Kingdom of Heaven
I think it’s a genetic thing. If you have the DNA for being a movie director, the irresistible urge to film a big cavalry charge goes with the territory. For the guys, anyway. Some real good guys have done a cavalry charge. Laurence Olivier put one of the best ever in the first movie he directed: Henry V. Michael Curtiz and Tony Richardson did it 24 years apart in movies called The Charge of the Light Brigade. Then there are the others, the ones who didn’t actually have to gather 1000 horses together but could use 100 and multiply them 1000 times in a computer, like Wolfgang Peterson with the regrettable Troy and Oliver Stone with the execrable Alexander. Stanley Kubrick spent more than 30 years trying to get his version of the life of Napoleon made, and I’ll bet that would have been the best one, given his superb battle scenes in Spartacus. Lately, the best by far was by Peter Jackson in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. What’s next? How about a cavalry charge in the next Woody Allen film? It happens in Central Park and the horses and warriors are deeply conflicted about the whole thing and retire to Elaine’s to talk it all over. Or Martin Scorsese, wise guys on horseback charging through Hell’s Kitchen.
Anyway, here’s Ridley Scott, the great director of masterpieces like Alien, Thelma and Louise, and Black Hawk Down, with a story of the Crusades. But … not really. Those incredibly stupid wars are really just the background here. Jerusalem has been in Christian hands for 100 years, and the occupiers are living more or less in harmony with Muslims and Jews in the “Holy City.” But politics and greed, not religion, are driving the Christians and Muslims toward war. The King of Jerusalem is a peaceful man, and a leper, and he’s dying. Troublemakers from the Knights Templar (and those assholes are still with us) are fomenting trouble. Enter Balian the blacksmith, from France, who is fleeing a murder charge and has just learned he is the bastard son of a nobleman … well, this part of the story is flat-out unlikely, and I have no idea if it is historically accurate. Probably not, it just screams of human interest, a standard frame to hang the politics and war on.
But the larger story is very interesting, and surprised me several times. The great Muslim leader Saladin (played by the stunningly powerful Syrian actor, Ghassan Massoud) brings his mighty CGI army to the walls of a town and—hurray!—Balian the blacksmith leads his troops in a suicidal charge … and is taken prisoner. That’s not how it usually happens. Then the King arrives, two mighty armies are drawn up ready to fight. Okay, here comes the bloodshed … only, it doesn’t. The King rides out and makes an offer to Saladin, Saladin accepts, and both armies retreat. How often have you seen that happen in a movie? It happened often enough in real life, there were leaders here and there who were willing to negotiate rather than send their troops into needless slaughter, but you don’t see it much in a movie epic.
But eventually Saladin comes to besiege Jerusalem, with excellent cause, and Balian rallies the troops to The Cause. Christianity? No, their homes and livelihoods. The battle begins, and it is terrific, with all the ghastly machinery of catapults of burning oil and siege towers and flights of arrows. The Dark Ages didn’t need gunpowder to shock and awe. The walls are breached, it gets down to hand-to-hand combat … and then everybody pulls back, the issue still far from settled. Balian goes out to talk to Saladin, who guarantees no reprisals, and safe passage out of the Holy Land. And … Balian accepts! He surrenders Jerusalem. And Saladin keeps his word. Not what I expected.
The human story is fairly flat, I have to say, but I still liked this thoughtful epic as well as I’ve liked any since Spartacus. Neither Christian nor Muslim is portrayed as either very good or very bad. I think just about anyone can agree that the Crusades were a terrible idea, one we’re still paying for today in the streets of Israel and Palestine. This is maybe the first movie that has pointed that out. And there was a little coda. Back in his village Balian intends to become a blacksmith again (after he’s been a king? I doubt it, but it serves its moral purpose), when who should come riding up but … Richard the Lionheart. He’s on his way to re-capture Jerusalem. I’m reminded of a song by Bob Dylan, who is leaving America with Captain Ay-rab:
I saw three ship sailing, they were all headed my way.
I asked him what his name was and how come he didn’t drive a truck,
He said his name was Columbus, and I just said “Good luck!”