May 08, 2005

When Will They Ever Learn?

Have you seen this movie, Kingdom of Heaven? I'll admit, it's no Troy, but it's still a hoot.

Kingdom of Heaven asks a question that has plagued historians for decades: what would happen if a late 20th-century, secular, agnostic, multiculturalist, progressive, sensitive Hollywood type were to be transported back in time to participate in one of history's grandest spectacles? Could one of the most embarrassingly culturally insensitive chapters of our history be rewritten or perhaps even avoided altogether, through the efforts of one determined, sensitive man who is as open-minded about stuff as we are?

It's a neat idea, and it is arguably needed now more than ever. So Ridley Scott, himself a knight like Walter Scott before him, sets the Wayback for the late 12th Century, and sends a former elf named Legolas back to medieval Jerusalem, just to see if he can single-handedly make the Crusades more palatable to modern sensibilities by forging a caring, mutually-fulfilling Christian-Saracen support network in the Crusader Kingdom.

Legolas has a degree of success, at first. Jerusalem folks, it is agreed, should stick together; Jerusalem folks should all be pals. Mohammedans dance with the infidels' daughters; Crusaders dance with the Saracens' gals. You're OK! No, man, you're OK! You and me are free to be you and me. These kids are all right.

And it might have worked, too, were it not for those meddling Knights Templar. Legolas ladles out prodigious quantities of chicken soup for the soul, and practically does himself an injury trying to buy the world a coke and keep it company, but there's just no way these Knights Templar are ever gonna be Peppers. No way. It only takes a few bad apples to spoil the whole idyllic, culturally tolerant People's Republic of Jerusalem, and these Templars are apples of surpassing badness. So in the end, the butterfly effect is negligible. The wise and gentle Saracens are finally provoked by the diabolical Templars into sacking Jerusalem, despite Legolas's spendidly anachronistic touchy-feely neurotic handwringing. Yet the handwringing does lend the story an otherwise hard-to-identify triumph-of-the-human-spirited-ness and transforms it into a Valuable Lesson for Us Today. As a caption reminds us at the end, the resulting conflict in the Middle East has lasted to this day. Maybe one elf with a time machine can't do it alone, after all. But, maybe, next time, with your help...

There's a long tradition of this sort of thing in movies, of course. Our hero will be the one guy with contemporary sensibilities, brooding and fretting amidst a swarm of depressingly ignorant, unevolved, unprogressive barbarians. He's not sure whether all this conflict is such a hot idea after all. "Maybe there's more to life than wealth and power and glory," the reluctant warrior will say. "After all, what has the minotaur ever done to me?" What he really wants, he realizes, is a more just society, good schools for our kids, funding for the arts, abortions that are safe, legal, and rare, some cage-free eggs, a 12 pack of Kabbalah water, maybe, and the love of one special person who truly loves you for who you are deep down inside. Of course, in order to give love, he realizes, one must be open enough to receive love, which isn't always as easy as it sounds. Above all, he really only wants to be the best parent he can be, even though it's hard to know if you've made the right choices till it's too late. Or that's how it seems sometimes. You need to set boundaries, but you need to give them the freedom to make their own mistakes, even when it hurts. It's a real dilemma. He throws down his weapons, sighs, pats the minotaur on the nose, and trudges off. We know how he feels.

The comparisons to Troy, which recently tried to splash chicken soup for the soul all over the Iliad with similarly amusing results, are inevitable. Yet Kingdom of Heaven looks a lot cooler than Troy, and that's its saving grace. Whether that and the overall sententious mood make the faux-historical silliness more rather than less humorous (and more rather than less annoying) is a matter of temperament. It didn't bother me. I love this kind of thing. I giggled just a little less, I'll say that. But I did giggle. A lot. Like Alan Rickman in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, another film in the same tradition, Marton Csokas as the Head Templar appears to be the only person involved in KoH who understood the kind of film they were making, and he hams it up in classic mustache-twirling pantomime style. His performance is ridiculously over the top, but it's also the best thing about the movie. Everyone else is trying out-do Jeremy Irons at grim, portentous sighing, lip-pursing, and brow-furrowing. That's kind of funny, too, because it really can't be done. But it lends the whole production a certain Planet of the Apes feel, somehow.

When the smoke has cleared, and Saladin's victorious warriors tramp through the rubble, the disembodied voice of Jerusalem's God-computer rings out. "Strange game, Professor Falken," it says. "The only winning move is not to play." God has learned a valuable lesson. But will we?

Posted by Dr. Frank at May 8, 2005 03:08 AM | TrackBack

Siiiigh. Well, there, that's done. Another movie I won't have to see, just to write a post I wouldn't have written half as well. Thanks for that.

(I hate you, you know.)

Posted by: Angie Schultz at May 8, 2005 05:30 PM


Posted by: kate at May 8, 2005 08:04 PM

Surely you jest. While stimulating and visually entertaining, it just doesn't have what Troy had- Homer or Brad Pitt. I mean, get real...

Posted by: Leslie at May 8, 2005 10:50 PM

Sigh.........This coming from a historian after I just read not one but TWO articles citing how this movie strived and achieved historical accuracy. How confusing....... Well, I choose to believe you on this one good Doktor. I'll eventually see it myself, probably on DVD.

Posted by: Zaphod at May 9, 2005 10:53 AM

I think you gave the film too much credit, it sucked. I watched it with my hockey team and they were raving about how mediocore it was and these are people that have no interest in the cultural criticism type stuff that you note.

