Kingdom of Heaven
Produced and distributed by Twentieth Century Fox
Directed by Ridley Scott
Screenplay by William Monahan

Produced and distributed by Bull’s Eye Entertainment
Directed and written by Paul Haggis

As I watched Kingdom of Heaven, Sir Ridley Scott’s most recent directorial effort, a feeling of déjà vu descended upon me, the story line being that familiar.  It concerns Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom), a resourceful 12th-century blacksmith who uses his peculiarly modern sensibility to defend himself from royal intrigues.  Now, where had I seen this before?  Faster than you could sing the opening bars of “Thou Swell, Thou Witty,” there appeared in my mind’s eye the image of Bing Crosby in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.  In this 1949 adaptation of Mark Twain’s satire, Crosby plays Hank Martin, a singing blacksmith who takes a blow to the head and awakens in sixth-century England, where he wows the superstitious Saxons with his 20th-century sensibility and know-how.  Balian has much in common with Bing, although he is not nearly as credible since he hasn’t the excuse of time travel to explain his modern temperament.  Scott and his screenwriter William Monahan have willfully fictionalized the historical Balian to make him conform to today’s pieties.  Balian, in their telling, is a tolerant multiculturalist who respects Middle Eastern Muslims and displays a skeptical attitude toward Christian theological claims, quite remarkable at a time when faith was more a matter of character than of choice.

The film focuses on the role Balian plays in the events surrounding the Muslim siege of Jerusalem in 1187 between the Second and Third Crusades, a campaign waged by the justly respected Kurdish leader Saladin.  The battle ends when Balian chooses to surrender the city rather than sacrifice all of its Christian inhabitants to a Muslim army that vastly outnumbers his forces.  Scott dramatizes this so that we understand that the Muslims, though a mite cruel at times, were nowhere near as savage as the Christians who had taken Jerusalem in 1099, slaughtering everyone within the city walls and then plopping on their knees to give thanks to their God.  Saladin, by comparison, displays genuine chivalry by readily agreeing to Balian’s request that the surviving Christians be allowed to leave the city unmolested.  While this account is broadly true, the devil is in the details, which, as dramatized here, are quite misleading.  There’s no gainsaying that the crusaders were merciless in capturing Jerusalem in 1099, a fact that haunts the Islamic mind to this day.  It is no accident that Osama bin Laden refers to our forces in Afghanistan and Iraq as crusaders.  Scott, however, deliberately ignores Islam’s earlier campaign of ruthless conquest in the largely Christian kingdoms of Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Spain from the seventh century onward.  The Crusades were in large part Christian Europe’s response to the growing threat from the Islamic East.  As for the film’s portrait of Saladin, it is grossly simplistic.  While it is true that Saladin was often magnanimous to those he conquered, his clemency was always conditional.  In the fall of Jerusalem, for instance, the Christians had to pay for their release, something Scott overlooks.  The thousands who could not meet the price were sold into slavery.  Still, it must be said that, when the city’s Christian noblewomen begged for the release of their husbands captured in earlier battles, Saladin graciously acquiesced.  He also let the elderly leave without paying ransom.  Deeds such as these gained him a reputation for honor among Christians.

Nevertheless, Saladin’s mercy was never disinterested.  He agreed to Balian’s request because the Christian leader had warned him that his warriors were ready to fight to the death, killing as many Muslims as possible and destroying the city, including its holy places.  Saladin, who had not been averse to massacring defeated opponents in other battles, obviously judged lenience the better part of valor in this instance.  Besides protecting Jerusalem, he needed to preserve his forces for what he knew would be future battles against his Arab enemies.

When we first meet Scott’s Balian, he is a man bereft of wife, child, and faith.  After his son died, his wife committed suicide, and his village priest insisted on beheading her corpse to punish her impiety.  In retaliation, Balian runs the padre through with a burning sword from his forge.  To complicate matters, Godfrey the Crusader shows up in the form of Liam Neeson, still sporting his no-nonsense Alfred Kinsey crewcut.  After asking Balian’s forgiveness for having sired him without his mother’s consent, he invites his nonplussed son to return with him to Jerusalem, suggesting he may find solace for his sorrows there.  Godfrey then gives Balian a three-minute sword lesson that enables the young commoner to thrust and hack with the best of knights and entitles him to join their ranks.  Arriving in Jerusalem, Balian quickly wins Christian and Muslim admiration with his innate rectitude and finds himself being inducted into a small but influential coterie of unusually broad-minded crusaders who grow misty-eyed whenever they talk about their friendship with Muslims.  So highly does Balian rise in the estimation of these wise and wholly mythical men that Jerusalem’s monarch, Baldwin IV, a.k.a. the Leper King, chooses him to be his successor.  Balian nobly rejects the offer since it would involve marrying Baldwin’s sister, the seductive Sibylla.  Although he is already trysting with her, marriage would require killing her present husband, the dastardly Guy de Lusignan.  Even though this villain deserves death for breaking the hard-won truce the Christian softies have made with the Muslims, Balian refuses to sully himself in such an underhanded plot.

