A fragile peace rules Jerusalem in the late 12th century after the Christian king, Baldwin IV, declares a truce with the great Muslim leader, Saladin. Christian, Jew and Muslim are all welcome to worship as they please in the city. That accord is threatened, however, by zealous Knights Templar who, under the guise of Christianity, want to pillage and plunder. Saladin also faces pressure from Muslim zealots in his ranks, who chafe at the idea of Jerusalem, site of their sacred al-Aqsa mosque, under the control of "infidels."
In the meantime, Balian, a humble blacksmith in France, mourns the death of his wife and infant child, believing that God has abandoned him in his loss. After a group of Crusaders rides into his village, Balian learns that he is the illegitimate son of a knight, Godfrey of Ibelin, who wants his son to join him in the Holy Land. Seeking redemption for his own soul and his wife’s—she committed suicide and he therefore believes she is currently in hell—Balian joins his father on a trek to Jerusalem.
Once in the great city, Balian finds himself smack in the middle of palace intrigue. King Baldwin is dying of leprosy, and he does not want the kingdom handed to the treacherous Guy de Lusignan, who is married to the king’s sister, Sibylla. (Guy and his right-hand man, Reynald de Chatillon, are leaders of the knights who want to break the truce with Saladin.) For her part, Sibylla would just as soon be rid of her loutish husband anyway, and the dashing Balian looks like a good candidate for new king—and husband.
But because Balian, like his father, believes the Holy Land should be a "kingdom of conscience," he will have nothing to do with such scheming. As pressure for war grows and Saladin prepares to lay siege to Jerusalem, Balian strives to do the right thing.
Knightly chivalry pervades this story. Balian’s motto is, "What man is a man who does not leave the world better?" His oath as a knight is to "be brave that God may help thee, speak the truth even if it leads to death, and safeguard the helpless." He lives out this oath to a fault. He fights, not for glory or riches, but to protect the citizens of Jerusalem. He does not count his station as a knight something to be taken advantage of, getting into the dirt with slaves and servants to dig a well. Godfrey tells his son, "You are not what you were born, but what you have it in yourself to be."
Balian shows mercy to an enemy, and that mercy is later repaid when that same Muslim soldier captures him. The knights under Balian’s command are brave and loyal, staying to fight by his side in the face of nearly hopeless odds. Balian refuses to participate in a palace plot to have a fellow knight assassinated. The king says, "You cannot stand before God and say that I was told to do this or that, or that virtue was inconvenient."
Despite numerous provocations, Saladin tries to resist the call to war among some of his followers. Likewise, King Baldwin’s adviser says, "I would rather live with men than kill them."
The film is set after the Second Crusade, Christian Europe’s attempt to retake the Holy Land from the Muslims, although overt Christian and Muslim beliefs are rarely mentioned. (More on this in my "Conclusion.")
The camera focuses on a crucifix around the neck of a woman about to be buried. The priest burying her steals it. That same priest tells Balian, "I’m your priest, and I tell you, God has abandoned you." Because Balian’s wife was a suicide, she has condemned herself to hell, according to the beliefs of the time. The priest suggests that if Balian goes on a Crusade, "You may relieve your wife’s position in hell." Later Balian prays to his dead wife: "How can you be in hell when you’re still in my heart?" As men attempt to arrest Balian for murder, Godfrey refuses to hand him over: "We’ll fight and let God determine the truth."
A Muslim quotes the law of sowing and reaping (Gal. 6:7) to Balian. Several scenes show Muslims bowing in prayer. When a man translates an Arabic prayer ("Praise be to God, it is proper to praise him"), Balian says, "Sounds like our prayers." A Muslim says of a fellow Muslim killed in a fight, "It was the end of his time. All is as God wills it." When it looks as if Jerusalem is about to fall to the Muslim army, a bishop says, "Convert to Islam. Repent later." (This same bishop, claiming it is God’s will, later advocates fleeing the city, leaving the people to their fate.) A man in a European (presumably Christian) village repeats the phrase, "To kill an infidel is not murder; it is the path to heaven."
On a more positive note, a knight tells Balian, "Holiness is in right action. What God desires is here [points to Balian’s head] and here [points to his heart]." Upon arriving in Jerusalem, Balian wants to know where Christ was crucified; he goes to Calvary, buries his wife’s crucifix necklace in the dirt and spends the night praying there. Balian insists over the objections of a priest that dead bodies be burned for sanitary reasons, saying, "If God does not understand, then he is not God, and we have nothing to fear."
A dying Godfrey is asked by a priest if he is sorry for his sins. He looks lovingly at his illegitimate son, Balian, and answers, "All but one …"
Sibylla comes to Balian’s room at night, whereupon they begin to kiss and then disrobe. The camera shows a shirtless Balian bending over to kiss Sibylla. He lies on top of her before the scene cuts away.
Frequent scenes of battle are graphic and intense, shot in the same close-up, grainy style that director Ridley Scott employed in Gladiator. Balian runs a man through with a sword and then pushes him into his blacksmith’s fire. Men are shot down with arrows, and we see and hear the missiles impacting in their chests and heads. The camera lingers on a dying man with a spear through his throat.
