Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, on Kingdom of Heaven

A politically correct crusader flick with lots of battle scenes seemed like the right choice for the first post-break-up movie with an ex-girlfriend; let's be friends, yes. It did not matter that the critics had damned Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven. We agreed that the first battle scene in Scott's Gladiator are superb 20 minutes of mainstream film-making (much better than the first 20 minutes of, say, Saving Private Ryan), and both of us did not want to see another "heavy movie" about adultery or relationship-betrayal (Closer, House of Daggers, etc), which we had indulged over the first few months of our relationship. We were, shall we say, still a bit in a fighting mood. Such self-awareness is probably a sign of maturity, right? Moreover, if I had to watch men in skirts, Jeremy Irons and Liam Neeson would probably be my first choice, too.
My main and only problem with Kingdom of Heaven is its premise: the most important character (Orlando Bloom) can only become/be a hero if his heart remains pure. Given that he is supposed to be a Christian knight this theme makes some historical sense, although the reality of Christian knights is, as even the characters in the Monty Python musical Spamalot realize, somewhat less bright. The downside of purity of intention is that it is fatal in political life and -- dare I say it? -- even ordinary relationships. The hero can only save crusader-defended-Jerusalem, which oddly enough gets represented in the dialogues of the movie as a virgin-continent in which we can remake ourselves (half-way through the film Bloom even washes up with a horse on a very American, empty sandy shore--I was waiting for the Indians to offer him a Turkey), if he is willing to kill the mean-spirited, political ego-maniac, who happens to be next in line of command of Jerusalem, and marry the ego-maniac's wife, the next queen of Jerusalem, who is very attractive and happens to fancy Orlando, too. The ego-maniac, who longs for honor in battle, is a fool and does not realize he cannot win open warfare with Saladin, the majestic (and prudent) Arab conqueror. So, the Orlando character does the "right thing;" the ego-maniac lives a bit longer, and Jerusalem is doomed. Orlando keeps his heart pure at the cost of sacrificing the polity (which he ends up defending in a losing cause). The movie even intimates that private happiness (Orlando and his Queen safely escape the ruins of Jerusalem to a hut in France, although the last scene of the film suggests even they find this too confining) is more valuable than political skill. The movie is disturbing because it confuses a morality of good intentions with wisdom. There is a hint of the same problem at the end of Gladiator, incidentally. (Cf. Laura Linney's powerful and sexually charged concluding and very impure speech to the Sean Penn character near the end of Mystic River--by far the best Clint Eastwood directed film.) The most hopeful sign of the health of our polity is that this movie (merely a year after Gibson's Passion!) flopped. Perhaps Americans are tiring of good intentions, or maybe (and I am afraid more likely) we prefer to watch only well intentioned winners? Orlando did loose Jerusalem, after all. Maybe if he allowed let Orlando defeat the Arabs, Ridley Scott would have had another hit?


At 8:40 AM, Anonymous Jeremy Bendik-Keymer said...

Oh do I disagree with you, Eric! Kingdom of Heaven was a decent movie. My students in the Emirates criticized it for getting some prayers wrong -e.g. the funeral prayer. Otherwise, they were impressed that such a balanced view of the Muslim world should come out of America. Maybe Scott was thinking of more than just an American audience, more than an audience (I quote!) that is tired of "good intentions"!

If our country is tired of good intentions, that is bad news. Perhaps that is why it can sanction illegitimate and confused wars around the world?

Moreover, Bloom's character and the order to which he belonged had a good political sense of social justice. The second thing I appreciated about this movie is that it has a good natural law view of purity. Purity is not found in a political territory; it is found in a just heart that "protects the powerless and serves justice". Moreover, that is tolerant! If only the many peoples around the world currently fighting over land as an image of their ethnic or religious purity would understand that!

At 10:06 AM, Blogger nescio said...

Jeremy, thank you for your spirited reflections. We agree that fighting over land as representing their ethnic and religious purity leads to disaster. You think the problem is a mistaken conception of purity; I believe the problem is the drive toward purity, in general.

If one believes in a kingdom of heaven, it is easy to renounce (-- as you also seem willing to do -- the value of) "political territory." But one reason why I like writing about this movie is that Ridley Scott was honest enough to show one of the consequences of Bloom's purity: the long line of displaced persons and refugees streaming out of Jerusalem. (Not to mention the carnage on both sides before and during the siege.) Within the world of the film, Bloom's purity helped upset the balance of power, and thus peace, between Saladin and Jerusalem. "Justice" cannot be served because Bloom's character does not realize that the survival of the polity is a pre-condition for the existence of justice in the real world. (This does not mean that survival of the polity justifies all actions.)

If one is convinced of one's good intentions and one is convinced that one should be evaluated in terms of these (and one's reward is expected in another world), one is less likely to be open to criticism and conflicting evidence. Of course, there is always the danger that "tiring of good intentions" can lead to cynicism and easy crimes. But there is an alternative: one can be skeptical about good intentions and still value the rule of law, which presupposes a mixture of power and reason, and enlightened self-interest.

It is a sad fact that our expectations are so low that a balanced view of the Muslim world in a Hollywood movie is greeted with surprise. Having said that, I have actually been surprised by how much effort the American Elites have made to at least tone down possible Anti-Muslim rhetoric. (I am not commenting on how their actions are perceived.) In fact, the American Administration fancies itself to be experts on Muslim theology; the President announces that "Islam is Peace...These acts of violence [9/11] against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith." (

At 1:35 PM, Anonymous Jeremy Bendik-Keymer said...


It is politically correct to murder a person in cold blood?

I must be too deontological!!



At 1:50 PM, Blogger nescio said...

Not all murders are alike. I think that, given the circumstances, the murder of the ego-maniac would have been the wise thing for the Bloom character. (I would not call it "politically correct" because that term has different, ironic connotations since the mid 1980s.) It is possible that more just courses of actions had been available to a more imaginative actor (than me or the Bloom character). Note that the "drama" (if one will)of the circumstances of Bloom's choice are caused by the peculiar constitutional circumstances of the Kingdom (which is inherent in heriditary polities): fate (or God's will) can bring a bad ruler to the throne. The consequences of this are not apropriately recognized by the natural law tradition you endorse. It leaves no room for wisdom and statecraft than ensure the survival of the polity.

At 3:03 PM, Anonymous J. said...

I disagree entirely re. your comment on the natural law tradition! For two reasons: first, you are not sure which parts of the natural law tradition I endorse (I have nothing substantial to say about inherited authority and it, for instance). Second, the part I did endorse concerned good old social justice thought concerning our duties to humanity. Nothing there about the right of inheritance.

I agree with your point about the problems of the system. But I don't see it as somehow taking down the rest of the natural law tradition, should that tradition endorse inherited authority.

Shocking that you condone the murder of people in the name of justice!

I will let you get the last word. So that's it for me on this film. The kingdom of conscience: not bad. Esp. when it's a conscience of social justice. Would that our President would listen to that divine voice!!!



At 8:44 PM, Blogger nescio said...

The Bloom character would have been able to perform a duty to humanity if he had been willing soil his hands. You ignore my observation that to remain pure of heart one sacrifices the lives and fortunes of many.

There is less difference between the Bloom character and our President. One of the problems with GWB is precisely that he appeals to his conscience; he appears to be quite convinced that the divine voice is speaking to him. Faith trumps the facts.


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