Modernity as the Triumph of the Generic; or Why the Kingdom of Heaven is Such a Cramped and Narrow Place

Instead of fighting, you guys should just come and look at how gorgeous I am!

I had not had the opportunity to see director Ridley Scott’s foray into the middle ages, entitled Kingdom of Heaven, until a couple of days ago, and I have to say, it was just as awful as I expected to be in terms of its historicity.   My initial reaction when it came out was that it would be intolerable, and so I never bothered to see it; a few years ago one of the leading scholars in the field of crusades history, Jonathan Riley-Smith, emeritus professor at Cambridge, came to my university to speak, and if my memory is correct I believe he referred to Mr. Scott’s film as “rubbish.”  Indeed, my own initial reaction to the film was to describe it with slightly more colorful metaphors; I watched the film with my housemate, and we found it so historically preposterous that we were making jokes and talking over the dialogue midway through the film.  So what was so objectionable about the film you might ask?

First of all, credit where credit is due:  in terms of its imagery and cinematography, it is beautifully done, as are most of Scott’s films.  And the performances in the film on are the whole very good:  I was suitably surprised by the performance of Orlando Bloom, though given how low my expectations were this is not saying much, and the actor who portrayed Saladin did a very good job as well.   Liam Neeson was capable as usual, and Eva Green was captivating and mysterious as Princess Sybilla.  (As an aside,  I have an enormous, juvenile crush on Eva Green, so my judgement is perhaps not reliable on this point.)  Kingdom of Heaven did not engage in any macho action film posturing that I recall; there was no mano y mano scene between Bloom’s character, Balian, and Saladin at the end; the dialogue, though not the best, was serviceable, and the costumes, the sets and other visual apparati  were quite realistic.  I also found Scott’s use of CGI to enhance what were location shots to be quite well done, far superior to the fake looking battles scenes of, say, 300.  In short, its production values are quite high, and Scott is a quite an excellent visual artist, especially when considering the scale of the film.

What Scott does not do well is imaginatively capture the beliefs of peoples with whom he does not already sympathize.  The film has a typically warped, Hollywood view of the middle ages.  I have blogged before on the tendency of film to dumb down complex historical realities, and I do understand the need to distill some of the complexity to fit the time frame of a roughly two hour film. But that is not what is going on here.  Rather, the complexity of the crusades (especially the Christian Crusaders) is reduced to stereotypes which jibe easily with the directors view of the world, which is that of a 21st century agnostic.  I am always amazed at the casual way in which people commit murder in big Hollywood films about the middle ages, as if medieval people were sub-human monsters who committed acts of atrocity on a daily basis.  I  have noticed a tendency of film makers to get the audience to identify with the film’s main character by reducing everyone else in the movie to a crude caricature of humanity and making the main character espouse “modern” values.   In Kingdom of Heaven, this means that every Christian cleric (we don’t see any Muslim religious figures in the film) is basically a fiend:  in the beginning of the movie,  Balian’s wife has committed suicide and is refused Christian burial, and the priest who does this also tells Balian’s that the people of his village want him gone because he is a bastard, and that his wife will burn in hell unless he goes on crusade with his father.  When he reveals to him that he has also cut off his wife’s head, Balian runs him through with a sword, and we are meant, I guess, to enjoy this.  Then there are the Knights Templar, who are all bloodthirsty to a man, and start a war with Saladin by indiscriminately slaughtering Muslim villagers; then there is the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem (at least I think he is; its not clear that Scott was aware there were Greek Christians in Jerusalem at the time, or of the differences between Catholic and Orthodox Christians), who when the city is invaded by Saladin advises Balian to surrender and “become Muslims; we can repent later.”  Every single clergyman in the film is either venal, cowardly, or bloodthirsty, and I could be wrong but it seems to reflect a deeper prejudice on the part of the filmmaker, to judge from the choices he has made. 

