In the wake of the Passion, Hollywood began searching for material that would be marketable to the hordes of hitherto neglected “faith group.” Kingdom of Heaven, which has been advertising in the conservative World Magazine, presumably is one of these new movies aimed at one of the largest spending groups in America: the conservative Christian.
After returning from viewing the movie at the Zanuck Theatre at the Fox Picture Studios (courtesy the amazing Grace Hill Media staff), I can only say that Hollywood has swung and missed. Badly. If they expect conservative Christians to support “Kingdom of Heaven” with their dollars, they are sorely mistaken.
The story centers around Balian (Orlando Bloom), a former blacksmith who ends up embroiled in late 12th century Jerusalem politics. When the story opens, Christians hold the city while King Baldwin the IV strives to maintain a tenuous peace with the nearby Muslim force, led by Saladin (Ghassan Massoud). Guy de Lusignan–member of the Knights Templar, husband of Sibylla (King Baldwin’s daughter), and eventual King of Jerusalem (when Baldwin dies) instigates a war between Jerusalem and Saladin, a war that leads to the Jerusalem’s main force total destruction. Balian, who is Lusignan’s rival, is left to defend Jerusalem against the coming forces of Saladin.
“Kingdom of Heaven” is less about religious pluralism than something like secular humanism. Jerusalem is a place where anyone can become anything–the blacksmith becomes the Lord and the Lord becomes the beggar. The movie repeatedly returns to the supremacy of an individual’s character over any sort of “religiousity.” Balian remarks at one point, “It’s the kingdom of conscience–or nothing” (apparently Balian’s conscience has lots to say about murder, but nothing to say about adultery). In the last stand against the Saracens, he cries, “No one has a claim [to the holy sites of Jerusalem]. All people have a claim. We fight not for Jerusalem but for the people inside Jerusalem.” Ultimatlely, “Holiness is right action. . . . It’s the decisions that you make every day.”
While the emphasis on virtue is commendable, by separating it from the truth claims of Christianity, director Ridley Scott sucks any sense of power out of the plot. The “evil” in this movie is defeated when Lusignan stupidly leads the forces of Jerusalem to certain destruction at the hands of Saladin. Yet the final scenes are composed of two armies (Saladin’s and Balian’s), both of which we are supposed to admire, destroying each other. The fact that neither of them is either “evil” or “good” makes the battle feel dull and unengaging. Of course, if one of them was “evil”, Scott would have evoked the ire of pluralists the world-round, even if it would have helped his plot significantly.
Additionally, Balian, who has neither evil to fight nor cause to die for, is left with the task of inspiring his troops, which he barely manages to do. One can’t help compare Balian’s final speech (“Let them come! Come on! Come on!”) with Mel Gibson’s in Braveheart (“What will you do without freedom?”). Balian’s lack of material (he couldn’t really rally his troops to fight for God, King, and Country against the forces of evil, though it certainly would have been more poetic and inspiring) is directly related to Scott’s insistence on his message, which produces a humdrum, anti-climatic ending. In contrast, Gibson’s obvious sense of good and evil led to a dramatic and arresting plot and dialogue.
This is not the sort of movie that is going to draw large crowds of conservative Christians. Scott is relentless in his humanistic, anti-religious message, so much so that my friend remarked that it felt like anti-religious “digs” spliced between action sequences (and very violent action sequences, at that–not for the faint of heart). If the message doesn’t keep conservative Christians away, the uncaptivating plot and dialogue will. The costumes and sets are lavish, but are not enough to redeem “Kingdom of Heaven.”