Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven film may be the most underrated film of all time; because, most didn’t see it. What you saw was the studio’s version. The director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven speaks in-depth of the conscience of man.
After his wife’s sudden death, Balian (Orlando Bloom) is discovered by his estranged father, Baron Godfrey (Liam Neeson). Balian joins Godfrey on a journey to Jerusalem after killing the town priest. Before they cross the sea to the Holy Land, Godfrey is mortally wounded. He confers knighthood on Balian as he is dying. Balian arrives in Jerusalem taking over his father’s duties and land. The Holy Land is at peace yet still divided amongst the nobles who seek war. Balian grows close with the leprous King Baldwin (Edward Norton) and the king’s sister Sibylla (Eva Green) and begins an affair with Sibylla. Guy (Martin Csokas), Sibylla’s husband, despises Balian and craves the crown. After the King’s death, Guy is declared king and marches against Saladin. Following his victory, Saladin marches on Jerusalem. After several battles, Balian secures safe passage for the people given by Saladin.
Balian seeks personal redemption for his murderous sins and his wife’s suicide. Driven to join his estranged father, Godfrey, he journeys to Jerusalem.
There are three men who influence Balian’s journey.
The first man of influence: GODFREY, the estranged father.
Godfrey knights Balian as he dies, speaking these words:
Godfrey: “Be brave in the face of your enemies. Be upright so that God may love thee. Speak the truth always, even if it leads to your death. That is your oath, [slaps Balian] and that is so you remember it. Rise a Knight and a Baron of Ibelin.”
Balian: “What could a king ask of a man like me?”
Godfrey: “A better world than has ever been seen. A kingdom of conscience. A kingdom of heaven.”
Godfrey asks Balian to bring a kingdom of conscience for the king; however, Balian cannot fathom his influence because of his murderous past. How can Balian become a man of power when he was only a murdering blacksmith? As Godfrey knights Balian, he paves a path for Balian to rise up out of his past identity. This is the first moment of Balian’s awakening consciousness.
The second man of influence: KING BALDWIN, the leper.
When Balian first meets the leper king, they begin a game of chess:
King Baldwin IV: “A king may move a man, a father may claim a son, but that man can also move himself, and only then does that man truly begin his own game. Remember that howsoever you are played or by whom, your soul is in your keeping alone, even though those who presume to play you be kings or men of power.
“When you stand before God, you cannot say, ‘But I was told by others to do this,’ or ‘that virtue was not convenient at the time.’ This will not suffice. Remember that.”
The king with all his wisdom wishes for a man who will not bend his morals or faith. When the king asks Balian to take his sister’s hand in marriage, making Balian king, Balian answers with a question: “What will happen to Guy (Sybilla’s husband)?”
Though Guy, who ordered attacks and killings of many Muslims (motivated by war), wishes Balian dead, Balian still refuses to take Guy’s wife. Denying the King’s proposal, he quotes the King’s word back to him:
“A king may move a man,’ you said. ‘But the soul,’ you said, ‘is the man’s.'”
After confronting the King, Balian challenges Tiberias, the Marshal of Jerusalem:
“It is a kingdom of conscience, or nothing.”
His statement captures the crux of Ridley Scott’s purest intention. Many of the characters become frustrated, believing Balian chose foolishly. Siding with his newfound mantle of integrity, he loses favor with many in power.
If Balian had chosen to take Guy’s wife and become king, he would have inherited peace in the land. Yet Balian refuses, standing by his conscience, and Guy leads the kingdom into war—a war that Balian could’ve prevented by choosing the death of one man.
Which raises an interesting dilemma: could murdering one man to save thousands be holy? In the end, Balian did not believe so.
The final man of influence: the HOSPITALLER, a knight under the Order of St. John.
The hospitaller meets with Balian.
Hospitaller: “Holiness is in right action and courage on behalf of those who cannot defend themselves. And goodness – what God desires – [pointing at his head, then heart] is here and here. And what you decide to do every day, you will be a good man, [smiles] or not.”
All we have are our choices. We cannot rely on another to make a decision for us and then blame them when it doesn’t work out. We cannot assume the one who leads us will make the right choice. We must weigh the balance of our options and choose for ourselves. Balian chooses to refuse the king, empowering his conscience. Balian chooses to defend the city, his oath and his conscience fully realized.
Our lives are dictated every day by the choices we make. Those choices do not wait for us; they greet us with each new morning. What we choose to do or not do, defines us.
In the words of Balian, “It is a kingdom of conscience, or nothing.”