Once More Unto the Breach

by Varda
The Kingdom of Heaven and Lord of the Rings

‘The good lack all conviction, the bad
Are full of passionate intensity..’

Yeats’s lines could describe the story of Ridley Scott’s Crusader epic, Kingdom of Heaven, just out and bound to be compared with Peter Jackson’s Lord of The Rings trilogy. Unlike Troy, however, Kingdom of Heaven is worthy of the comparison…

Like the LOTR trilogy, this film is a feast for the eye, vast bloodcurdling battles, mysterious oriental cities, exotic palace interiors where intrigue festers and warriors of all races and religions jostle each other in pursuit of gold and salvation. But whereas the theme of The Lord of The Rings is the defeat of evil, in Kingdom of Heaven good struggles to make any impact on a world where even the church is corrupt, and belief often leads only to fanaticism.

The hero of Kingdom of Heaven, played by ex-elf Orlando Bloom, is a blacksmith called Balian, whose simple but honourable code of life is enshrined in the motto engraved in his smithy; ‘What good is a man if he does not make the world any better?’

This could be the companion phrase to the advice Gandalf gives to Frodo in The Lord of The Rings; ‘all you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you’

But Balian, like Frodo, finds out it is not that simple; both are forced from their homes on a quest and both are totally changed by their journey…

At times during Ridley Scott’s film one suspects he has borrowed a few ideas from Return of the King. The wooden towers that attack Jerusalem during its siege look just like the ones that attack Minas Tirith. Weta made all the arms and armour, so the film looks a tad familiar, but the battle scenes in Kingdom of Heaven are searingly realistic, with real blood and gore from real human beings, not black blood from orcs . Balian’s rousing address to the beleaguered garrison before the last onslaught calls to mind Aragorn’s speech to the army of Gondor and Rohan before the last battle.

But whereas Aragorn’s address concentrates on the cause for which they are fighting, the defence of the West, Balian asks his men to think about themselves, their own survival and that of their families, who will be put to the sword if the city falls. Personal survival and freedom are the key words, symbolised by Balian choosing from the rabble of defenders a poor young serving boy and raising him, and all the men, to knighthood.

This draws fierce objections from the bishop, and in the film prelates of the church come off badly, their scheming, cruelty and bigotry marring the peace which the wise and tolerant Leper King, Baldwin, ( terrific performance by Ed Norton, in a silver mask...) has fashioned with the Saracen leader, Saladin. Both sides are beset by fanatics, Saladin forced to order ‘no quarter’ in battle on the urging of his fierce janissaries, and Baldwin drawn into battle by a massacre committed against his wishes by the Knights Templar.

If The Lord of The Rings is about the battle of good and evil, Kingdom of Heaven is about the battle to find any good in the world at all, and even more, to do any. The only ideal shown to be of any worth is personal honour and integrity. Balian, on the run for killing a priest with a red-hot iron because he mutilated his dead wife, is suspicious of all causes but desperately seeks redemption.

Balian follows a reverse route to Aragorn, who rises from obscurity to become a king. Balian rises from obscurity to become a leader and be offered the kingship in return for killing a murderer, but he refuses to do so and eventually returns to obscurity. In a witty touch at the end, King Richard The Lionheart asks him to fight with him, and Balian refuses. The type of kingship he has experienced is a precarious, embattled role, fraught with ugly moral choices and hemmed in by power-hungry subjects, a long way from the glorious, peaceful reign inaugurated at the end of The Return of The King.

Tolkien believed in causes. He came from a generation that believed in causes, and died for them; one’s country, good against evil. Tolkien was a devout Christian and even in The Lord of The Rings his characters are formed by a sense of loyalty to a higher cause, not clearly defined but always present. They are also loyal to their country, whether Gondor or Rohan or the Shire, and are willing to die for it. It is clear that Tolkien thinks they are better people for this loyalty and idealism.

Ridley Scott, on the other hand, shows us a world where causes are horribly corrupt and the only true faith is a deeply personal one and fanaticism on one side and greed on the other wreck even the most sincere and determined efforts to bring about peace.