Much of this is malarkey.  Balian was a nobleman by birth, there was no dalliance between him and Sibylla, and he was never in the running to become king.  What is more troubling about Scott’s film, however, is Balian’s modern multicultural and anti-Christian consciousness.  He goes around saying wholly improbable things for a man of his time.  “I’m outside of God’s grace,” he murmurs with a dour existentialist air at several points.  Going to his climactic meeting with Saladin, he speaks of Jerusalem’s holy places—the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Dome of the Rock, the Al-Aqsa mosque—as being “everything that drives men mad.”  In Scott’s telling, faith itself is the culprit of the story.  Had men been properly enlightened in secularism, they would never have gone to war over supposedly sacred stones.

On the eve of Saladin’s attack, Balian proves himself almost as adept as Crosby in King Arthur’s court, devising nifty mechanical stratagems to keep the Muslim hordes at bay.  If only he had the wherewithal to make the .38-caliber pistol Bing devised in Connecticut Yankee, he might have blasted his way to triumph.  But I suppose such an anachronistic liberty would not have pleased Scott.  He just couldn’t forego the shaming spectacle of a Muslim general being more merciful in his victory than his Christian counterparts had been in theirs.  When, with some embarrassment, Balian recalls how the crusaders had dealt with Jerusalem’s Muslims nearly a century earlier, Saladin smiles tolerantly and allows that his policy is of a different sort.  Take that, you stiff-necked crusaders!  When Scott closes the film with a reference to the seemingly intractable animosities in the Middle East today, it is clear that he thinks the West is to blame.  Alas, he has a point, no matter how partial it may be.

Unlike Scott’s commitment to surface factuality, Paul Haggis’s episodic film Crash is openly stylized, yet it has more reality in one of its 5-minute vignettes than Kingdom manages to convey throughout its entire 145 minutes.

Haggis decided to make Crash after becoming a victim of a carjacking.  This personal brush with street violence seems to have provoked him to do something almost unheard of in America.  He actually brings some truth into our usually airbrushed discourse on race and class.  The result is a film so startling that you will find yourself breaking into laughter time and again, even when events turn ghastly.

The film begins with two respectable-looking 20-year-old black men walking through a Los Angeles mall.  Anthony (Ludacris, a.k.a Chris Bridges) is complaining about the restaurant they have just left.  Would the waiter have made white folks wait over an hour to be served?  When his buddy Peter (Larenz Tate) reminds him that their waitress was black herself, Anthony is not mollified.  He sees racism everywhere.  He points out that, as the only blacks on the street, they should be scared of the “over-caffeinated whites” surrounding them—yet it’s the other way around.  Why?  Peter answers tentatively: “Because we have guns?”  On cue, a wealthy white woman clutches her hand bag as she and her husband walk past the youths on their way to their parked Lincoln Navigator.  A moment later, Anthony and Peter draw their guns as casually as if they were taking out their cell phones and carjack the startled couple’s SUV.

The episode is at once shocking and oddly funny.  It rudely breaks the unwritten rules for portraying black criminals on screen.  They are never supposed to be shown as this sociopathic.  The incident becomes funnier when we meet the white couple (Sandra Bullock and Brendan Fraser) at their home later the same evening.  Fraser, it turns out, is the district attorney.  He has called in his staff to help him in this moment of crisis.  He is not focused on getting the SUV back or bringing the carjackers to justice, however.  Far from it.  He is obsessed with the grit that has just been thrown into the well-oiled machinery of his election campaign.  “Why,” he groans, “did these guys have to be black?”  He must somehow placate African-American voters for the sin of having been a white victim of black crime.  He demands his aides find him a worthy black person on whom he can pin a medal.  Hilariously ugly, his racial calculation is also stinging, since he shouts it at the black woman who is his chief of staff.

Rather than tell a conventional story, Haggis has assembled 12 mininarratives, each a chapter from the true story of our lamentable and unmentionable racial politics.  He then has these episodes collide in varying patterns as though they were the shifting shards in a kaleidoscope.  Characters who ordinarily would never meet are brought into bewildering intimacies by the concatenation of racial misunderstanding and paranoia.  The carjacking gives a bigoted white cop the opportunity to harass an upscale black couple who happen to be driving the same model SUV.  It also introduces us to the Hispanic locksmith whom the D.A. hires to replace his home’s locks.  This fellow’s color and underclass appearance turn the attorney’s wife venomous.  She automatically assumes he will pass on copies of the new keys to his “homies.”  This, in turn, triggers in the locksmith an anger that will get him into trouble with an irascible Iranian.  On and on it goes.  While it is improbable that these people would literally run across one another’s paths in the film’s dramatically compressed time, it is nevertheless true that the conflicts of race and class are constantly rippling through our nation, linking us in ways generally invisible to our daily vision.  The art of Haggis’s film is in making these connections disconcertingly visible.

All the actors are exceptionally fine, but it is Don Cheadle as an honest but deeply flawed detective who holds the movie together.  After his unmarked patrol car is rear-ended on the freeway in the opening scene, he dazedly speculates that accidents may be our desperate attempt to connect with one another in an otherwise obsessively insular society.  His partner thinks he must be in a state of shock to talk such nonsense.  “You’ve lost your frame of reference,” she gently explains.  Indeed.  That is just what Haggis is trying to accomplish.  He wants to deprive us of our fuzzy frame of reference so we can see what is right before our eyes.