A couple of months ago I signed a freelance contract with the German-based web magazine Qantara.de – Dialogue with the Islamic World. "Qantara" is the Arabic word for bridge and the site is an effort on the part of the Federal Centre For Political Education, Deutsche Welle, The Goethe Institute, and The Institute For Foreign Cultural Relations to bridge the gulf between the Islamic world and the West by promoting dialogue between the two cultures.
This split between the two worlds is nothing new, although the "War On Terror" hasn't helped matters. The silent movies of the 1920s perpetuated the romantic lover image, and before that, swarthy devils showed up in literature and paintings making off with beautiful maidens. Unfortunately it will take more than the efforts of one on line magazine to offset the accumulation of over a thousand years of misrepresentation and propaganda disseminated about Islam to encourage people to be a little more broad minded in their outlook. So it was a pleasant surprise to see how Ridley Scott's 2005 movie Kingdom Of Heaven presented such a balanced view of both the Muslim and Christian worlds during the fight for control of Jerusalem in 12th century A.D.
I hadn't read very much about the movie when it was first released, but when I came across it at My Movie Download.com, a site where you can download DivX versions of movies cheaply, there were so many actors in the cast whose talents I appreciate that I figured it was worth the price just to watch them work. Liam Neeson, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Jeremy Irons, Edward Norton, and Eva Green were sufficient incentive to overcome any doubts that I may have had about Orlando Bloom's ability as a dramatic leading man.
Bloom's character, Balian, is a poor blacksmith and when we meet him he's just finished burying his wife who had committed suicide after the death of their newborn child. A party of knights headed towards the Holy Land stop nominally to have their horses shod, but their leader, Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) has an ulterior motive. Many years ago he seduced a young woman who subsequently gave birth to – you guessed it Balian. After announcing that he's his father, Godfrey offers to take Balian to the Middle East to give him the chance for a new life. Initially Balian turns him down, but after he kills the village priest in a fit of rage – the priest tells him his wife has gone to hell because she committed suicide – he takes him up on the offer. Unfortunately the church doesn't think too highly of those who kill their anointed ones, and send out a party of soldiers to bring Balian back. In the fight that ensues when Godfrey refuses to hand Balian over, Godfrey is fatally wounded and only lives long enough to make Balian his heir and knight him.
When Balian finally makes it to Jerusalem (after a shipwreck that leaves him alone in the desert and a duel with an Arab warrior in the desert) he takes his father's place in the court of King Baldwin of Jerusalem (Edward Norton). For three years Baldwin has managed to maintain an uneasy peace with Saladin (Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud), leader of the Muslim army. Under Baldwin's rule all faiths are welcome and free to practice their own religion in Christian held territory. Unfortunately this policy has led to a rift among the Christian forces as the fanatical knights of the Templar order desire to wipe all non-believers from the face of the earth.
With Baldwin dying of leprosy, and his sister next in line to the throne, whoever she's married to becomes very important. Unfortunately for those who wish for peace Sibylla's (Eva Green) mother had married her off to Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) a fanatical Templar. When Balian refuses Baldwin's deathbed request that he marry Sibylla, Guy will be killed, war looks to be unavoidable. Templars under the leadership of Reynald de Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson) had been staging raids on Muslim caravans even when Baldwin was alive, so it's not difficult for Guy to convince him to lead the raid against the campsite where Saladin's sister is living that provokes the war he desires.
When Guy foolishly leads his army out into to the desert to meet Saladin, they are slaughtered because of dehydration from being too far from a source of water. Balian, who refused to take his soldiers into the field, as he knew what the result would be, is left to defend Jerusalem with only his household's soldiers and those citizens willing to fight in order to survive. They know they can't beat Saladin, but they hope to hold out long enough to force him to offer terms for surrender. A knight's first duty is to protect those who can't protect themselves, and Balian hopes to buy their protection by making the cost in human lives of taking Jerusalem higher than Saladin is willing to pay.
If I compare the movie to what I remember of actual history, Scott's depiction of events is accurate. After the first Crusade there was a period of peace between the peoples of all faiths in the Middle East, and Jerusalem was indeed open to all. It was an uneasy peace, and factions in both the Muslim and Christian courts fulminated against it. As Scott's main focus is on activities taking place within the Christian army that becomes a key element in the story of the movie, as it was in history, and the depiction of the Templar's fanaticism is accurate.
While we spend far less time among Saladin's people, it's refreshing to see Muslims portrayed with the same amount of diversity of character as the Christians. Some of them are similar to the Templars in their desire to kill the infidels, while others, like Saladin, are more moderate. They won't stand idly by and see their people wantonly cut down by the Christian armies, but if it's possible to avoid war they will. However, one does get the feeling that Saladin would have eventually taken the offensive even without the provocation offered by the murder of his sister. The Christian armies are invaders occupying his people's territory and they need to be driven away.
As is to be expected from the quality of the actors involved, in most cases the acting in this movie is exemplary. Although he has a relatively small role, one performance that stood out for me in particular was Brendan Gleeson's depiction of Reynald de Chatillon. While Maton Csokas' villain was a little one-dimensional, Gleeson's characterization had surprising depth. However, the most pleasing surprise was Orlando Bloom's performance. Finally given an adult role he rises to the occasion, doing a masterful job of showing the growth and change that his character goes through over the course of the movie.
As this movie was downloaded from the Internet, there were no special features included with it. Unlike some DivX movies I've downloaded in the past both the sound and picture quality of this film were fine. Even with all the proper codices installed I've had troubles with things like the soundtrack overwhelming the dialogue or the dialogue being slightly out of sync with a character's lip movements.
Kingdom Of Heaven is not only a wonderfully acted and staged movie of epic proportions, it does a superb job of presenting all its characters in equal detail. Muslim and Christian alike are treated as individuals, not as types, so that we can respect and admire those on both sides of the conflict for their characteristics not because of what they are. In these days when we are surrounded by continuous reminders of "us" and "them", it's refreshing to see a movie notable for an absence of that attitude.