May 08, 2005

Kingdom of Heaven: Thoughts

Saw Kingdom of Heaven just now. A couple thoughts that may be worth sharing:

1. This movie has been criticized for being too politically correct/anti-Christian. Well, you know, it is about the fall of Jerusalem between the 2nd and 3rd Crusades, simultaneously one of Islam's greatest military victories (by Saladin at Hattin in 1187) and one of the most famous acts of conqueror's magnanimity in history (Saladin's sparing of most of the near-defenseless citizenry of Jerusalem the same year). Hey, once you decide to make a movie about that subject in the first place, then anything that doesn't have the Arabs coming out looking pretty good would have automatically been something of a historical atrocity: this isn't. You could certainly question Sir Ridley Scott's choice of subject matter, but his follow-through isn't as panderingly "politically correct" as it's been portrayed.

2. I'm sorry, but Orlando Bloom is hopeless, even more out of his depth than that Irish kid was as Alexander. Pity... I can only conclude that the producers saw a script about a blacksmith who ends up defending a castle, and say, "hey, Orlando's played a blacksmith (Pirates)! And defended a castle (The Two Towers)! He's perfect!" The deep moral dilemma of Balian d'Ibelin in the movie (not the historical one, the movie one) is that he has to commit a small sin if he is to save the Crusaders' kingdom... he refuses for the sake of his soul, and then is left to play out the busted flush his own need to be pure has dealt him. I tried to imagine the same role played by a Crowe, or an O'Toole, or, hell, Jeremy Irons, Liam Neeson, or David Thewlis, who all drop in for this flick, and it simply could have been a modern classic... but the flat, deadpan delivery of Bloom (who certainly looks pretty and has shown potential in comic scenes, but simply can't externalize the internal conflict this kind of character requires) ruins nearly every scene. The script itself is not strong, either: too many lines wasted on telegraphing the action ("Tell Balian to protect the villagers," etc.). The siege scenes are well done, but the "micro-fight" scenes are choppy and incoherent... yes, I get and support Scott's determination to show war is not pretty or artful, but even the fencing practice between Neeson and Bloom, where there is no such imperative, is filmed too close and edited to splinters. Ridley seems to forget that well-constructed fencing scenes can add tremendously to character depth, something Bloom sorely needs (see also, the "I Know Kung Fu" scene in The Matrix, nearly any duel involving lightsabres, or the end of Rob Roy).

3. The movie has the kind of verisimilitude the way Last of the Mohicans does, which is to say not at all... that is, excellent work from the props department, and a general interest in portraying the characters' circumstances correctly, but a twisting of the actual source narrative beyond recognition. Not that that is a very bad thing. I think I have a pretty high tolerance for this... Mohicans and also Troy were hardly true to their sources, but I could appreciate them as honest attempts to reconnect a modern audience with a complex story from a different era of story-telling. Scott's previous film Gladiator, on the other hand, with its portraying of Maximus' sacrifice as the onset of a new age of peaceful Roman republicanism, right in the midst of the Imperial period, was useless for increasing one's understanding of Rome or Romans, even if the costumes were correct. Kingdom of Heaven is better in this respect: yes the history's a mess, but Scott "gets" Outre-Mer... the place and time is recognizable, even if the individual characters are not. The Crusader Kingdom, with its still mostly Muslim citizenry ruled by Norman barons, and its near-complete absence of attempts at converting the locals, with a leadership constantly internally riven between those who wished to make new war for their own gain and those who wished to accommodate and hold on to what they had, is a strange and unfamiliar place to go, in human history. It was nice to visit there for a while.

4. Okay, so what was wrong? Okay, well, to start with Balian d'Ibelin was not a blacksmith, and his father was not named Godfrey... that man was also named Balian, and he died over 40 years before Jerusalem fell. The elder Balian's third son, Balian (jr.), lord of what is now the Palestinian haven city of Nablus, the guy Bloom is supposedly playing in this movie, didn't end up back in France with Queen Sibylla... he married Maria Komnenos, Sibylla's stepmother and the dowager queen (i.e. "queen mother") of Outre-Mer (the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem), fully ten years before the siege; they had two sons and three daughters together. He was still in the Holy Land in 1192, being one of the local nobles Richard the Lionheart handed over stewardship of the rump kingdom to on his departure in that year... the historical Balian (jr.) died in 1193.

