Kingdom of Heaven

Kingdom of Heaven: Reality or Symbol


(This is an essay I wrote for The Tidings; for a sidebar on the Crusades go to the complete essay at


Ridley Scott’s latest film, Kingdom of Heaven, is about one of the most obscure and complex periods of world history: the Crusades (1096 – c.1300; see end of this article for information about the Crusades). Orlando Bloom is in his first lead role here, though not his first epic, (Lord of the Rings trilogy; Troy). It is familiar territory for Sir Ridley who has a reputation for telling stories through battlefield spectacle (Hannibal, Black Hawk Down; Gladiator). The Kingdom of Heaven is an ambitious portrayal of Europe’s emergence from the Dark Ages that established conflict as the way the three monotheistic world religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam would relate to one another from then until now. To understand this fact is perhaps the strongest reason to see this movie.


The Crusades through Balian’s Eyes


The story begins in 1184 with the burial of a lovely young woman (Nathalie Cox) who has committed suicide because her child died during birth. As was the practice of those times, people who committed suicide were not given a Christian burial. The priest (Michael Sheen) who buries the woman steals the crucifix from her neck.


Balian is the village blacksmith. As he works off his despair forging iron at the fire, a strange knight appears at the door. He is Godfrey (Liam Neeson) and he tells Balian that he is his true father. Godfrey invites Balian to come to the Holy Land with him to help King Baldwin of Jerusalem preserve the kingdom. Balian declines. His next visitor is the priest who buried his wife. The priest taunts Balian about his wife’s suicide. When Balian sees that the priest is wearing his wife’s crucifix, Balian kills him. He decides to flee immediately and joins Godfrey, hoping he will find forgiveness for his sin in Jerusalem.


Godfrey is killed on the journey but Balian reaches Jerusalem. He seeks peace there, but is not able to find it. He lives on his father’s land and notices how Moslems and Christians live well together. Balian meets Sybilla (Eva Green), the king’s sister and wife of Guy de Lusigan, an ambitious and stupid knight. Balian and Sybilla are attracted to one another. King Baldwin the Leper (Edward Norton) wants Jerusalem to be the peaceful kingdom of God promised in the Gospels, but some of the knights, both secular and Templar, headed by Reynald (Brendan Gleeson), conspire against the king to provoke a war with the Muslims. 


          The Muslim army is headed by Saladin(Ghassan Massoud), who marches from Damascus to attack Jerusalem. Saladin is an intelligent, just man who lives by the Koran. How he and the reluctant Balian, the heroes of this based-on-fact film, together resolve the terrible conflagration that ensues, is at the heart of the Kingdom of Heaven.


The question of the meaning of Jerusalem in history, as a holy place and as a symbol, is the climax of the film. At the end, as these two men of conscience gaze up at Jerusalem, Balian asks Saladin, “What does it mean to you?” Saladin starts to walk away and replies, “Nothing”. Then he turns back and says, “Everything.”


The Kingdom of Heaven


Recent epics such as Troy, The Last Samurai, The Alamo, and King Arthur have all been box office disappointments. Like some of these, the Kingdom of Heaven is based on historical facts although the source for Balian’s early story seems that of Conrad of Monferrat who fled to Palestine after murdering someone and his relationship with Sibylla almost certainly did not occur. These are incidental to the overall facts of the film which do respect history.


Ridley Scott’s epic Kingdom of Heaven may be more successful that these epics because it will attract thoughtful movie-goerswho prefer the dramatic experience to interest them on many levels. These include the artistic production quality as well as historical accuracy, religious aspects, the faith dimension, and current events. It is impossible not to make this last connection, and frankly, director Ridley Scott wants us to. He told journalists on April 7, 2005 that “one of the lessons of the film for today is that we don’t learn anything from history; we just keep doing the same things over and over.


        Orlando Bloom acquits himself very well. As he said in a recent interview, he is 28 years old now, and this film was his opportunity to take responsibility for his life and work. Bloom told journalists, “Ultimately what screams across the movie is what makes for right action; what you do to your fellow man – this is what matters. This is godliness.” Jeremy Irons is Tiberias, a conflicted knight who has sworn to obey the king no matter who he is. We only see Edward Norton’s eyes since he must wear a mask to cover the ravages of leprosy on his face. Yet he manages to engage the audience on an emotional level that the rest of the film never quite reaches.


Writer William Monahan has filled the Kingdom of Heaven with messages for the audience; much of Balian’s dialogue is teaching us about a man’s character, true chivalry, honor, peace, and the absurdity of war.  Ultimately Ridley Scott thinks that the meaning of the film is: “if Jerusalem is God’s kingdom then let him have it. If this film isn’t about humanity what is it about? It must be about life andthe preservation of life.”


Pope John Paul II offered what could be a commentary on a film like Kingdom of Heaven when he spoke in Syria in May, 2001, “Today, in a world that is increasingly complex and interdependent, there is a need for a new spirit of dialogue and cooperation between Muslims and Christians. Together we acknowledge the one indivisible God, the Creator of all that exists. Together we must proclaim to the world that the name of the one God is a name of peace and a summons to peace.”


In Damascus, on May 6, 2001, John Paul II made the first papal visit to a mosque in the history of the world.






  1. Do you know how this movie lines up with history?  I was wondering if the king was really as kind and benevolent as Edward Norton makes him out to seem.  Saladin also comes off quite nicely; was he also as generous with Christians?

    If these are inaccuracies, that is sad since we are made to believe, in watching this film, that the crusaders really did want peace and mutual dialogue between the two faith traditions.  Or is this revisionist history?  I only wish it were more true.  What this movie said to me was that these attitudes (of the Templars, among others in the movie) are still with us today, and our crusading nature as Americans needs to be analyzed.  However it is sad that we have to rewrite history to make a point as good as this.  

    Just my thoughts…

  2. After I saw the movie for the press junket and listened to an Islamic scholar and professor from Columbia, a Catholic scholar and another professor that the junket invited in, I still wasn’t clear on details. So I bought and read Karen Armstrong’s book called HOLY WAR. I recommend it to you. I do not believe that the film is revisionist; it is based on facts. If you get Armstrong’s book, read Chapter 6 – this covers the time that the movie does. Besides the points I mention in my essay there is one major change that the writer makes but overall it does not change the “truth” of the movie. The terms that Balian and Saladin come to are not that the inhabitants of Jerusalem are given free passage; no, they were taken prisoner. The truth is that Saladin did not kill the people – though he did kill the knights. Then he turned the people free… because he could not stand their suffering. See the next comment…

  3. Here’s the continuation of my previous comment:

    Is Armstrong reliable? I believe that she is. The book was reviewed by academics (you can find some reviews online) and her references are solid – from what I can tell. She wrote the book in 1988 – even before the first Gulf War, so no one can call her motives into question. She does tend to repeat herself a lot however. The Crusades are very complex. A film can only do what a film can do.

    If you can, get a copy of the May issue of SIGHT AND SOUND and read Prof. Dabashi's feature article on the film and his role as a consultant.  I think Ridley Scott has done a great service to humanity by making this film if only it will help us make peace rather than entrench us in a "them" and "us" attitude or 1200 years ago they were wrong and we were right, or they were right and we were wrong. It is always both/and. The challenge is: how do we go ahead together in peace? To dialogue with others does not diminish me; it helps us all to grow.
    History – if we (speaking broadly) only knew history better then we could judge better – we might also change how we approach our brothers and sisters in the world.

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