Despite this hopeless state of the world, Scott’s film is not too kind to those who are good but lose hope of doing any good. When the Leper King’s wise and tolerant advisor, Tiberias (Jeremy Irons), abandons Jerusalem with all his knights, he leaves the city open to conquest and massacre. His despair seals its fate. As Sam says, you have to believe that good will prevail, even after so much bad.

The theme of forgiveness and atonement is central to Kingdom of Heaven, just as it is absent from the works of Tolkien, who focusses on the battle of good and evil and is not interested in dealing with the more complex moral situation of someone like Balian, a good person who does wrong – terrible wrong - and seeks to atone for his deeds. In Tolkien those who do wrong, like Boromir or Denethor, or even those who choose wrongly, like Théoden, are killed off. Balian, innately good, does wrong and how he seeks to work that wrong out of his life is the story of the film.

Although Tolkien’s characters are urged to decide what to do with the time that is given to them, they usually do what they are told by Gandalf.
Frodo does, and so does Aragorn, Théoden and Faramir. Those who don’t do what Gandalf advises, like Denethor, fall under the Dark Side. Gandalf is the voice of duty, right and reason.

Balian’s moral guide is far more vulnerable and flawed; his father, Godfrey of Ibilin. From him Balian learns that the only worthwhile code of conduct is the knight’s code of personal integrity, courage, truthfulness and the protection of the weak. But when Balian arrives in Jerusalem he finds the knightly orders, the Templars and Hospitallers, arrogant, violent and greedy. Disillusioned, Balian takes his father’s advice to protect the weak as his personal creed; human life is sacred to him. He spares Saracen foes. Inheriting the castle of Ibilin from his father, he digs wells to provide life-giving water for the arid land and hungry people. In the beleaguered city of Jerusalem he defies the bishop and orders the bodies of those slain in battle to be burned, to save the people from plague.

The living of this world matter more to Balian than the dead of the next.

Balian’s epic quest to find meaning and redemption culminates in his decision to take on the hopeless task of defending Jerusalem against Saladin and his army of a quarter of a million Saracens. And he does it not to gain the crown of Jerusalem, even though it is offered to him. He does it to defend the people in the city, Muslim, Jew and Christian. In protecting the weak Balian redeems his own crimes.

When Balian’s defenders repel the city’s attackers with great loss, the Saracen leader Saladin requests a parlay, and the two leaders, the blacksmith and the fierce, enigmatic but honourable Saracen meet on the plain between the vast army and the battered city. The bishop had urged Balian ‘they will want us to convert to Islam. We can always repent later…!’

But Balian refuses to surrender in return for his life, his soul or anything. He tells Saladin that he will make the holy places of the city – both Muslim and Christian - his funeral pyre sooner than yield the city to slaughter and the desert chieftain realises he has met his match in honour and courage. In a film bristling with fabulous dialogues between complex and fascinating characters, this scene sent shivers down my spine, and sadly made the confrontation with the Mouth of Sauron look a bit tame.

It would be oversimplifying to say that the film’s message is it is not what you believe that matters but how you behave. Tolkien dealt with good and evil, but Scott shifts the focus to those people who although good do evil, and their attempts to make up for it. He also examines the problem of doing evil to do good. Sibylla, the Queen of Jerusalem, urges Balian to ‘do a little evil to do much good’ but he refuses. He tried that, and it did not work.

Balian’s quest for moral and spiritual meaning and forgiveness ends when he finds love. That might seem a cliché (although it worked for Pierre in Tolstoy’s War and Peace…) but it makes sense when you see how the film presents the individual conscience as the ultimate moral arbiter, and personal survival as the great good. The heroes are not those without flaws or mistakes, but those with personal integrity and honour, like Balian, Tiberias, Saladin and the Leper King, and the courage to act on these qualities, no matter what they are told or threatened with.

Frodo, the hero of The Lord of The Rings, leaves at the end without spiritual healing or the healing of mortal love, to go off into the sunset with a choir singing. Balian leaves with his ex-queen to return to peaceful and happy obscurity in France.

Tolkien’s ending is better, right?

only musing....