Swords cleave heads and slash open guts, with blood spraying across victim and attacker alike. A knight rams a dagger into the neck of a Muslim courier, and blood sprays across the room. Balian stomps on the neck of fallen foe, and we hear the neck bones snap. He then stabs another foe through the slit of his facemask.
The aftermath of a battle shows a field littered with dead, bloody bodies, and severed heads rest on pikes shoved into the ground. Saladin kills a captured knight by slashing his throat; his warriors drag the man away and stab him with daggers as he dies. The Muslim army besieging Jerusalem uses trebuchets to fling huge fireballs at the city, and defenders are crushed and set afire. Attackers are also engulfed in flames when defenders pour pitch and boiling oil over the city walls, then toss down torches. The defenders use ropes to pull over siege towers, which collapse and crush soldiers within and below.
A graphic scene shows knights being hanged by being shoved off a castle wall and coming to the end of the rope with loud thuds. Balian has a deep, bloody gash in his arm treated by a nurse. The camera focuses on an arrowhead being pulled from between a man’s ribs. The king whips a man across the face with his riding crop.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
Several scenes of knights drinking and toasting with wine. Godfrey asks for wine after being treated for a wound.
Other Negative Elements
When Balian refuses to participate in a palace plot because it would violate his oath as a knight, a once-idealistic knight cynically says, "Jerusalem has no need of a perfect knight." Sibylla also tries to convince Balian to participate in the plot: "There will be a day when you will wish that you did a little evil to serve a greater good."
The leprous king forces a rebellious knight to kiss his putrid, diseased hand. We later see the grotesquely deformed face of the king after he dies.
First, make no mistake: The Crusades are a blot on Christian history. The idea that God would will that military force be used to retake the city of Jerusalem for Christendom, as Pope Urban II claimed in launching the First Crusade in 1095, is contrary to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 26:52. "’Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to [Peter], ’for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.’" And while for most Christians the Crusades—there were eight in all—are ancient history, to some Muslims they are as fresh as yesterday’s insult. That is why Osama bin Laden can so easily invoke the image of "Crusaders" when he rallies al-Qaeda terrorists to strike Westerners. It’s also why advisers quickly told President Bush to drop the word crusade from his speeches about the war against terrorism.
It is against this tense backdrop that Ridley Scott has taken a true story from 800 years ago—Balian, Guy de Lusignan, Reynald de Chatillon, Baldwin IV, Sibylla and Saladin are all real characters—and bent it to fit his distinctly 21st century views on religion. To wit, Scott’s onscreen vision seems to object to someone actually believing what his religion professes. Most of the Christians and Muslims in this film are vaguely religious in the sense that they believe they must do good and fight evil, but as for the distinctiveness of their respective faiths, you’d never know what they were fighting about if your only source were this movie.
And that fits perfectly with Scott’s stated opinions: A self-professed agnostic, he believes that the problem with religion is, in his words, "fanaticism." For example, in a column he penned for Britain’s The Guardian, Scott calls the Knights Templar "the right wing or Christian fundamentalists of their day." He also told London’s Evening Standard, "Religious difference, right now, is causing a great lack of understanding." For Scott, religion should consist solely of "good actions, of doing the right thing by others, whatever their beliefs. That’s what we show with Balian in Kingdom of Heaven. If we could just take God out of the equation for a second, concentrate on how you live. If we could abide by that, there’d be no f‑‑‑ing problem."
For Scott, our guiding principles should be "logic and truth," as he told Chris Matthews on MSNBC’s Hardball. But one could never arrive at Balian’s code of chivalry by simple logic, and "truth" in the transcendent sense is meaningless without it being grounded in something real—God’s eternal, unchanging nature. The only "truth" in Scott’s story is a vague "why can’t we all get along?" sentimentality. The result is a distortion of history.
Even though the facts in Kingdom of Heaven are more or less correct, Scott’s vision has his characters doing preposterous things. For example, after taking Jerusalem, Saladin finds a golden cross lying amid the wreckage. He pauses, picks up the cross and places it again on the altar it had fallen off. But no devout Muslim would ever do that, since the doctrine of the Cross—God becoming flesh and dying to pay for mankind’s sin—is an affront to Muslims who believe that Jesus, a great prophet but not the Son of God in their theology, will return at the end of the age to, as it’s said in the Hadith, "break the cross."
But, perhaps unwittingly, Scott puts a tremendous truth in Sibylla’s mouth in describing the difference between Christianity and Islam. After watching Muslims pray, she says, "Their prophet commands them to submit. [Islam means "to surrender" or "submission."] Jesus says, ’You decide.’"
Just so. "Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son" (John 3:18).
In the end, while still acknowledging the film’s worldview issues, Scott deserves credit for carefully avoiding the wholesale vilification of either Christians or Muslims. People of faith may object to individual moments, statements or characters, but Kingdom of Heaven is neither spiritually extreme nor malicious. As for violence—that’s another matter altogether.