Kingdom of Pride

So, I’m watching Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, and I’ve taken to thinking.

Apologies in advance, but this is probably going to be one of those TL;DR posts. And, of course, spoilers ahead.

Kingdom of HeavenI am a huge Ridley Scott fan. Or, to put it another way, I am a huge fan of Gladiator, the best film ever made (this is a statement of fact, you understand, not opinion). Black Hawk Down is excellent, and Body of Lies and American Gangster are very good, but I was supremely disappointed by Robin Hood, I don’t really get Bladerunner, and I haven’t seen Prometheus or, shockingly, Alien.

And then, of course, there is Kingdom of Heaven. (So we are clear, I’m talking about both the theatrical cut and the director’s cut – I’ve just finished watching the director’s cut, hence why the film is on my mind.)

It is not a good film; I think critics and most watchers  agree on that. Scott’s  direction and John Mathieson’s cinematography cannot make up for Orlando Bloom’s limp performance, Liam Neeson and his band of followers exit all too quickly (I would very much like to watch a film about them!), and the muted tone of the script leaves me, at least, wondering what I am meant to care about. There are high points – Jeremy Irons, as always, Alexander Siddig and Ghassan Massoud all deliver excellent performances, and Edward Norton is powerfully understated – but the film overall does not hit the mark for me.

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But there is one thing that rankles with me, or, at least, that sticks out from this watching.

Balian’s goal throughout the film is first to atone, and second to be that which Liam Neeson bade him be: a perfect knight. This is expressed first by his willingness to do no wrong, leading to all manner of death and pain for the people of Jerusalem (a heavy-handed but effective examination of the consequences of virtue), and second by his earnest desire to protect the people.

I take issue with this second point. At first, Balian follows this creed, working hard to improve his land, and then leading his knights to certain death against the Saracen cavalry to defend the peasants outside Kerak. However, when events have played out, and Balian is left in charge of Jerusalem, he digs in and leads his soldiers, his hastily-knighted army of crusaders, in a bloody battle against Saladin.

And I have to wonder, where was his commitment to the people then?

By pledging resistance, he condemned hundreds, if not thousands, of Christian and Muslim (with whom he is never shown to have a quarrel) soldiers to death. Had he lost, the Saracen army would have stormed the city, likely sacked it, and put most of its people to the sword. If he had truly thought only of protecting the people, then surely he would have surrendered the city to Saladin at the first opportunity. One can presume that he learnt enough of Saladin’s character during his time in the Holy Lands to know that he would have accepted that surrender with equitable terms. So why then, if not to defend the people, did he fight?

Because, inescapably, Balian fights for pride, and proves himself to be no better than Marton Csokas’ Guy or that nutter bishop or any of the other Templar warriors.

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I don’t know why this rankles with me, but it does. The film holds Balian up as an example of virtue, with all the evil that comes from it, but in reality, though he would deny it, in the end he fights for the same reasons as the rest of them. There is, of course, a perfectly good reason why he fights, and that is the requirements of narrative, but (and perhaps I am reading too much into this) I think the film speaks of a larger problem – we as a culture (I am speaking about Western attitudes here; I have little experience of any others) cannot equate surrender with courage.

How, I wonder, would audiences have reacted, if Balian had ridden out to meet Saladin’s army as it approached, and negotiated the terms that he received at the end of the film, after wading through blood to force Saladin to offer them (which, in fact, we can surmise that he would have offered  freely had he been asked). Leaving aside the issues of an action epic lacking a huge, set-piece battle, would they have accepted and respected Balian’s decision to surrender without a fight, knowing that he did it to save lives? I don’t know, myself, but it is an interesting question to ask.

I read a lot of action books, and watch a lot of action films. Much is made in these of honour and pride, both their virtues and consequences. You rarely, if ever, see the lead character submit to an enemy greater than himself in order to save those under his command from the inevitable deaths that will befall them from fighting. Sharpe, for example, is often placed in a position whereby ‘honour must be satisfied’ before bowing to the inevitable. How many men and women, fictional and actual, have died throughout history, to satisfy honour’s demand that surrender can only be earned by sacrifice?

I don’t have an answer to this, of course. I’m not even sure if I believe in this pacifist approach to life myself; the few times when I have been involved in physical confrontation, I have almost always chosen to fight rather than let an insult lie. (If this makes me sound a fighter, I’ll say that I’m most certainly not. The few fights I’ve been in have been short and pointless, and I regret almost all of them.) But it does make me think – why do we see surrender, or turning the other cheek, as the weaker, craven option?

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Anyway, enough of my meanderings. I hope this has, at least, been thought-provoking for you, and I would love to read your thoughts in the comments below. I’m inching my way towards a plan for a story to submit to the War Stories anthology, so these kinds of ‘big’ thoughts are all swirling about at the moment, and I would really love to hear what you think about this. I promise the next post will be more fun!

See y’all soon!