5. The real historical Balian is interesting, because he ended up as practically the last loyal knight left to Queen Sibylla, possibly a lover to his brother and later his stepdaughter-in-law, years after she had spurned his brother's affections to marry the feckless Guy de Lusignan -- whose incompetence as king had just destroyed their kingdom and both their livelihoods and killed off most of their male acquaintances. There's a curious family dynamic for you. But that interesting story is not the story told in Kingdom of Heaven, though,where Sibylla starts out married to Guy, and has an affair with a boyish Balian as Outre-Mer's about to fall. Guy was actually her second husband... in the movie she says she was married at 16... that was actually to another man, William of Montferrat, who died of malaria in 1177 (any affair with Balian, if there was one, would presumably have followed immediately thereafter, as Balian married her stepmother in that same year). She married Guy, over her brother the king's objection, three years later when she was 30...

6. The story skips over the reign of Baldwin V, Sibylla's son by William, who, aged seven was crowned King of Jerusalem in 1185 after his uncle the Leper King (Baldwin IV) died. The boy-king likewise died a year later, leading Sibylla herself as next in the succession to be crowned: she declared Guy to be her co-regent. Sibylla herself died of disease three years after Jerusalem fell in 1190, along with her two young daughters by Guy. (Guy, last seen naked on an donkey in the movie, was released by Saladin on the promise he would return immediately to Europe... he predictably broke that oath almost immediately upon release, and continued to rule whatever portions of the remaining Crusader kingdoms that would honour his tenuous royal claim until his death in 1194.)

7. The siege of Jerusalem is a bit of a mess... it wasn't a few days after the catastrophic defeat at Hattin, but three months later. Balian didn't knight everybody in the city: just 30 members of the bourgeoisie to complement himself and the one or two other knights left in the city after Guy took every other soldier in the kingdom to fight and die with him at Hattin. Oh, and Saladin wasn't completely merciful... all Catholic Christians had to be ransomed if they were to leave Jerusalem (Orthodox and Jacobite Christians, Jews and Muslims were allowed to stay unmolested) and many could not afford it... some estimates say 15,000 (of perhaps 60,000 total) ended up being taken into slavery. The Church and the Templars would later be criticized for evacuating significant treasure that could have gone toward ransoms, and many of the remaining Christian outposts refused to accept the refugees. This is probably the most objectionable simplification in the movie.

8. Sorely missed is the Regent for the reigns of both Baldwin IV and V, Raymond of Tripoli... an enigmatic figure in that history still hasn't quite figured his motivations out. His miraculous survival of the massacre at Hattin is simply unbelievable in the telling... collusion with Saladin at some level is the only logical explanation. But his generally accepted interest in preserving the peace against hotheads of both sides has been handed over to several of the other movie characters, particularly the "Marshal" of Jerusalem, Tiberias (played by Irons) and the Leper King himself.

9. All that said, the movie does get a fair bit right. The Hospitaller Knights (led by Thewlis and costumed in black robes with white crosses in the movie) did tend to support the Leper King, whereas the Templars (red crosses on white) often did not; it made no difference at Hattin, where both the knightly orders were killed to a man, most of them executed after surrendering. The hothead Reginald (Raynald) de Chatillon, who had once been the Leper King's most valiant fighter, at least three times broke truces his liege lords had negotiated, for reasons that still seem all but incomprehensible unless you assume either psychopathic madness or religious fanaticism... the movie opts for the former. Neither he nor Guy were actual Templars, although they wear Templar garb in the movie, but they were both reliant on Templar muscle and part of a cabal with the Templar Grand Master, the equally fanatical Gerard de Ridefort, so that's a reasonable simplification. The causes of the final truce-breaking with Saladin by Guy and Reginald seem even more baffling in the movie than in real life, with Guy inexplicably ordering Reginald "get me a war:" in reality it seems Guy was more of a weak man who was unable/unwilling to rein Reginald and Gerard in, rather than an active instigator.

10. Interesting side note: Balian actually did fight at Hattin. He also escaped, presumably alongside Raymond, and was allowed to travel from Tyre into Jerusalem just before the siege began by Saladin (the general Muslim respect for the man shown in the movie is borne out by the history texts). When Saladin descended on Jerusalem, he granted safe conduct out before the siege began to Balian's wife the dowager queen and their children, as well, and magnanimously also granted Balian his leave to stay and lead the defence. The part in the movie about Saladin not knowing who his enemy was is therefore also complete fiction.