Posted by: Pinhead at May 9, 2005 02:03 PM

Prior to reading this post, "Kingdom of Heaven" sounded like the least appealing movie since Goldie Hawn in "Death Becomes Her." Now, I think I actually need to see it. It does sound like a "hoot." Thanks.

Posted by: josh at May 9, 2005 02:56 PM

Think I'll wait for the DVD.

Posted by: JB at May 9, 2005 05:18 PM

Your agent is doing you a severe disservice by not selling your reviewer talents to a major newspaper. That was hilarious.

It seems we are overdue for an Epic Farce film. Including Alan Rickman and Rowan Atkinson wouldn't be a bad start.

Posted by: Wes at May 10, 2005 11:03 AM

Damn. That was maybe the best film review I've ever read.
I think you've found your post-rock'n'roll fallback career.
Not that the MTX royalties won't carry you until well into your golden years... :)

Posted by: Stig at May 10, 2005 05:47 PM

Excellent review! I'm having so much fun with the reviews it will be a letdown to see the movie. (Didn't want to go the first weekend and encourage Scott, the poor man.)

Cold Mountain is of the same post-courage genre. Oh, those accursed Americans! War never solved anything! It was all about the oil...or something else bad!

Posted by: PJ at May 11, 2005 04:08 PM

While I see exactly what you are saying, the real issue is about giving the public what they want. I am pretty sure the theater-going public doesn't want to see a bunch of religious fanatics (on BOTH sides) spilling mass quantities of blood in a territorial conflict almost a millenium ago. They give the audience someone to care about, not an "every man", but at least someone they can identify with. They place this "hero" in the historical setting, emphasize how superior / better our current sensibilites are, and show the hero fight the good fight, even if he loses. Everyone goes home felling good about this affirmation of values / beliefs, and goes to see the next one. Lather, rinse, repeat. I can't think of a major motion picture in a conflict oriented historical setting made in the last 15 years that didn't use this same formula. It is unfortunate that people take this as actual history, but the reality is that this is what sells. "There's no business like show business..." etc.

Posted by: Harry at May 12, 2005 02:08 AM

Harry -

Perhaps it's more about what Hollywood wants than what the viewing public wants. I've recently seen several articles about how movie viewership and studio revenues are tanking this year. Last year was bad, but this year is even worse. Perhaps, just once, Hollywood could give us something honest. Think of it as a test. I, for one, would like to see some honesty. In fact, I think it would have made the movie not only more accurate, but also more entertaining.

Posted by: Ben at May 12, 2005 03:30 AM

"splashing chicken soup for the soul all over the Iliad'? Clever....what is this, Spin magazine?

Posted by: crayfish johnsen at May 12, 2005 06:13 PM

While I see exactly what you are saying, the real issue is about giving the public what they want. I am pretty sure the theater-going public doesn't want to see a bunch of religious fanatics (on BOTH sides) spilling mass quantities of blood in a territorial conflict almost a millenium ago
: Harry
Perhaps it's more about what Hollywood wants than what the viewing public wants. I've recently seen several articles about how movie viewership and studio revenues are tanking this year. Last year was bad, but this year is even worse. Perhaps, just once, Hollywood could give us something honest
Be real, what the public wants is for the Good Guys to Win the Bad Guys to get Stomped into the Dirt, and the Hero to get the Girl, the Girl mind you, and not some Cute Guy, and we don't care how HONEST you are historical or otherwise.

Oh and it would be nice if the popcorn had real butter. ;-)

Put all that together with any American achetype and you will sell tickets.

Posted by: Dan Kauffman at May 13, 2005 08:21 AM

Isn't that what the computer in Wargames said?
Just another example of hollyweirds lack of talent and imagination.

Posted by: gene at May 14, 2005 03:52 AM

Ding DIng! that's a gold star for geney boy!

Posted by: montana jim the mountain man at May 14, 2005 07:17 AM

Harry: I can think of one (but only one) recent historial movie that was seems accurate and doesn't attempt to place 20th century sensibilities into 19th century humans - Master and Commander. Yes, the doctor is all touchy feely and they try to suggest he was going to stumble across evolution before CD did, but otherwise I thought it was refreshingly realistic. The crew of the Surpise hate the French and there's no attempt to justify or temper this, and when it comes time to board and fight the Acheron there's lots of blood spilled unapologetically. And they even showed the weevils running around in the bread as the men ate it - cos that's how life was on a 19th century ship. And aside from the pretty island girls in one short scene (a scene which proves that Russell Crowe, asshole tho he may be, is a really fine actor), not a female around. Great movie, IMNSHO.

Posted by: stubby at May 14, 2005 07:19 PM

oh yes,loved it! another one of those movies based on books but oh well. i couldn't watch during the surgery scene(even though they showed nothing)but it was awesome.

kingdom of heaven on the other hand, i don't know if i'll be watching for humor or sincerity.

Posted by: just me at May 15, 2005 02:49 AM

Well, it is a pitty that not enough people realize what a great movie this is. I am a history buff and can tell you the movie is not Hollywoodized.. this a really what happened. I really cannot see how could anyone compare this with the Illiad..I am sorry that the average american does not appreciate.. history..nor can comprehend much outside his world. It is a true pitty!

Posted by: Rola at May 16, 2005 12:53 AM

Somehow it's hard to take seriously a history buff who cannot spell pity.

....why didn't they make the film about Crusaders freeing the Holy Land from the infidels? That would have just been so way cooler.

Posted by: angloamerican at May 17, 2005 11:17 AM

I think a movie about the Arab siege of Constantinople where at the end the Arabs all get burnt up with Greek fire would be cooler.

Burn baby, burn.

Posted by: Heraclius at May 19, 2005 02:45 AM
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