I saw Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven today. I’ll write a review soon. But first, a few comments on how it fits into the trend of new “spiritual” films…

Better to call it Kingdom of Tolerance.

My initial reaction to the movie was negative. But the more I think abou it (this post has been revised), I’m glad Ridley Scott made the film. It gives us a context rich with provocation that will spur viewers to investigate all kinds of questions… and we should, focus on those questions. Whenever the film tries to lean toward an answer, it fumbles around and comes up empty, despite its good intentions. But forgive that initial, ticked-off rant. While I’m still dissatisfied, I’m seeing some of the film’s virtues more clearly now.

Kingdom of Heaven is a movie of and for our times, truly. It tries very hard to talk about a historical clash of Christians and Muslims without offending Christians and Muslims. It does this by portraying a wide variety of religious individuals, and by focusing on sins of arrogance and brutality instead of errors in dogma.

But it definitely has a message to people on both sides. And that message is this: Our highest priority should be getting along, even if that means revising our religious convictions, because if God expects something of us that gets in the way of cultural harmony, then he must not be God at all.

Sounds a bit contrary to Christ’s suggestion that he did not come to bring peace, but a sword.

Further, it suggests that, no matter what religion will tell you, the one true path of righteousness is the path of good deeds… that holiness is found only in our own kindness, not in any commitment to obedience to God’s will.

In one memorable moment, the hero declares that he is going to do something his way, and if God has a problem with it, well, then he’s not God. Granted, the hero is following his conscience, but the film seems to make the conscience something that belongs to us, rather than a nudge from God to give up what we see as our way for something higher.

I shouldn’t be too upset about that — Ridley Scott is an agnostic and I’m sure the film wasn’t written or guided by Christians, so I’m glad the film turned out to be so thought-provoking. It’s not innocent, however, of taking cheap shots at Christianity. Yes, it does represent many of the ways Christianity has been abused, distorted, and misinterpreted, but its recommendation for a better way falls far short of the mark. In trying to come up with the One True Way, they hit all around the truth, and the empty space in the middle is the outline of Christ. Because, after all, no human being is capable of so much good that he can redeem the world and change human nature… no one except Christ.

If the film really grappled with the different claims of either religion, the audience might have to face the fact that the two belief systems aren’t reconcilable, that one makes claims that recommend certain behavior and consequences, and the other leads to entirely different behavior and consequences.

The film breaks it down like this:

  • There are Christians who make war in Jesus’s name and get it all wrong. And there are Muslims who distort their own religion and make war as well.
  • There are those who try to follow Christ, but when they don’t get their prayers answered, they despair and decide God has abandoned them. And there are Muslims who just want to get their way too.
  • Christian leaders either become corrupt and wicked and devilish, or they become absolute buffoons who abandon their convictions at the first sign of challenge. (Muslims, on the other hand… well, we don’t get to know them enough to find any Muslim fools. They’re actually fairly admirable in their religious pursuits.)
  • But the BEST Christians and Muslims are those who realize that true righteousness is all about deeds… being a good man. Being a good man means knowing that your enemy is really just like you, and when all is said and done, there are really no differences between the two belief systems worth arguing over.

Hey, I’m happy to see that the film is asking us to put up our swords and relate to each other differently. But the tendency to suggest that the BEST man is one who puts aside religion altogether for some generalized morality, that is insufficient to address most of the deep questions that lead us toward religion in the first place.

Thus, Orlando Bloom’s hero is the messiah of the story by recognizing that making war is bad, protecting people is good, and doing good deeds is a sacred path (minus all of that “God” stuff). The religion he arrives at in the end does not involve prayer or submission to a Higher Authority. It is entirely secular. It has little or nothing to do with Christ.

And of course it couldn’t. If it had anything to do with Christ, that would imply that there IS an authority. But no, we can’t have that, because that leads other religions to want to destroy us. We must first and foremost adhere to the religion of tolerance, and keep our other religious convictions to ourselves. It’s more important that we please each other than that we please God.

And what about the Muslims? The film paints them as people of honor and respect, for the most part. Oh, they have a few renegades who get what they have coming, but the movie carefully avoids showing us anything about Muslim culture that might make us question its foundational ideas. We are kept far far away from Muslim women, for example, so we don’t have to wonder about how they’re treated. (One Muslim woman appears, but she’s abused by one of the Knights Templar, not by her own people.)

Overall, Kingdom of Heaven is a well-made film, another fine example of Ridley Scott’s stellar craft. It has strong performances from its cast of great actors (Bloom isn’t bad either). I’d especially point out David Thewlis, for an admirably restrained turn… finally, directors are rediscovering this great actor. It’s great to see Jeremy Irons back in a role of authority and dignity (until the end, when his character abruptly disposes of that intelligence and strength). Eva Green is striking and surprisingly effective as the princess. (But of course, Bloom’s character quickly disposes of any ethical hesitation in sleeping with this married woman.) And Brendan Gleeson is once again a ferocious, commanding screen presence.

Best of all is Ghassan Massoud as a magesterial Muslim warlord named Saladin; he steals the show whenever he’s on screen.

Further, the film boasts Scott’s typically dazzling cinematography. But one of the surprising disappointments is that this established master of adventures and epics would exhibit such a lack of creativity in the battle scenes — Scott basically clones dozens and dozens of shots from The Two Towers and The Return of the King.

The greatest disappointment is that the storytellers seem to think the Muslim way and the Christian way are equally misguided, and that there is a secular path that trumps both of them. This makes it, ultimately, a hollow piece of cultural commentary.

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