Year Released: 2005
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Orlando Bloom, Eva Green, Jeremy irons, Liam Neeson, Ghassan, Massoud, Edward Norton
(R, 145 min.)
"In times of peace, the warlike man attacks himself." Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
Kingdom of Heaven ultimately misses its mark because it tries too hard to be balanced, moderate, and inoffensive. Hollywood, a city where lawyers live in luxury off no fault divorces, tries to put that same template on the crusades.
Watching Kingdom of Heaven reminded me of an old Spanish proverb about the self-destructiveness of trying to please everyone. An old man walks along a rural road, his son astride their donkey. Several passersby offer critiques. The elderly father should ride as well as the son, then that the donkey is overburdened with two aboard. Finally, an early Peta advocate, I’m sure, advises that they reverse things, and carry the beast of burden themselves. The hapless pair, ever willing to take well-meaning advice, actually rigs up a wooden device to hoist the uncooperative donkey, whose unwieldy load casts them so off balance they land in a ditch, lose their goods and lame the donkey.
That’s exactly what happens to Ridley Scotts well-meaning affair. He initially had the courage to tackle this touchy subject at a time when Muslim/Christian tension runs high, but he lets his twentieth century sensibilities blind his eyes. Working so hard not to offend, he robs his tale of verve and realism.
The tales takes place between the second and third crusades, when a fragile peace prevails in Jerusalem. Under the sage leadership of King Baldwin, members of all three great religions have freedom of worship in the Holy City, but certain over-zealous Christians mostly, as well as a few muted Muslims, lust for total conquest. These Christian zealots are Knights of the Templar, already given a bad rap in The Da Vinci Code. So ghoulishly bellicose are they that their white uniforms emblazoned with a blood- red crosses do not seem too different from the hooded robes of the Ku Klux Klan.
But for balance, there are the enlightened and nuanced Christians, too. Orlando Bloom’s Balian, as bastard son of enlightened knight Baron Godfrey, joins their ranks, after killing the local priest because he had taunted the young widower about the eternal damnation of his suicidal wife. Oh, and the offending priest had also robbed said dearly departed of her crucifix and had the audacity to wear it. When the local bishops arrive to arrest the fleeing murderer, the good knights fight for him. In the exchange several crusading knights die, and Godfrey is mortally wounded.
Before shuffling off his mortal coil, Sir Godfrey is able to knight his son and impart a few words about a knight’s duty to "...defend the helpless and never lie, even if it means your death." I guess the part about not killing offensive priests or annihilating the forces of justice pursuing murders isn’t part of the ceremony.
Balian goes to Jerusalem, not only to avoid a murderer’s hanging back in France, but also as a pilgrimage to for redemption, in particular, for his wife. He even ascends the hill of Golgotha, where Christ was crucified, to seek enlightenment, but alas comes away unfulfilled.
It is not too much longer before he meets Princess Sibylla, sister to King Baldwin, but unfortunately also wed (via a prearrangement at age fifteen) to dastardly Crusader Guy de Lusignan, one of the bad Christians. Here’s where more of the moral confusion comes in. Apparently, the newly widowed Balian, originally on the journey to find redemption for himself and his wife, doesn’t find it objectionable to know the princess in the carnal sense soon after his arrival in this holy city. . She speaks Hollywoodese as she enters his nighttime chamber, kind of medieval version of “If it feels good, do it.” And he, of course, does.
However, when he is offered her hand in marriage, as the good King Baldwin urges a plan to nullify both her marriage and her warmongering husband, Balian’s honor will not allow it. So a little adultery on the side is okay, but marriage and a plan to save the kingdom from war makes his knight’s conscience ache. Go figure.
Because of mutual respect, and an act of chivalry performed earlier, Balian is able to ward off imminent battle between the people of Jerusalem and the hordes of Saracens under the leadership of Saladin, portrayed superbly by Syrian Ghassan Massoud. But when Balian refuses to get Guy out of the picture by marrying the Princess, certain events are set in motion that cannot be altered.
