Kingdom of Heaven Film (2005)
Appropriateness Rating: Good (if you skip some scenes)
Entertainment Rating: Awesome
Kingdom of Heaven is a movie about the crusades which surprised many viewers by the balanced portrayal of Islam and Muslim characters it showed, a portrayal which is so different from what we have been used and what we have now come to expect that it could be considered a revolutionary moment in cinema. This is not to say that the portrayal of Islam and Muslims was perfect, there were several small annoyances, but for Hollywood, for a huge popular movie, this was amazing.
The main character is a Blacksmith named Balian who, through an unfortunate series of circumstances that lead him to be wanted in his village, ends up reluctantly having to go on a crusade. He is still mourning the death of his wife and starting to get to know the father he never knew when he arrives in the middle of a very tense political situation in Jerusalem (which was at that point held by the crusaders).
He gets involved in the politics and fighting there and while he is fighting against the Muslims and with the crusaders his agnostic views and his kind of outsider and reluctant-crusader background allows him to see past some potential prejudices and recognize many of the Muslims, including Salahuddin, as great men.
You should be aware that the movie has many battles and fight scenes and it does not hold back at all in terms of showing violence and blood and gore on screen so it’s not for little children!
Warnings: violence/gore, adulterous love story, killing a small child
The worst thing you sill see in this movie from a moral standpoint is the adulterous love story that develops between the princess Sybilla and the main character Balian. This begins soon after Balian arrives in Palestine and there are several very intimate scenes that should be skipped! However, I would like to note that skipping these scenes does not take away anything from the movie watching experience and if you do it well the people you’re watching with might not even notice that anything was skipped!
Another issue is the quite detailed violence that is shown. It really portrays the horrors of war and the brutality of some of the crusaders, but in one sense this can be a good thing, because it’s not glorifying war or killing and it’s not taking away the consequences like some of the more recent movies do by showing killing with no blood! Viewers should be aware that some scenes will be very difficult to watch because of the violence.
Another moment that was very morally questionable is the moment when the princess Sybilla kills her son by inserting poison in his ear after she finds out that he is a leper like his uncle. This scene is found in the director’s cut of the movie.
Inaccuracies: prayers, geographical “desert” portrayal, condescending view of locals
There are several inaccuracies in this movie, many of the obvious ones relating to the prayers. The Muslims are shown praying spread out about two meters apart, the athan is being recited really loudly while they pray, and there’s no unity whatsoever between them in terms of the timing of their movements which is the exact opposite of what prayers evoke to us Muslims. Watch a great video about it here: Maniac Muslim’s Worst Prayers Ever in Cinema and Television
Another portrayal which is getting old and tired is the geographical portrayal of Palestine as a complete desert made up of sand dunes. The movie was filmed in Morocco which has a very different geography from Palestine and it serves to reinforce this view of Palestine as a desert when in reality it is one of the most fertile places on earth with crops ranging from Olives and Citrus fruits to all kinds of vegetables and so on. This further emphasizes a stereotype used by colonists, especially in Palestine, to portray the land as infertile and the people as stupid just waiting for the white colonists and their “superior” technology to come and almost magically make things grow in a desert.
This is almost an exact description of one of the scenes in the movie which shows Balian teaching the locals how to irrigate their crops and making waterways in the desert that transforms the dusty little piece of land he “inherited” from his newly found father. The regular locals on the land are shown to be stupid and completely incompetent at knowing how to farm their own land, while this newcomer from Europe somehow knows better than them. This was very difficult to watch and should definitely be discussed with your family and friends if you watch this movie, as we should not allow these stereotypical images to continue being reinforced!
These holdovers from colonialist orientalist thought and these stereotypical images are also evident in one very brief scene where the Muslims are shown dancing around a campfire chanting “Booga booga”. I’m not joking. Some racist member of the filming crew must have had a good laugh filming this and I highly doubt the Moroccan extras who were asked to do it had any clue of the terrible connotations this ridiculous few seconds has in the Western World. For those who don’t know. Booga booga are not real words in any language spoken anywhere near Palestine and this is a very racist portrayal which is offensive not just to Palestinians and Arabs and Muslims, but also to many other people of color who have been marginalized in the past. It’s a few seconds that you might blink and miss, but it is there.
Overtly, however, in the things the main characters do and say there is much more positive portrayal of Muslims.
Messages: ugliness of war, peace/choosing peaceful life, equality of rich and poor
There are many messages in this movie, one of them being that the crusades were ugly periods in history in which the Europeans, backed by the Church, did commit horrible crimes. These characters are shown in a negative light and not celebrated and the main character Balian realizes in the end that it is better for him to return to Europe and leave all this behind.
A strong message of peace runs through the movie because Balian and all the good Christian characters are shown to support peace with the Muslims and recognize that the Muslims are no different from them and should not be demonized. Of course, the time in which it was taking place, in which the crusaders are already well established in the palaces and cities they took doesn’t really clearly show the fact that the Crusaders were foreign invaders who had little right there (I didn’t see much mention of the local Christian and Jewish population who also would have considered the European Crusaders invaders). They do, however, mention that when the Crusaders took this city they were very brutal and this is contrasted with Salahuddin’s moral, merciful approach.
Another great theme here is that intelligence, like the one displayed by Balian, can be an excellent asset and is much better than strength or brutality.
Finally, there’s a strong theme of equality of human beings regardless of how much money they have or whether they were appointed by the Church or whatever. We see in the movie that the simple man Balian, the blacksmith, is looked down upon by the bad guys because of his simple origins, but it is evident that through his compassion for others he is far better than them and he has skills and intelligence that allow him to rise to the occasion and prove himself.
Overall, this movie is a very entertaining portrayal of crusades and much more balanced than any Hollywood movie could have been expected to be especially in the current climate of Islamophobia. So watch it, skip the love scenes, and discuss it with your family and friends!