My name is Liam Neeson, and my sword is bigger than Orlando Bloom

Not so with the knights, whose religious beliefs appear to have been plagiarized from a book that William Monahan picked up in the “Spirituality” section at Barnes & Noble.  Liam Neeson’s character Godfrey of Ibelin is upright, and  Balian is chivalrous as well, at least when he is not committing adultery (but hey, its Eva Green, so its cool; I’m sure the pope would issue a dispensation for that).  More importantly, Balian and the other sympathetic characters are just like “us”:  he proclaims at one point in the film that “God does not speak to me” and that he has ‘lost his religion,’ to which his interlocutor, a Hospitaller played quited well by David Thewlis, replies that “religion is nothing…its what a man practices that matters,” or something to that effect.  At one point, the Princess Eva Green informs Balian that “Muslims want unity…Christ wants us…to decide.”   And near the end of the siege of Jerusalem, Balian stands before the people and gives a stirring but idiotically anachronsitic speech about the meaninglessness of religious differences worthy of a Unitarian minister.  It would be tedious to point out every single instance in the film, but it is clear we are meant to identify with the  characters who are tolerant, doubtful of their own religion but kind to the Muslim “Other,” while everyone else in the film is an evil cardboard cut-out designed make us hate them, in order gain our sympathy for the main characters.

All of this is typical of Hollywood historical schlock; but what I found fascinating about Kingdom of Heaven is the way it distills a sort of modern, pluralistic sensibility, which abhors actual, particular and concrete traditions and beliefs with real (and usually messy) histories, finding refuge in a sort of “generic” humanity shorn of any such complicating features, almost perfectly.   The bland, sterile nature of this generic humanity reminds one of the political philosopher John Rawls, who contended that when considering principles of justice, one must treat human beings as if they had no history, no sex, no race, class, etc.  (See his Theory of Justice)  Or perhaps more fittingly for this film, the contention of the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas that the “face” of the “Other” can never actually appear, because otherwise we would reduce the “Other” to the features of the “Same,” and therefore the visage of the “Other” can only be known as an abstract, cultureless humanity.  The film embodies this quite nicely:  Bloom is himself the British Tom Cruise, bland but acceptable to all; the good king Baldwin has no recognizable face, because it was eaten away  by leprosy; and Eva Green’s character, despite (perhaps because?) of her beauty, cuts her hair off in a gesture of remorse, if not quite repentance, though it is not clear what sin she has committed by not killing the execrable Guy de Lusignan.  In terms of their beliefs, as noted above, most of the characters are just as bland and generic:  when Balian first meets the king, Baldwin exhorts him to be good to those who are weak, to protect pilgrims, without ever mentioning the Christian religion at all.   Saladin’s character is less diluted, mainly because it is difficult to screw up such a compelling historical figure, even for Hollywood directors, but even he is reduced to his own generic maganimity;  when Balian ask him after the surrender of Jerusalem what the city is worth, he responds “Nothing…everything.”   Saladin just could have said it is worth everything because the Prophet had commanded his followers to pray towards Jerusalem originally, or because of the Dome of the Rock, or a hundred other actual reasons why Muslims find the place to be sacred.  Yet that would violate the film’s basic idea, that tolerance is everything, and that if we just abandon everything that is complicated and distinctive about our cultures and civilizations, we’ll all live in perfect harmony.  Or we would, if it weren’t for those pernicious neanderthals who continue insist on the meaning of those differences.  Or something.  I am probably giving the film way too much credit for thought, but it is something that never ceases to irritate me.

Evidently Baldwin's leprosy was so bad that even his horse needed a mask

This was confirmed for me when I watched the behind the scenes features on the DVD I was borrowing.  Scott claimed he had the idea for a film years ago generically called “Knight,” which, unsurprisingly, never went anywhere.   The main writer, William Monahan, claimed he had read a few books on the middle ages, but did not specify which ones;  it appears that Scott likes to shoot more than he needs, and apparently some scenes didn’t make it into the film, so perhaps Monahan’s original script wasn’t quite as bad.  On the whole, though, one gets the impression one usually gets when Hollywood types talk about history, namely that it amounts to getting the clothing to look authentic, which Scott spent a great deal of time talking about.  This is understandable, given that Scott is a visual artist, and I cannot blame him for what he does not know.  Or to paraphrase my advisor, I cannot blame him making the film that he set out to make.  I can only blame him for claiming it is in any way an accurate depiction of medieval history.  This is partly the rant of a disgruntled historian, who is irritated that he will feel duty bound to correct all of the errors that will no doubt be placed in people’s minds, as films are far more influential with the general public when it comes to shaping their view of the past than mere works of history.

What is frustrating about this is that it need not come down to a choice between historical authenticity and good drama.   It is true, sometimes filmmakers and playwrights will have to alter timelines, and the like, to tell the story in a dramatic way.  Some parts of history simply can’t be made into good drama.  But knowing when and where this is possible is part of the art itself; making a film or writing a novel is about drama, and narrative tension, in a way that a history is not.  A good drama means a good story, and while every history does presuppose a narrative, it is not usually about that.  The word itself comes from the Greek historein, meaning an inquiry of some sort, and usually intends to answer some burning question, as Thucydides did in his History of the Peloppensian War (namely, how did Athens lose to those barbarous Spartans?)  History often undermines good stories, which turn out not to be true on closer examination, at least as much as it confirms them to be true. 