By this time, King Balwin has succumbed to leprosy, his shrewd duputy Tiberius has had enough, and the bad Christians have their curly locks perched on stakes like so many beauty school hair pieces on display. Though outlandishly outnumbered, Balian is all that stands between the invading Saracen hordes and the Holy City and its inhabitants. He figures well, showing us a practical use for high school calculus, and succeeds in making a bloody defeat into a bloody standoff.
When Balian goes to the battlefield to negotiate, he comes back with what he thinks are good terms. Saladin guarantees the defenders of Jerusalem free passage out of the city they have vowed to fight to the death for, once they turn it over to the Muslim conquerors. For this “victory” Balian is lifted on battle-weary shoulders and hailed a conquering hero. Am I a little confused here, or couldn’t this turnover have happened without any blood or death if he had surrendered the city in the first place, and turned it over as the British did Hong Kong? And would the remaining troops, who had lost many a comrade and innocent child even, laud this “warrior?”
But that’s not the real corker in my eyes. As Saladin walks through his now Muslin city, he sees a golden crucifix lying in the dust. With infinite care and respect, he sets it upright on a table.
Sometime film critic Hal Linsey offers a different perspective on the Saracen leader. “The following is from en eyewitness account of Saladin’s at the Battle of Hattin in 1187, as recorded by Ernoul, a Frankish prisoner who survived the battle.”
Saladin thrusts his sword through the body of captive Prince Raynald and his cohorts rush in to cut off the prince’s head. “Saladin took some of the blood and sprinkled it on his head in recognition that he had taken vengeance on him. Then he ordered that they carry the head to Damascus, and it was dragged along the ground to show the Saracens whom the prince had wronged what vengeance he had had.”
Question: How many contradictions can there be in one movie?
Answer: Enough to please and offend everyone, regardless of the truth.
Orlando Bloom’s Balian, the one time blacksmith, seems most at home when he turns his sword into a plowshare and supervises the Jerusalem estate he has inherited from his father, Sir Godfrey. The only problem with this inheritance is its lack of water, a shortcoming Balian sets out to resolve poste haste. When they (all-too-easily it seems to this Texas would be water witcher) find the glorious liquid, his arid estate blossoms into an oasis. One can imagine him tending pine nuts trees and rows of lacey coriander, better known as cilantro here in Texas, interspersed with its close cousin parsley. On a cool evening, had not the minor inconvenience of the Battle for Jerusalem intervened, he could gather the harvest and make this delightful salad from an authentic local recipe going back at least two hundred years.
It is interesting to note the similarity to ingredients in the Italian pesto as we remember the directions Balian followed to get to the Jerusalem: “Go to where they speak Italian, and then keep going.” Evidently the returning crusaders brought back some Jerusalem culinary gems which took seed in Old Italy.
Coriander and Pine Nuts Salad
The famous Arab geographer al-Muqadasi, writing in the year 985 CE, noted among the marvels of Jerusalem pine nuts called kadam, which are unrivaled anywhere on earth.
- 200 grams pine nuts
- Olive oil
- A bunch of fresh coriander
- A bunch of fresh parsley
- Fresh lemon juice
- 2-3 garlic cloves, crushed
- A little vinegar-wine
Roast the pine nuts carefully in a small pot on a low flame, using a little oil. It is important to stir constantly. Don't do other things in the meantime! Stir all the time and make sure the pine nuts do not burn.
With a large, sharp knife chop the coriander and the parsley, place in a bowl and add the pine nuts, which have by now cooled.
Squeeze in lemon juice, drip in a little olive oil, and season with garlic, vinegar-wine, and salt.
Taste, adjust the seasoning, and serve.
A few green onions, very thinly sliced, can be added to the salad.
Recipe Source: The New Jerusalem Mosaic