persons in question lived a thousand years ago; and even less the subversive intimation that Americans may not be doing the right thing in Iraq. The critics didn't like it much either. They fell into two categories. The first were those who seem pre-disposed to dislike any film that reminds them of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings' trilogy. Salon's review was typical of these, deriding Kingdom as yet "another boy's-book adventure movie." There are plenty of films that deserve that put-down, but not this one.

The second were those who objected to the content of the film, and they were mostly the cons, the cultural spokesmen for the ruling majority. There are three kinds of American conservatives: the neoconservatives, who supply the brains for the Republican governing coalition; the theoconservatives, more commonly known as the religious right, who supply the votes (and much of the cannon fodder); and the paleoconservatives, a dissenting minority, intellectually formidable, who are without much influence. The neocons saw Scott's film as a clear and present danger both to the Global War on Terror and the integrity of the state of Israel; the theocons as a threat to the imminent return of the Lord. In the Weekly Standard (May 2005), John Podhoretz dismissed the film for propagating "multi-cultural" myths of a once-upon-a-time of peace in the Holy Land disrupted by religious zealotry and fanaticism. He concludes: "Kingdom of Heaven makes it crystal clear that what Saladin and Balian and all good Crusaders really wanted was a United Nations to come into existence circa 1186 to ensure a multicultural, internationalized Jerusalem." Pod is terrified lest movie viewers come away from the film believing that no one has an exclusive claim on Jerusalem. That perhaps it should be made a free city, open to pilgrims of all faiths, and policed by a United Nations constabulary. I came away from the film thinking just that, but, unlike Pod, thought it rather a good idea. And his other point is wrong too: there were periods of peace and relative good will between Muslims and Christians during the Crusades.

The paleocons are not really a part of the Republican coalition, and they have opposed the Iraq war from the beginning. In some ways they see Islam as an even greater threat than the others; in most other ways, less so. They are concerned more by what they regard as the intrusions of Islam into the Western world, mainly through immigration (both legal and illegal) and through the proposed admission of Turkey into the European Union. The more reasonable among them believe that a modus vivendi with Islam can be reached by withdrawing the intrusive Western (mostly American) military presence from the Middle East and ceasing financial and military support for all regimes in the region. That coupled with some real border security would render us safe at home and allow us to consign the Department of Homeland Security to a bad memory. However, there are some crazy paleos who can rival the neocons in the stridency of their hysteria. One actually accused Ridley Scott of "aiding and comforting the enemy," treason, a capital crime under the U.S. Constitution. Others have called on Mel Gibson to make a real movie about the Crusades, one that depicts the Muslims in all their villainy.

Certainly, there is a case to be made for a more restrictive immigration policy (on many grounds) in Europe and North America alike (while leaving a wide scope for study, travel, and commerce); and William Pfaff, writing in the New York Review of Books (July 14, 2005) has argued eloquently against Turkish membership: "The EU is not an international aid or development agency; it is not aimed at reforming humanity or reconciling civilizations"; "the first obligation of any political society, whether national or multinational, is to itself, its own security, integrity, and successful functioning." But it's not necessary to demonize Turkey, or Muslims, or exaggerate the threat posed by Islamic extremism, and still less to indict Hollywood movie directors for not stoking the fires of paranoia and fear.

Film Review

Ridley Scott has chosen to make a different kind of film, one that hints at U.S. provocations in the Middle East, rather than reinforces the American tropes of outraged innocence and righteous retribution; one that suggests the Bush policy of imposing democracy by war in the Middle East is a product of the same kind of zealotry and self-serving idealism that once drove the Crusades, at least in part; one that celebrates not purifying violence or blinding hate but mercy, moderation, understanding, reason, compromise. And he portrays Saladin and his cavalry commander as worthy foes and honorable men, which they apparently were. He should be praised.

And there is evidence that Scott's film is having a powerful and positive impact in at least some parts of the Arab world. See Robert Fisk's moving review of the film and the audience reaction during its opening night in Beirut.

Kingdom of Heaven is set in 1184 A.D., in the interval between the First and Second Crusades. It begins in southern France. Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) has gone home to find his illegitimate son, Balian (Orlando Bloom), who is toiling away as a village blacksmith. Godfrey asks him for forgiveness and offers to bring him back with him to the Holy Land, where there are opportunities for a promising young man. Balian accepts, and after Godfrey is mortally wounded in battle, takes his place, becoming the new Baron of Ibelin, with a castle outside Jerusalem and a hundred knights to command.

