Movie analysis: Kingdom of God

 Fr Peter Malone, president, of SIGNIS, The World Catholic Association for Communication, sends the following statement on Ridley Scott's controversial epic Kingdom of God, which goes on release in the UK this weekend.

Ridley Scott has made a sweeping movie epic of knights and chivalry, of bloodthirsty battles, of wars between Christians and Muslims, of a dream and a short-lived attempt at multi-religious peace, the Kingdom of God. It is set in the 1180s, between the second and the third crusades, the reign of Baldwin IV in the city whose name denotes peace, Jerusalem.

The history of Christendom has been a history of war. God's name and God's will were invoked to justify wars, even 'holy wars' many of which were sheer aggression, others of which were in defence of people's rights. 'God's will' has often been invoked, sometimes by both sides in a conflict, as motivation and justification for the battle. What passed for 'God's will' was often merely the whim of a leader.

The crusades of the Middle Ages have been a sign of contradiction, some seeing them as an assertion of the rights of the church against 'infidels', sanctioned and blessed by popes and saints, others describing them as a bloodthirsty opportunity for land and power aggrandisement. Some Muslim scholars have said that, at the time, they were on the periphery of Muslim consciousness and the same until last century because more significant Islamic history was happening during the 12th and 13th centuries to the east of Palestine. In recent decades, they have offered an opportunity for discussion between Muslims and Christians.

It is suggested that while Baldwin IV ruled in the Latin kingdom in Jerusalem, the setting of this movie, there was an attempt at mutual peace between Christians, Muslims and Jews, an attempt at creating the Kingdom of Heaven.

Scott and his screenwriter, William Monahan, with their western cultural backgrounds, have tried to be scrupulous in not being provocatively aggressive towards Islam. Since their perspective is that of the Crusaders, they opt for presenting the young Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) as the hero of the venture and adventure. He is written as a parallel to a 21st century Everyman, a seeker who has suffered the death of wife and child and a priest's damnation of his wife as a suicide, who has sinned in anger in killing the priest, who feels himself bereft of God's presence and joins his father's crusade to Jerusalem as a means for finding redemption. He believes that Jerusalem is a sacred place of redemption.

Balian, the Everyman, does not immediately rediscover God. During his crusading journey he does become aware of his authentic humanity and tries to act with integrity, especially in the face of greedy and ambitious Christian barons who recklessly provoke war with the Saracens to find glory and possessions.

Advised by his father and his Hospitaller chaplain to make an oath to: 'Be without fear in the face of your enemies. Speak the truth, even if it leads to your death. Safeguard the helpless and do no wrong' Right action according to conscience is to be his moral norm. Balian is presented as a kind of contemporary secular saint for the audience. He is motivated by a spirituality rather than a religion (which is represented by a fanatical priest, a worldly and cowardly bishop as well as the wise Hospitaller).

It is always a matter of regret when official representatives of the church appear in such a bad light, but it would be foolish to deny that many such characters have lived in every era, wielding a destructive influence. The secular saint and the ecclesiastical villain can be seen as a constant and creative challenge to the believer.

Before Kingdom of Heaven was released, it was the subject of both praise and critique, often sight unseen. Relationships between Islam and Christianity make for good copy as well as sensationalist headlines and opportunities for controversial marketing. Ridley Scott asked Islamic historian and cinema commentator, Hamid Dabashi, to be an advisor on the script and on the finished film itself. His helpful article on his involvement with the film, his comments on several controversial articles and his assessment of its stance on Islam, can be found in the UK Sight and Sound, May 2005, pp.24-27. (As of May 5th, 2005, the Google search for Hamid Dabishi and Kingdom of Heaven gives over 50 listings including an interesting, brief discussion from

Kingdom of Heaven challenges Christian and western audiences to re-examine their traditions on war.

The Jewish scriptures are full of battles. The language of warriors is even used of God. However, as God interacted with the people, they learnt more of the ways of peace. By the time of Jesus, with the occupation of the Romans and the periodic uprisings, the language of the New Testament began to speak more of peace than of war.

In fact, this is the message of Jesus, not only in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus condemns the aggression and vindictiveness of an 'eye for an eye' theology of conflict and his advocating of a spirituality of loving one's enemies, but in a significant episode in Gethsemane. The disciple in Matthew's Gospel who draws his sword - it is Peter in John's account and makes us wonder what he was doing having a sword to draw - believes in physical violence to defend Jesus. This is the kind of motivation of the crusaders, at least of those who thought of the battle against 'the infidels' as a cause. And Jesus' response, his motivation, his strategy? "Put your sword back into its sheath", He goes on to what almost seems a pacifist stance: "for all who take the sword will perish by the sword".

In Kingdom of Heaven we are shown a range of warriors. Guy and Reynald think by the sword. They want power, land and possessions. They die by the sword. Baldwin, Godfrey of Ibelin and Tiberius, even Sibylla, have lived by the sword and have come to see how limited and destructive this is. It is the same in the range of Saracens shown. In a time when the worldview took battle and conquest for granted, Saladin and Balian, acknowledge that the safeguarding of the defenceless and of peace are more important than the battles.

Jesus includes a beatitude praising peacemakers. The letter to the Ephesians, chapter 2, takes a Christian perspective on peace and unity, on reconciliation. It suggests a spirituality of peace. Jesus is our peace. He suffered and died but he still preaches peace to all, 'to those who far off and to those who were near'.

Western audiences watching Kingdom of Heaven see a range of stances on war parallel to those of the stances of the crusaders. The question to ask of Islam is what does the Koran say and teach about war? What are the popular conceptions of the jihad? What is the attitude towards Christians? Where are the meeting points on war and peace between the Gospels and the Koran? What is the 'spirituality' behind the character of Saladin, his safe conduct to the refugees from Jerusalem, his later dealings with Richard the Lionheart (who appears at the end of Kingdom of God) two decades later?

Any dialogue between Muslim and Christian will have to go deeper than the long history of bitter battles and of persecutions. There is a peace founded on Jesus and his Gospel which must dialogue with a peace from the Koran. As Balian sits on the hill of Calvary, feeling bereft of God's presence, he looks down on the city whose name is peace in a land which might have become a multi-religious haven, the kingdom of God.

LONDON - 6 May 2005 - 1,312 words

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