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God's will, man's inheritance
A film review of KINGDOM OF HEAVEN by Camus
"This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while."
George W. Bush
"That's the part I have trouble with."
Father Ted's Father Dougal Maguire on Christ's life and miracles
"To surrender to ignorance and call it God has always been
premature, and it remains premature today."
Noted atheist, Isaac Asimov


In researching the history behind Ridley Scott's latest, I came across an extraordinary entry in The Times World Religions - A History of Faith. The tome is exhaustive and due to its reputable source, one might say it's also authoritative. On page 169 under the heading 'How Islam is Spread and Lived' there is a curious boxed entry labeled 'All Muslims' and then a list of what Muslims believe in. Your humble narrator is neither a Muslim nor a Christian (if I may quote from a previous review: "I have the religious conviction of a microscope (I have no problem with the idea of everyone being nice to everyone else but organised religions leave me deathly cold).")

The boxed entry includes a sub-division between the different beliefs of both Islamic Sunni and Shi'ah. No wonder they got divorced. Sorry, irresistible force there. If one looks for the author of the article, his name is listed in the front pages as Umar Hegedüs. Actually placed on the boxed entry there is a slip of paper glued to the page (presumably by a frightened publisher or a concerned Mr. Hegedüs), one and a half inches high by five wide. It simply says:

"Mr Hegedüs is not the author of the text in the box which appears under the title 'All Muslims' and would like to be disassociated from it."

At this point, I checked the date of the book’s publication. 2002. I had a frisson of interconnectivity. After 9/11, are we all now that scared? I may be wrong and am prepared to be wrong (it's not a hobby but I am unerringly good at it) but it seemed that to go to the lengths of publishing a book and then adding a post-publishing caveat on a little piece of paper literally stuck on the page… First time I have ever seen anything like that. Coincidence? Who can tell? Mr. Hegedüs?


Now there's a loaded word; three little letters and thousands of years of misunderstandings, interpretations, reinterpretations, bloodshed and suffering. Of course, God's just a reason. It's the blackness of men's hearts, their desire for power, wealth and land that does all the damage. In the days before we worked out what the Sun was and blithely believed what some self-appointed Holy Man told us, we used to do some appalling things. But it was believed these appalling things were necessary. The real professionals at appalling were the Incas who sacrificed people to their gods left, right and centre. It was mostly centre, as they 'took heart' so to speak. But how about this for sublime cruelty? At the time, it had a bizarre and horrifying logic. What was most precious was given up to the gods hoping they'd be merciful and provide rain for the crops etc. What was most precious to people was their children. In lines, they were marched to a mountain and told they were going to die. If they cried, all the better, the gods would appreciate the tears…

In the twelfth century, they knew enough not to kill their own children. God is brought in when arguments fail. In assessing his and his flock's chances of survival (zero incidentally), the priest inside the besieged walls of Jerusalem implores our hero to save himself as well as his faithful servants (priest included of course). "Why?" asks the hero preparing to protect as many civilians as he can. "Because it's God’s will," replies the frightened cleric. That just about sums it up for God, or rather his chosen representatives on Earth. God, His will and His magnificence are on every tongue in Ridley Scott's epic Kingdom of Heaven. Characters are either seeking redemption from Him, forgiveness or courage. It's fitting that the hero comes to the conclusion that God can do as God wants but it's his own head and heart he must live by, as good a set of ethics as anyone at that time could possess. Essentially: be good, do good, make lives better…

What is it to be good? To serve God? Does He want fries with that? Who knows what God's will is? Generally, it's accepted that the moral centre of the world errs towards human beings displaying kindness and love for one's fellow man. Hah! As Jeremy Irons points out in Kingdom (while wearing what looks like a ruffled, blue marquee): "I fought for God and then realized I was really fighting for wealth and land." Remember that bad news sells and it's in the interest of the powers-that-be to keep their populaces in fear. All the good, or most of the good goes unreported. So take heart but not literally.

God has always been a metaphor (the opium of the masses), a catalyst to get men moving towards an outcome already predetermined by other more ruthless and ambitious men. Well, in the twelfth century, people didn't really know much better. One could argue that not much has changed but one would be, in my eyes, terribly misguided. Science does not answer every question but this does not mean it answers none. I openly express atheist views and then take one look at a starry sky and go "Wow…"

What about mankind's only real hope, women? Adam's Rib was simply for tickling. Any glance at any history volume tends to confirm women in subservient roles. Sure, for every Boadicea or Cleopatra or Jean D'Arc, there are hundreds of male leaders whose naked ambition for power has steered hundreds of thousands into early graves (or the fate of having one's corpse being picked clean by scavengers) on ANY pretext. As a member of the male species I have to feel a little downcast at this conclusion at the very least. But movies are wonderfully evocative for bringing history to life, even the tasteless history of the Crusades, which for my money can be summed up by: "My God is better than your god so I have to kill you." And on that bombshell as Alan Partridge might say…

Ridley Scott decides to make a movie set at the time of the Crusades that features Christian/Muslim warfare. Brave man. But in the final analysis, Kingdom of Heaven is about the conscience of a would-be king, a man who finds a destiny as a protector. Orlando Bloom (a beefed up ex-elf who's received a thorough cinematic education in how to look broody) kills a venal priest because (a) he has stolen a crucifix from his wife's corpse and (b) the poor bastard happened to be standing in front of a roaring furnace. Them's the breaks. The first man of God we see and he burns in hell for his dishonesty and disrespect. But ho. What’s this?

