Merryl Wyn Davies writes in the Scotsman reviewing the new movie Kingdom of Heaven.
TO SAY HOLLYWOOD PLAYS FAST AND loose with history is about as revelatory as a “dog bites man” headline: no news at all. The point is not that movies falsify history but how and to what end they work their cinemagic. So forget about the historic accuracy of Ridley Scott’s Crusades epic, Kingdom of Heaven. It is a film with no historic context because it is all about today. As usual, Scott attempts to import a confused liberal’s wish fulfilment into history. But along the way what Hollywood actually gets is what it always sells: a vindication of the American Dream, which, in this instance, provides a fig leaf for pre-emptive democracy building.
The plot line of the film is a very particular kind of fairy tale. Balian (Orlando Bloom) is a not so simple blacksmith in a scruffy village in France. At a moment of crisis in his life he discovers he has a father (more like a fairy godfather), a Crusader knight. Balian is offered the prospect of adventure: setting off for Jerusalem where he can erase his sins, and gain his inheritance.
It is this long lost father, Godfrey (Liam Neeson), appropriately the only totally invented character in the film, who presents the vision of what awaits Balian. He goes to make a new world, a better world than there has ever been, where a man is not what he is born but what he has it in himself to be. A society where Christian and Muslim live side by side. A kingdom of conscience; of peace instead of war, love instead of hate. Well, I did say it was a fairy story.
More importantly, to attain this vision Balian must be schooled in the use of arms, converted to the use of military force. The moral code of a knight Crusader is a theme running throughout the film. It comes down to the proposition that “holiness is right action and courage on behalf of those who cannot defend themselves”. With all this in place, Balian will not just go to the Holy Land but build a New Jerusalem.
These are not medieval historic ideals, but the key to American self-image, where the purpose of settling a new land is to transcend the failures of old Europe. The potent connection is that the Crusades were the first European colonial experiment, America the second. America, the city on a hill, the newer new Jerusalem, then becomes the only nation that can fulfil the real meaning of crusade.
Today, America is the indispensable nation whose ethos requires it to intervene militarily, to act rightly to protect those who cannot defend themselves. After all, this is the rationale of the Bush doctrine for regime change in Iraq. And it was Bush who initially sought to name his war on terror a crusade. Like innumerable Hollywood movies before it, Kingdom of Heaven reads the familiar litany of ideas of America back into history to address contemporary issues…