Movie Review: Kingdom of Heaven

Those wiser and more experienced than I have already noted the merits and the problems with Kingdom of Heaven, but I felt I should get around to mentioning it on Made of Ƿ. Kingdom of Heaven is not entirely a travesty of history, but it has some serious problems.

The Pilgrim’s Guide

First, I should acknowledge that the end goal was to make an entertaining action movie. This will necessitate some changes and glosses so that the movie doesn’t become a documentary. I appreciate that the DVD comes with a feature called “The Pilgrim’s Guide,” which gives historical notes and explains why some liberties were taken. The notes on linguistics are usually excellent. The notes explaining various weapons and their uses are usually excellent.

Some of the notes are summarized to the point of leading the reader astray, and some of them are plain wrong. For example, the notes on the development of medieval medicine and influence of Arab medicine are technically accurate, but some are so brief that they will lead the reader to the conclusion that Western doctors were idiots and the only worthwhile skills they learned were stolen from others. The situation is far more complex than that. I see from a quote given at the end that Runciman was one of the primary sources of research for this movie, which probably accounts for many of the problems. (Thomas Madden has already explained the failings of Runciman’s research.)

Good Stuff

Some parts of the movie were done well. I’m not terribly familiar with the personalities of the historical characters used in this movie, but I’d say the spirit was usually correct. (Actually, the Pilgrim’s Guide says that the real Reynald of Châtillon was even more of a jerk than he was portrayed in the movie. My research leads me to agree.) It acknowledges some historical events—Saladin’s ransom of the citizens of Jerusalem, for example.

I liked the wisdom and care portrayed in Saladin and Baldwin IV. I liked Baldwin IV’s silver mask. Though not historical, it makes the character mysterious and powerful. It also bids the viewer to consider the implications of leprosy without using the shock factor.

Bad Stuff

On the same note, I was angry when Sibylla removed Baldwin IV’s mask and the camera showed his face after his death because it seemed a desire to resort to the grotesque. If they wanted the viewer to understand Baldwin IV’s pain and endurance through his disease, they could have shown Sibylla’s reaction, but not Baldwin IV’s face. I think this would have been a more respectful way to treat the character.

The biggest problem I have with Kingdom of Heaven is that it depicts the wrong motivations for the Crusades. Probably due to Runciman’s influence, most characters see the Crusades as a land grab and a chance to obtain wealth. I’ve already discussed the problems with this view in Misuse of the Word Medieval. This appeals to modern sensibilities, but it would not have made sense to men of the Middle Ages, who viewed the Crusades as a pilgrimage above all other things.

Kingdom of Heaven also uses some of the stereotypes that irk me. The Pilgrim’s Guide says that Western Europeans learned the practice of frequent bathing from the Arabs. Again, I’ve covered this one in Misuse of the Word Medieval. It is correct to show people eating with their hands, but wrong to show them licking their fingers. The Hospitaler played by David Thewlis is depicted as giving Last Rites, and while I can’t say I paid enough attention to his character to announce that this is a definite problem, I think that the scriptwriters confused a priest’s vows with the vows of a military order. He must be a priest to give Last Rites and hear confessions. If he is a priest, then he will not fight like a knight.

Much of the information in the Pilgrim’s Guide on chivalry is correct. However, it discusses chivalry with the fully-developed rules of the late Middle Ages. I think that it would be more accurate to say that during this period, the rules of chivalry are still being developed.

My last complaint is that Reynald of Châtillon’s hair irritates me. Is he supposed to look like a red-haired man who is turning white with age? It looks more like a dye job that grew out. Hair color could be artificially altered during the Middle Ages, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t turn out like that.

I’m willing to forgive many of the minor problems with Kingdom of Heaven since the goal was to produce an entertaining movie, not a documentary. However, large problems still remain, and thus, I have more work to do.

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