Crusading liberal Knight Liam Neeson pops in claiming to be his dad. OK. From a Jedi Knight with a cocktail's name to a real Knight, Neeson keeps the peace in the east now a land of both Christian and Muslim. He is a man proud of the harmony he so doggedly protects. But the best part is his name. People suggest that the incidents and the characters in the movie were actually based on recorded history. Well, Neeson's character could not have given a better moniker had Shane Black written the screenplay. His name is Godfrey. That's a nice detail. He should have a ward called Churchill. Orlando blooms (sorry) and suddenly he's the most wonderful man ever because despite his belief in the Almighty (after the death of his wife and child), he doesn't achieve any kind of forgiveness or absolution from brooding where Christ was nailed to a tree. In short, this is a decent man who finds God wanting. So he thinks "I'll do what my brand new Dad got me to swear to do" and (not to be flippant) his philosophy is one that if most people in the world adhered to we would not have misguided military action creating swathes of suicide bombers killing themselves and innocent others on what seems like every day in Iraq.

Balian is a simple man (a bereaved blacksmith) but then morally strong characters tend to be simply understood. It’s clear to (even jaded) twenty first century audiences that he will (a) fulfill his destiny, (b) get the girl and (c) command respect from his enemies. That Orlando Bloom is so convincing in the role doesn't detract too much from the movie's total and utter predictability. If you know the guy has one shade of white then you know what his decision is going to be in every single encounter with adversity. That said, the movie is a treat to look at even if Scott does insist on showing at least one character with snot dripping from his nose as if this adds some sort of realism to the proceedings. Subtlety is cast out like an unclean spirit. There is a moment when the Princess is looking at herself in an uneven mirror. Her face is disfigured by the reflection. Even as the shot unfolded I chanted to myself under my breath "Don't mix to her brother's leprosy-torn face, the suggestion is subtle and enough." Sure enough (in big letters IN CASE WE DID NOT 'GET' IT) there's a mix to her brother's leprosy-torn face. The ugliest King of course is the noblest and he's played inextricably by Edward Norton, the eyes of whom are the only parts of him on show. It's a good performance as much as he can be convincing under a silver mask.

The dénouement (and someone must have mentioned it) is an Orc-free Two Towers battle at Helm's Deep. I kept on expecting oiliphaunts to charge into the frame. As spectacular as it was, it was also dull by dint of cinematic repetition. Enough already. Yes, the 'aren't there a lot of soldiers' software is very impressive but does that stuff get tired quickly. Five years ago I would have been agog. Scott also is becoming enamored of that fast shutter speed trick pioneered by Spielberg (in terms of Hollywood). He used it in the fight scenes of Gladiator. The faster the shutter speed, the less motion blur resulting in pin sharp frames and a slight jerkiness. When these images are cut fast (battle scenes often necessitate staccato editing) the whole thing becomes an animated jumble. Some may argue "Yes, like a real battle…" Well OK but I do like to know what's going on but I don't half miss motion blur. Unlike Gladiator with its remarkably vivid score, Kingdom boasts no such iconic orchestrations which is a great pity. I must admit to being at a screening with a slightly faulty front centre speaker but I'm pretty sure that wasn't why I found the score so wanting.

The performances are solid as you might expect and Neeson's final scene is strangely moving given he's on screen for such a short amount of time. David Thewlis has a twinkle in his eye as Balian's resident holy man who actually talks a lot of good sense and the stunning Eva Green (like a freckled younger sister of Gillian Anderson) is suitably gorgeous and pouty. As mentioned, Bloom does a fine job of holding the movie up by his now broader shoulders. There's nothing in the film to really get religious groups wound up (this is not what the media are reporting) and Scott relies a great deal on huge close ups. The siege at the climax could almost have been totally played out in the remarkably strong face of Ghassan Massoud playing Saladin, the Muslim king. But, and it's a big but, there is nothing in Kingdom of Heaven that we have not seen before. Both Peter Jackson and Wolfgang Peterson have been here and with the possible exception of religious intrigue (reduced to the simplest levels of understanding but then this is a Hollywood movie) there's not enough freshness to keep you hooked for two hours and twenty minutes. Still, it does what it says on the tin so if you like your epics, epic, then thy Kingdom go…

Kingdom of Heaven

USA / UK / Spain 2005
145 mins
Ridley Scott
Ridley Scott
William Monahan
John Mathieson
Dody Dorn
Harry Gregson-Williams
production design
Arthur Max
Orlando Bloom
Liam Neeson
Eva Green
David Thewlis
Marton Csokas
review posted
15 May 2005