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The Kingdom of Heaven & Modern Society May 12, 2007

Posted by Ned Stark in Uncategorized.
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 (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD)

The Kingdom of Heaven was a 2005 film which did not do very well in the US box office. It was directed by Ridley Scott, the man who brought us Gladiator. Criticism of the film tended towards the negative, making this in my opinion a sadly underrated movie.

 In a nutshell, the film is loosely based around events surrounding the Fall of Jerusalem to the forces of Saladin. Balian( Orlando Bloom of LOTR and Pirates of the Carribean fame), a blacksmith, is acknowledged by his natural father, Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) who unfortunately dies soon after fighting to save his son from arrest. Balian then travels to Jerusalem and eventually becomes the person who leads the Defence of the City against Saladin after the disaster at Hattin. Along the way he spoke to King Baldwin IV, the Leper King, befriended his father’s friend Tiberias, Marshal of Jerusalem, pisses of Guy De Lusignan, and has an affair Guy’s wife, Queen Sibylla, sister to Baldwin. However, while the aforesaid description makes it seem as if its your typical farm boy becomes hero, beds royalty kind of movie, in actual fact it is more complex than that as it deals with a variety of thought provoking issues which a relevant even today. A more detailed synopsis is found here.

 Of course there are several historical inaccuracies; the historical Balian was an older person who was a rather scheming fellow, and during the negotiations with Saladin he did threaten to destroy the city. Furthermore, Balian only knighted a few burgesses and not all the fighting men in the city. Sibylla did not go back to France with Balian, she died during the Siege of Acre, Tiberias did not exist, though he was based on the historical Raymond III of Tripoli.

 Now what makes this movie so relevant to Singapore and general humanity as a whole? What is the ingredient that makes it more than just a mere hack and slash in the mould of 300?

 The Journey of Balian

In the Movie, Balian starts of as a young blacksmith, albeit a grieving one for his wife has committed suicide after losing her child. Through interactions with his father, Godfrey, and the Hospitaller, King Baldwin IV, Sibylla, Guy, Tiberias and Saladin, Balian grows from a confused and sad man to a chivalrous knight who follows the “spirit” rather than the form of the knight’s vow, the precepts of Christianity among other things. His journey is both thought provoking and in light of the recent times very relevant to us today.

To make a difference

Inscribed in Balian’s smithy are the latin words :

“Nemo vir est qui mundum non reddat meliorem” (What man is  a man who does not make the world better?)

These words are rather telling, in view of the fact that Singaporeans are known to be an apathetic lot who are more concerned with the material needs of life. Unfortunately these words show that there is indeed more to life, which can be found in the spirit of serive to a higher ideal rather than self. Balian’s actions are consistent with his belief, for he strives to fulfil the idea of a Kingdom of Conscience, a kingdom of heaven. Despite being Lord of Ibelin, he joins in the digging of water sources in his land, helping to improve irrigation efforts and thus making his land better. Perhaps we should take the time to ponder this phrase and start to think beyond self.

Of Noblesse Oblige

In the movie, the knights vow is as follows:

Be without fear in the face of your enemies. Be brave and upright, that God may love thee. Speak the truth always, even if it leads to your death. Safeguard the helpless and do no wrong; that is your oath. [Slaps Balian] And that is so you remember it. Rise a knight… rise a knight!

As can be seen, the idea of noblesse oblige is apparent. During the middle ages, knights, as landholders and professional warriors, were considered the elite of the society. Besides laying a duty to be honorable, righteous and fearless, the last part “Safeguard the helpless” bids the knight to be a champion of the weak. This makes one ponder the current situation in Singapore society, the “Get out of my elite uncaring face” talk, the talk about people choosing to be homeless and the general disdain for those who are less well off. Is compassion, nobless oblige and the spirit of generosity an anomaly in Singapore society? Furthermore, the lines which deal with truth and being without fear are also noteworthy given the fact that the truth in Singapore seems to be lopisided and fear seems to be very prevalent in this society of ours, leading often to self censohship and knee jerk reactions (remember remember the Mr Brown Matter!). Is our society so afraid of the truth?

Futility of Excuses

Baldwin IV tells Balian,

“You see, none of us chose our end really. A king may move a man, a father may claim a son. But remember that, even when those who move you be kings or men of power, your soul is in your keeping alone. When you stand before God you cannot say “but I was told by others to do thus” or that “virtue was not convenient at the time.” This will not suffice. Remember that. ”

One of the most memorable quotes of the meeting. Ignoring the part about judgment day, the basic premise of this quote shows that even if circumstances dictate otherwise, or even if “men of power” do influence one’s actions, one excuse one self from the consequences of one’s actions. Excuses like it was not convenient, circumstances dictated as such are, often enough, at the end of the day, just that. Excuses. A glaring case in point is the Singaporean Electorate. Despite all the talk of wanting change, the Electorate still voted in favour of the PAP. Despite all the complaints about PAP, Singaporeans still voted for it. Aljunied GRC remained in PAP hands. Perhaps it was the “Uniquely Singaporean” attitude that they want opposition but not in their ward, or the fact that they feared that their flat would not be upgraded or any other kind of fear. Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is, having chosen a party which has a practice of raising fares and taxes, the people who voted them thus cannot use such excuses to absolve themselve of the blame of causing such a situation to occur. A cynical way to put it would be to say people deserve the government they get. As Baldwin IV will say to those who cry that they were coerced or anything, IT WILL NOT SUFFICE. Perhaps it is time for people to stop finding excuses and start acting according to their conscience, if any.

