Film Knights

Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
(IMDb review)

Ridley Scott's 21C Chivalric Revival

The real Lion-Heart

Ridley Scott's Crusader epic is a film with a real hero - one of the most astonishingly courageous characters in mediæval history: a gallant young king who defeated Saladin several times in battle, proved himself an able diplomat, and struggled to prevent his kingdom falling into the hands of an heir he knew to be unreliable. But his greatest fight was against a disease which slowly decayed his body even as he lived, and killed him in his 24th year.

Baudouin IV, the 'Leper King' of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, is the real 'Lion-Heart' of the Crusades. He was diagnosed with Hansen's Disease in childhood, king at 13, and dead before he turned 24. He nevertheless served as an active military commander and skilled political negotiator. Despite a crippled right arm, he learned to be a superb horseman. As his disease advanced into the lepromatous form, he lost the use of both hands and feet; he lost his eyesight and his nose. In his last years, disfigured, blind and crippled, he went on military campaigns in a litter. His biographer, Bernard Hamilton, writes: "Few rulers have remained executive heads of state when handicapped by such severe physical disabilities or sacrificed themselves more totally to the needs of their people." Heroism is a concept cheapened by over-use in our pop-celebrity culture, but Baudouin was the genuine article.

Problem with the film: Baudouin is only a supporting character. The film focuses instead on a highly-fictionalised version of Balian d'Ibelin, here portrayed as a young Occitan blacksmith, the illegitimate son of a knight, instead of a middle-aged polein baron with court connections (his brother was briefly the King's stepfather, and his wife, Maria Komnena, the King's stepmother).

This pseudo-Balian (Orlando Bloom) is the weak link in the film. The first act of the film depicts him leaving his village under a cloud, and bonding with his long-lost father Godfrey (Liam Neeson, under-used). Then he sets off to Outremer, is shipwrecked, and helped on his way to Jerusalem by a chivalrous young Saracen (Alexander Siddig). So far, so fictional.

Then the real people start to appear, and it all becomes more interesting. Princess Sibylle (Eva Green) is highly glamourised as pseudo-Balian's love-interest, and her husband - to whom she was actually devoted - Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) rather demonised (he was more easily-led and spoilt-brattish than evil). Ghassan Massoud is a regal but tough and shrewd Salah-ad-Din. Jeremy Irons is Raymond of Tripoli (here referred to as Count of Tiberias - the estate of his wife Eschive - so that viewers don't get confused with Tripoli in Libya!), and looks just as I imagine the real Raymond: gaunt, grizzled, battle-scarred.

Raymond, Salah-ad-Din and Reynaud are recognisable, at least from the Runciman version of events. Interpretations of events and characters have changed in the past couple of decades (see Bernard Hamilton's The Leper King & His Heirs), but the scriptwriter has said that he had had the ideas in his head since boyhood, and clearly it is Runciman's vivid narrative that had impressed him. The most successful parts of the film are those which focus on these characters: the invented romance is tedious, as is pseudo-Balian's journey of self-discovery. His refusal, despite his affair with Sibylle, to agree to her husband's death, appears selfish and weak instead of a guilt-laden refusal to compound adultery with killing. The omission of the battle of Hattin - apparently for budget reasons - is disappointing. Baudouin V, 'Baudouinet', is in the deleted scenes, but he is depicted as the son of Guy, not of Guilhem de Monferrat, Sibylle's Piemontese first husband.

But the Leper King? - Ed Norton gives a heartbreakingly loveable and inspiring performance as Baudouin: sensitive, intelligent, valiant, self-sacrificing; physically fragile but strong-willed. He wears serene silver masks and white robes that make him look like a wingless angel. Only when he is lying in state do we see his face, ravaged by advanced Hansen's Disease - noseless, lipless, distorted - but still beautiful to the eye that sees the soul, not the body.

What is interesting about the film is that Ridley Scott is following in the footsteps of his namesake Walter in trying to recast the chivalric ideal for his own time. Both Scotts imbue their sympathetic main characters with the values and viewpoints of their own eras: Walter's mediaeval heroes - Wilfred of Ivanhoe, Sir Kenneth of the Leopard, & c. - are essentially early 19C Protestant gentlemen; Ridley's 21C decent humanists who abhor fanaticism of all kinds. But time and again, the film emphasises the importance of the knightly oath, from the dying Godfrey's knighting of his son to pseudo-Balian's knighting of commoners in Jerusalem:

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.

Ridley Scott has said:

This may make me sound like a Boy Scout, but a little bit of Boy Scout would be very useful today. Chivalry is just good behaviour; it's quite simple, really, yet we don't seem to be able to apply it.

This suggests to me that, just as Walter Scott led the 19C's chivalric revival, re-inventing mediaeval knightly ideals for the 19C Protestant bourgeois, Ridley Scott and William Monahan are aiming to revive chivalry for a culturally and socially more diverse public, male and female, of all classes, who question organised religions and power structures. This is basically laudable in contemporary terms, but it does create problematic anachronisms in the film, in which characters openly express opinions which could have got them burned for heresy, and suffer bouts of very un-12C nihilism.

Re: Deleted Scenes

Now having got a script (including the deleted scenes) on EBay, I am rather anxious re: the extended edition, which I had hoped might be rather more historical. Now I'm just plain worried, and hoping this was not the final draft...

Near the start, Godfrey visits his brother's house (the man who comes to arrest pseudo-Balian is actually Godfrey's nephew, and the nasty priest is pseudo-Balian's half-brother - his mother's child by her lawful husband); more scenes establishing pseudo-Balian's friendships with his father's companions, the Hospitaller, Odo, & co. Fair enough... They all visit the Pope en route to Sicily.

Isabelle appears, but is depicted as older than she was at the time of her marriage. The attack on Kerak is indeed meant to be the famous wedding siege, and we are introduced also to her bridegroom, Reynaud's gay stepson, Humphrey (wrongly depicted as brought over from France, instead of being a poulain, the heir of the House of Toron). We also briefly meet Estienette/Stephanie of Oultrejourdain, Reynaud's wife and Humphrey's mother.

Sibylle poisons Baudouinet because he has her brother's disease. (What?! There is only one, unique and irreplaceable Leper King!) There's more wrangling over the throne after Baudouinet dies. Raymond of Tripoli is offered it, but refuses as he's secretly a Muslim (I know there were rumours about him being too friendly with the Saracens but this is too much...! He would have liked to be King, but he only had stepsons to succeed him.)

Guy stabs Humphrey to death. (One of Isabelle's husbands was stabbed, but not that one!) Pseudo-Balian hacks Guy to bits in a climactic trial-by-combat (?!!!!) I'm sure that a dashing, 45-ish blond is leaning on the walls of Tyre and observing sardonically in Occitan, "Well, that would have made my life a lot easier...!" In fact, I shouldn't be at all surprised if the scriptwriter's keyboard were secretly possessed by the mischievous ghost of Conrad de Monferrat to invent those bits of plotting... Humphrey and Guy dying violently in 1187: he'd love that!

All in all, this is likely to be very odd, more disturbingly so than the theatrical cut. And they haven't left room for a sequel.

Baudouin fan-listing

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