11. Oh yeah: "Marshal" is spelled wrong in a subtitle, too. That really annoys me. (The Marshal of Jerusalem historically was a minor figure, second-in-command of the military: the military commander and real power behind the throne was called the Constable (At that time it was Amalric of Lusignan, Guy's brother). The names of the Marshals are less well known... that's probably why that's the title given Irons' Tiberias, the Raymond of Tripoli stand-in.)

UPDATE: Okay, that was non-constructive. How would one have fixed Kingdom of Heaven? Sadly, I suspect this was more a case of an interesting original script, probably more true to history, being rewritten to hell. There are a couple lines left in that hint at a more complex screenplay somewhere in the distance (Sibylla: "I loved your father, and I shall love you," etc.). You could actually make this a pretty good movie, by moving it CLOSER to history.

For instance, try this scenario. Imagine Liam Neeson is Balian: he's actually closer to the right historical age. He still goes to France to pick up his bastard son the blacksmith Godfrey (Bloom), who then accompanies him on his adventures. Neeson doesn't die in Italy: maybe is only so badly injured he has to use Bloom as his fighting instrument. Bloom can still do all the slaying, have the affair with the Queen, etc. etc. Balian (Neeson) is offered the throne by the usurpers... he's the matriarch's husband, after all, so he has a legit claim... he and Bloom can still debate whether it's better to commit the "small sin" of quasi-regicide in order to save a doomed kingdom, or not: Neeson, unlike Bloom, may at some point show something like a recognizable human emotion at this point. That crisis past them, the father-son duo organizes the defence of Jerusalem, and at the end Bloom says farewell, as he has done the penance his soul required and learned some valuable life lessons from the father he never knew, and returns to his life in France alone. After you've seen this current trainwreck, tell me that wouldn't be an infinitely better movie.

UPDATE #2: While I'm at it, I just wanted to say that the plagiarism accusations around this movie were pretty ludicrous to my mind. Quoth the plaintiff: "I suppose there is a legal argument... that he [Scott] had it in mind all along, that they knew of Balian of Ibelin, that he got all this from somewhere else, reading 1950's Cambridge, England, stodgy old histories. But I don't think so." I've never read James Reston's Warriors of God, and I knew about Balian and the Fall of Jerusalem... not from "50s histories," either. As I recall, Geoffrey Regan's recent Lionhearts had a fair synopsis, as did a history of the Templars I was skimming last week. We're talking the fall of Christianity's holiest city, an event that shook the Western Hemisphere... this is not obscure history here. Certainly, given the wide departure from historical reality of the final product, any claim of plagiarism from a real historian would probably be laughed out of court, now.

UPDATE #3: Nearly forgot the depicting of the lifting of the Kerak siege in 1183 by King Baldwin. In the movie, the whole thing's set a couple years later: Baldwin shows up, talks Saladin out of going to war, then imprisons Reginald/Raynald for starting it. In reality, Guy was Baldwin's regent at the time, but he was among those trapped in Kerak when it was besieged. Baldwin himself then did ride to Reginald and Guy's aid, Saladin did back off without a fight (as the movie hints, supply problems were probably his chief concern, not any fear of Baldwin), but then Guy, being Guy, refused Baldwin's orders to go in pursuit. Baldwin then dismissed Guy as regent, but he didn't imprison anyone. The key difference here is that Baldwin, who in reality apparently had no problem with fighting Muslims or chasing down a retreating enemy when he had the advantage, is portrayed in the film as an "uncomplex" man with a deeply pacific nature.

Not the worst of its errors (see above for worse), but the whole scene of Baldwin beating up and then jailing one of the leading members of his nobility misses a lot that is essential about the feudal lord-sovereign relationship: basically, it was much more equal than that. By law and custom, while Baldwin could fine Guy or Reginald or deprive them of royal offices or new favours, once Reginald had been installed by Baldwin as Master of Kerak nothing short of an open state of war with the King (or at least annulment of the royal marriage that had ensconced him there) was required to remove him. He wasn't the night watchman for the place, or even the general commanding in that sector... he was the feudal Lord of Oultrejordain (i.e., Transjordan). Big difference.

UPDATE #4: Reading feudal royal lineages always reminds me of that scene in Spaceballs, "I am your father's brother's nephew's cousin's former roommate." For instance, Maria Komnenos, Balian's wife and dowager queen of Jerusalem, should not be confused with her great-uncle the Byzantine Emperor Manuel's daughter of the same name, the betrothed of King Bela of Hungary, a man who, after that didn't work out, ended up instead marrying Agnes, the daughter of... Reginald of Chatillon.

Posted by BruceR at 03:49 AM