Of Religion, Fanaticism, and Other Matters

And finally, being a movie which is about a clash of two religions, there are many issues with regards to religion. In light of the debate on Homosexuality, the issues brought forth become even more relevant to modern day society.

When Balian tells the Hospitaller that he is out of God’s grace and has lost his religion, the Hospitaller replies,

” I put no stock in religion. By the word religion I have seen the lunacy of fanatics of every denomination be called the will of god. Holiness is in right action, and courage on behalf of those who cannot defend themselves, and goodness. What God desires is here (points to Balian’s head) and here (points to Balian’s heart) and what you decide to do every day will make you a good man…or not. ” 

The above is very applicable, in view of the many poorly constructed responses calling for Section 377A not to be repealed, the various homophobic reponses seen everytime someone does a post on homosexuality, and so on. But moving on from homosexuality, the above also deals with the issue of religious fundamentalism, be it in the violent form which culminated in the 9/11 Attacks in 2003 or the more insidious form whereby people go around daming everyone not from their religion to hell. As Humanoid Interface puts it, religion has often been used as a tool for oppresion, violence and just plain nastiness at times, leading us back to the part of lunacy being called the will of God. Indeed, the quote suggests that people have missed the forest for the trees, for holiness is more than just memorising the holy books, it is also about action, and by action it most certainly DOES NOT refer to condemning but to take a stand for what is right and for those who are in need.

Later on during the Siege of Jerusalem, Balian orders that the bodies of the slain be cremated to prevent disease from spreading. When confronted by the Patriach, that such an act goes counter to Christian Faith (cremation would destroy the body and thus without a body it was said that it would be impossible for a person to rise again on Judgement Day), Balian replies,

” If we do not burn these bodies, we will all be dead of disease in three days. God will understand, my lord. And if he doesn’t, then he is not God and we need not worry. ”

This is telling in view of the fact that many fundamentalists Christians tend to go around calling on people to convert lest they be consigned to eternal torment in hell. But that begets the question, would a God, who sent his son to suffer and die for humanity, send an essentially good person to hell just because he happens to be atheist or happens to pray in a different manner? Furthermore, there are several people who tend to latch onto quotes from the bible or any holy book to justify the actions against other groups of people. Essentially,  as said earlier, they have missed the forest for the trees, and at best, can be said to be too preoccupied with the afterlife, at worst, can be said to have manipulated religion for selfish motives.

The theme of tolerance and mutual respect also appears in the movie, as can be seen when Templar knights who have attacked a Moslem party are executed in accordance to the laws of the Kingdom and the fact that Baldwin IV has Reynald de Chatilion imprisoned for attacking a Moslem caravan. Furthermore, Saladin sends his physicians to treat the ailing Baldwin, and Balian strikes up a friendship with Saladin’s right hand man after sparing him from the sword. In return, the man spares Balian’s life at Kerak. The theme of tolerance is seen when Tiberias angry tells Guy,” That I would rather live among men than kill them is certainly why you are still alive. ” The age old argument, ” the end justifies the means” also rears its head in the form of Sibylla’s angry “There’ll be a day when you will wish you had done a little evil to do a greater good” when Balian refuses Baldwin’s request that he marry Sibylla, take the throne for to do so would necessiate the murder of Guy and anyone who so refuses to swear allegiance. As Balian puts it,” It is a Kingdom of Conscience, or not at all!”

While it is undeniably true that two hours is a rather short time to explore the many themes of religion, tolerance, courage, responsibilty for one’s actions etc, the movie has managed to flesh sufficiently the various themes into a story which not only has a fair share of hack and slash action, but is also rather thought provoking which is relevant in view of our world today.  It can truly be termed as the “brutal truth” for it forces one to examine oneself and actions and perhaps this could be one of the reasons why people do not warm up to the film. As they say, the truth hurts. Moreso a truth which could possibly challenge one’s fundamentals.

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Comments»

1. YCK - May 14, 2007

Intersting is your review and the connections you made. Good that you finally got it written. Definitely would try to watch it one day 🙂

2. dodo - May 15, 2007

interesting analysis but i wonder why almost no comments..:)

3. josh - August 11, 2008

this movie is actually a really good and gives an idea of religion we all should embrace

4. Kingdom of Heaven movie « Give me a Hunger - November 21, 2008

[…] more thoughts about this movie, I found this interesting blogpost. Also, if you’re so inclined to read about on the actual history (the […]

5. delita - October 13, 2010

bless u #3


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