Watching Kingdom of Heaven, one gets the uneasy feeling that the characters sound, act, and think far too much like people of our own time. And is it rather dull much of the time. I would suggest that this is by no means a mere coincidence.
Any historical drama, of course, will reflect ideas and attitudes of the period in which it is written, often to great advantage. However, this is an aspect that must not be overdone, lest the historical anachronisms undermine the effect of the drama, at least for those who have some knowledge of the relevant history.
This is particularly true of Kingdom of Heaven. Director Ridley Scott presents a story line that speaks well to contemporary issues, but in doing so, he and his screenwriter have had to distort the history of the time well beyond recognition or even plausibility. It’s a pity, because Scott is a talented filmmaker who typically makes a commendable effort to understand and express his characters’ motivations. Kingdom of Heaven, however, has a certain emotional distance to it, attributable in good part, I think, to the unreal nature of the situation. As the distinguished historian Thomas Madden notes in today’s issue of National Review Online,
“As a matter of plot logic, one might reasonably wonder why all of these Crusaders wearing crosses on their breasts and marching off to hopeless battles care so little for Christianity? When preparing for the defense of Jerusalem, Balian proclaims that it is not the stones that matter, but the people living in the city. In order to save the people’s lives he threatens to destroy all of the Christian and Muslim holy sites, ‘everything,’ he says, ‘that drives men mad.’ Yet if he is only concerned with defending people, why has Balian come all the way to Jerusalem to do it? Aren’t there plenty of people in France who need defending? The truth is that Scott’s Balian has it exactly wrong. It is the stones, the buildings, the city that mattered above all else. Medieval Christians saw Jerusalem as a precious relic sanctified by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The people were there to glorify God and defend His Holy City. The real Balian, faced with the inevitable conquest of Jerusalem, threatened to destroy the Dome of the Rock if Saladin did not abandon his plan to massacre the Christian inhabitants. That plan is airbrushed out of the movie. Indeed, the good and noble Saladin of this movie lets all of the citizens depart with a hearty, good-natured smile on his face. The real Saladin required them to pay a ransom. Those that could not — and there were thousands — were sold into slavery.”
Madden acknowledges that Scott has repeatedly said that Kingdom of Heaven is “not a documentary” but a “story based on history.” As Madden notes, however, the use of history has its limits, and to turn a real-life story of the Crusades into a call for religious tolerance requires too much distortion to allow the film’s characters and their choices to remain credible. In removing much of what motivated the real-life characters on which the film was so loosely based, the film flattens the characters and their choices into highly artificial constructs subservient to an all too banal moral, however fine that idea might be. That is destructive to art, and I would suggest that it is what makes it a far less interesting and enjoyable film on an aesthetic level than it could have been.
Madden’s critique includes much detail on the real story behind the characters in Scott’s film. Read it here.