*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Having seen Ridley Scott's 'Kingdom of Heaven' and returned to my 12C
passions, I decided to check this out (having seen it on TV many years
ago). How I survived it without smashing the tape is a miracle. What
appeal the film has is in the realms of kitsch/high camp - as
unwitting, twisted comedy, for which I'm giving it 5/10. 'Kingdom' is
gratuitously a-historical, but this is just as bad, if not worse in
some ways. At least I could sort-of recognise three or four characters
in 'Kingdom'. What particularly outraged my chivalric instincts was the
script's character-assassination of Conrad, King of Jerusalem - over
and above the physical Assassination he suffered in 1192.
Imagine Sir Walter Scott's 'The Talisman' spliced with Maurice Hewlett's 'The Life & Death of Richard Yea-and-Nay'. Add to this some 'romance novelette' clichés: the rivalry between blonde, angelic Berengaria and dark, worldly Alice; Berengaria torn between Saladin and Richard; her rôle in reforming and redeeming her selfish, irreligious husband. The religious ethos is a Victorian Protestant Sunday School version of mediæval spirituality (just as un-period as 'Kingdom''s easy-going 21C goodwill to all, which Berengaria prefigures when she pleads for peace between Richard and Saladin). Richard's England is depicted as a bucolic, jolly place, the 19C fantasy of 'Merrie England', and as his main home: in fact, he spent very little time there, being essentially a Frenchman. There are also hints of 19C exotic-erotic Orientalism: right at the start we see beautiful Christian maidens and a middle-aged nun being sold at a slave-market in Jerusalem. Visually, there are some striking scenes, by the standards of 1930s cinematography and special effects: the siege of Acre, a cavalry charge. But the film is rather more character-driven than some of DeMille's other epics, and the characters are the weak link.
Alan Hale does his jovial minstrel/Allan-a-Dale act as Blondel, performing music-hall songs that more closely resemble the uvre of Eric Idle's minstrel in 'Monty Python & the Holy Grail' ('The Ballad of Brave Sir Robin') than the melodic output of the Lord of Nesle. Ian Keith's too-youthful Saladin is more Boston Brahmin than Kurd. According to DeMille, Frederick Barbarossa did make it on Crusade alive (!!!), as did William II of Sicily, and Russians and Norwegians were there, too. However, there's no sign of Guy de Lusignan, Queen Sibylla, or any of the other resident Frankish nobility anywhere! But what struck me most forcibly was the misrepresentation of Conrad, Marquis of Montferrat and King of Jerusalem (c 1145-92), one of the era's most dashing and tragic heroes. This is a result of the Romantic 19C cult of Richard 'the Lionheart' which Walter Scott did so much to foster and on which DeMille was clearly raised.
Conrad is played by Josef Schildkraut as a sleekit, sinister, weedy and somewhat camp schemer, with a bizarre chevron haircut and matching helmet. (The Byzantine chronicler Choniates, who knew him, described him as handsome, courageous, intelligent and strong.) As in Hewlett's novel, he is introduced lurking furtively around Philippe's court in France when the Crusade is preached. In reality, this indomitable, dynamic Piemontese warrior had been defending Tyre - one of the last major cities in Frankish hands - since July 1187, without Western support. His envoy, Archbishop Josias of Tyre (not a simple Peter the Hermit-like 'Holy Man', as played by C. Aubrey Smith), was the source of the appeals that launched the Third Crusade. Conrad saved the remnant of the Latin Kingdom pretty much single-handed, and was lauded as the "Marqués valens e pros" by troubadours such as Peirol and Bertran de Born. Even the Arab chronicler Ibn al-Athir acknowledged him as a man of "extraordinary courage", as well as a sharp political operator. You would not suspect this from DeMille's depiction.
The film also shows him on a visit to England, conspiring with John to kill Richard so that John and Philippe will make him King of Jerusalem. This is arrant nonsense: John had no part in the politics of the Latin Kingdom. We see nothing of the dispute for the throne with Guy de Lusignan, whom Richard was supporting (hence the understandable antipathy). Finally, Conrad is summarily murdered off-screen by Saladin's men for offering to have Richard killed if he will make him King. (Again, this is loosely derived from Maurice Hewlett.) In fact, he was mortally wounded by Assassins (Nizari Isma'ili), days after he was elected King by the barons of the Kingdom. His pregnant widow Queen Isabella was married off to Richard's nephew a week later. Richard is a major suspect in the murder, but again, one would never guess from this film.
Essentially, this characterisation is derived from Scott's 'The Talisman' - a Gothic novel-era racist stereotype of 'sneaky, cowardly and effete Italian' - with elements from Maurice Hewlett. Peire Vidal, who dedicated songs to Conrad's siblings Boniface and Azalaïs, might justly have railed against the scriptwriters as "fals lauzengiers desleials". Conrad's real Assassination was tragic enough; his posthumous cinematic character-assassination is undeserved, and leaves a particularly nasty taste.
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