In any case, when one writes a history, one takes on a great responsibility, because the people whom you are studying have no one other than historians (usually academic historians) to speak for them, and no one really listens to them.  I remember someone saying that you should always speak up for somebody when they are not in the room, and I have always thought this was a just thing to do.  The worst thing you can do to someone is misrepresent their ultimate beliefs, and you wouldn’t dare do it to someone who is living because they could sue you, but the dead can’t sue, so filmmakers feel content to make up whatever they imagine medieval people believed, which is usually something that flatters their own sense of who they are (oh aren’t we wondefully tolerant, unlike those “fanatical” Templars!).   This is why anachronism in regard to clothing, machinery and the like is not so big of a deal; it is why Shakespeare having a mechanical clock strike in ancient Rome during the course of Julius Caesar does not harm its historical authenticity very much, the reason being that Elizabethan culture had some affinity with the ancient Roman world, and so Shakespeare could enter into its mores and beliefs sympathetically and imaginatively, even if Caesar’s world was not a Christian one.   What is so disturbing about Scott’s generic brand of agnostic tolerance is that apparently cuts him off from being able to understand any civilization that is not “tolerant” in the sense that he understands it—which means he is incapable of imaginatively entering into virtually any civilization other than his own, that of contemporary Western society.  This is why Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven come off as little more than fables about contemporary Westerners, dressed in funny clothes.  Or at least that’s how it often seems to me.

I am Eva Green the Queen of Queens: / Look On My Works Ye Mighty, and Despair.

I should stress that I do not mean to pick on Scott in particular, and that he is in fact a fine artist in many ways.   I have certainly seen far worse attempts at historical film (Braveheart, the Patriot, Cromwell, anything involving John Wayne…) He deserves credit for making big, historical blockbusters attractive to new audiences.  I certainly have always been entertained by his films; obviously Kingdom of Heaven got a rise out of me, so he must be doing something right!  If he didn’t appear to be trading on the supposed historicity of his films, I would haven’t any problems with him at all.  In any case, I want to consider this question of the relationship between film and history bit further, so Iwill probably come back to it in another post or two fairly soon.  Unless I die from the process of completing  my dissertation, in which case it will be safe for Ridley Scott to make another historical epic.   

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~ by Alypius on April 24, 2010.

4 Responses to “Modernity as the Triumph of the Generic; or Why the Kingdom of Heaven is Such a Cramped and Narrow Place”

  1. A philosophical take on Kingdom of Heaven deserves a reply.
    Philosophy turned out to be one of my favorite subjects, thougth I studied little more than the intro courses: Plato, Aristotle, Greek dramatists, Kant, Nietzche, Thomas Aquinas, and French Existentialists.
    Sometimes it seems to me that Scott’s, as well as Bloom’s, purpose was to appeal to Americans to stop blowing up Iraq.
    “They are allowed their prayers?” Bloom’s characters asks, and then notes, “They sound like our prayers.”
    Bloom, of course, was influenced by the man whom Orlando was raised to think was his father, Harry Bloom, who wrote novels and fought apartheid.
    So, very often, it seems to me that Bloom selects roles with the idea of the betterment of human-kind in mind.
    Viggo Mortensten also did a “understand the Middle East” movie, Hildago.
    Both actors seem anti-war, and Lord of the Rings has sometimes been mis-understood as a “go blow up Iraq” movie.
    Thanks for the writing. Reading a philosophical take on film is always a pleasure.

  2. Terry,

    Thank you for your response. I did not know that Orlando Bloom was the son of an activist, but it makes sense I guess. You are right that the movie could be seen as anti-war, but I also didn’t see it as being terribly heavy handed, relatively speaking. Given the time of its release, I’m sure many people made that connection. I wasn’t aware that anyone had made a similar connection with regard to Lord of the Rings; personally, I don’t see it myself.

    Best,

    Alypius

  3. […] reboot coming out nexst summer, so maybe not.) Like Ridley Scott, whose travails I have detailed before, his talents lie mainly in his use of images (though he is much better at dialogue than Scott), and […]

  4. You have made some good points there. I checked on the net for more information about the issue and found most people will
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