Will Sorg – Entertainment Writer
Four years after 9/11, Ridley Scott made Kingdom of Heaven, a film about The Crusades and the events leading up to the 1187 Siege of Jerusalem, in which the Sunni Muslim ruler Saladin fought against Christian-occupied Jerusalem. Before the film even came out it was mired in controversy. A Daily Telegram writer who had not even seen the film claimed it “pandered to Osama Bin Laden.” After the script leaked, an Islamic Studies Professor from UCLA wrote an article stating that “I believe this movie teaches people to hate Muslims,” and historians lambasted the story for its sensationalism and inaccuracy. The film itself was panned critically and underperformed at the box office almost everywhere– except for the Middle East. Middle Eastern audiences seemed to love the film, and while that could be accredited to its setting and representation of a historical victory against European Catholics, it is also possible that the success came from the way the film’s message resonated with Middle Eastern audiences.
Less than a year after the film’s debut, Ridley Scott released his director’s cut. With over 45 minutes put back into the film it was widely considered one of the most transformative director’s cuts ever made. Critical response was overwhelmingly positive, and for good reason. The theatrical version was marketed as an action adventure/love story/blockbuster set in the holy land, but merely consists of shallow characters wandering around in a safe and cliché plot. The director’s cut adds the film’s soul back and makes it about modern problems. Yes, it stars a very white Orlando Bloom as a dashing crusader defending his new home from an invasion, but the film is not blind to the history of Jerusalem. With the director’s cut the film adds numerous scenes that challenge the conventional narrative of the Crusades.
Bloom’s character Balian first arrives in a Jerusalem experiencing a tenuous peace. Muslims, Christians, and Jews coexist in the city as the film explores this peaceful Jerusalem through Balien’s eyes. This is very consciously chosen by Scott to show audiences an almost utopian view of a world where religions are able to find common ground and work towards reconciliation. The peace is held by King Baldwin IV, a young but wise ruler who is dying of leprosy. The film uses the imagery of a frail, dying man whose disfigured face is hidden by a metal mask as a powerful contrast to the heavy burden he carries in maintaining the peace.
Ridley’s eye for powerful imagery is one of the film’s strongest aspects. There are conscious decisions made everywhere from the way the warmongering crusader antagonists all dress in white as a subversion of the association of the color white and goodness, to the way action scenes are shot to be disorienting and uncomfortable to emphasize the horrors of war. I believe that the most important choice made in the film is the equal representation of Christians and Muslims in the final battle of the film. Throughout the movie the two opposing faiths are paralleled. Balian remarks on how similar Islamic prayers are to Christian prayers, Muslim and Christain characters alike speak on the pointlessness of the crusaders and characters from both faiths sometimes say similar, if not identical lines of dialogue. In the final battle the film is not portraying a one-sided conflict, instead the film cuts between the two sides, showing victory and tragedy for both. The siege is given nuance and treated not as a battle, but as a depressing continuation of a multigenerational conflict perpetrated by religious zealots who prefer bloodshed and personal gain rather than peace and collective healing. Kingdom of Heaven, even with all its extravagance and violence, is a film that calls for peace in our time. It is a bold request for a film to make, especially in the middle of Bush era nationalism, but rarely is a film so sincere in its intent.