At this time, the Christian rulers of Jerusalem are maintaining an uneasy peace with the Muslim forces based in Damascus under Saladin (brilliantly played by Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud). But fanatics on both sides want war. King Baldwin of Jerusalem (Edward Norton) is all that a king should be, but he is dying of leprosy. Waiting to succeed him is the head of the Knights Templar, Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) whose claim to the throne is by marriage to Baldwin's sister (French actress Eva Green). Lusignan is rash, impulsive, and ruthless. He craves war for the power and glory it will bring him and invokes religion merely because it serves his purposes. Lusignan can count on the services of Reynald de Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson), another Templar, whose specialty is furnishing provocations for war. After Reynald has attacked a Muslim caravan, the Marshall of Jerusalem, Tiberias (Jeremy Irons), who is an ally of the king, says that he "would rather live with men than kill them." Lusignan responds with grudging derision: "That sort of Christianity has its uses … I suppose."

The charge that it is anti-Christian is preposterous. But there is no question that the institutional Church comes off rather badly. There is a priest who cuts off the head of a suicide, a monk who chants, "to kill an infidel is not murder, it is the path to Heaven," murderous Templars, narrow-minded, self-serving Bishops. But it is never suggested that these men are true Christians, rather the opposite: that they use religion to advance their ambition, justify their cruelty, and simplify the world. Moreover, other characters in the film are depicted as men of Christian faith and principle.

Balian receives advice from three men. His father, who knights him and administers the oath: "Be brave and upright" to merit the love of God, "speak the truth always," "safeguard the helpless," and "do no wrong." A Hospitaller knight (David Thewlis): "I put no stock in religion. Holiness is in right action; and courage in behalf of those who cannot help themselves; and goodness, what God desires, is here [pointing to Balian's head] and here [pointing to his heart]; by what you decide to do everyday, you will be a good man … or not." The King of Jerusalem: "Kings may move men, a father may send for a son, but your soul is in your keeping alone. When you stand before God, you cannot say – but I was told by others to do thus, or that virtue was not convenient at the time – that will not suffice." Subversive stuff.

After Baldwin's death, Lusignan inherits the crown, and it's not long before he is marching to war at the head of the Crusader army, which is destroyed by his arrogance and bloodlust. Weakened by the heat of the desert and a lack of water, the army is annihilated by Saladin, who then marches on Jerusalem and puts it under siege.

To defend the city, Balian has only the garrison, his own knights, and those who are not knights: the city's artisans, merchants, servants, and commoners, who have come to Jerusalem not to fight but to work. The Bishop of Jerusalem urges Balian to flee with the ecclesiasts and remaining knights, abandoning the people to slaughter or slavery, thus furnishing the pretext for the next war and a justification for the next crusade. How better to warm the blood of valorous recruits than by tales of atrocity and massacre? Balian rejects such self-serving cowardice as contrary to his knightly oath and to the late King's instructions to protect the people from harm. "You have taught me a lot about religion, Bishop." Balian could also fight to the death – the fanatic's choice, heroic martyrdom – furnishing an even more glorious casus belli, but he places a higher value on life.

Deciding to stay, he must devise a battle plan and inspire the men to fight against an enemy more than ten times their number and equipped with advanced siegecraft, including long-range catapults, rams, and breasting works. He decides his only hope is to fight for terms; that is, to make the siege so costly to Saladin that he will offer mercy to the Christians in return for the city. He must also buck up his motley army, by giving them hope of an outcome other than a glorious death, and by relieving them of any guilt they may harbor over what happened when the Europeans took the city in 1099 A.D. (they killed everyone). In this, he reveals acute psychological insight; for it would be natural for them to believe that they were being punished for the sins of their fathers.

It has fallen to us to defend Jerusalem, and we have made our preparations. No one here was alive when this city was taken from Muslims. We fight over an offense we did not give, against those who were not alive to be offended. What is Jerusalem? Your holy places lay over the Jewish temple the Romans pulled down. The Muslim places of worship lay over yours. Which is more holy? The Wall? The Mosque? The Holy Sepulchre? Who has claim? No one has claim. All have claim. We fight to defend not these stones but the people between these walls.

I shall not discuss the spectacular battle sequences that follow, which are as thrilling (but more realistic) as the sieges of Helm's Deep and Minis Tirith in the Ring movies. But Balian does well enough to win a conference. After Balian threatens to burn the city down over the heads of his dying warriors, Saladin relents and offers terms, which are more than reasonable; they are merciful: "I will give every soul safe conduct to Christian lands, every soul: the women, the children, the old, and all your knights, your soldiers, and your queen; no one will be harmed, I swear to God." Balian can scarcely believe what he has heard: "The Christians butchered every Muslim within these walls when they took this city." Saladin: "I am not those men. I am Saladin." Then, as Saladin rides away, Balian asks him what Jerusalem is worth. Saladin replies "Nothing," then turns, grins, and says "Everything." I cannot recall a more satisfying end to a movie; or one more noble.

January 19, 2006