Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

Published: Sep 30, 2009 |Updated: Sep 10, 2023


Towards the end of the 12th century peasant blacksmith Balian is struck by tragedy when his wife gives birth to a stillborn child and then proceeds to take her own life. After losing his foothold as a man and killing a priest, Balian is given an unexpected chance of redemption when his long-lost father offers him to go to Jerusalem, where the Crusaders are fighting the muslims. Through a myriad of challenges and blessings, Balian is finally faced with an enormous task; one that he can only have a shot at pulling off by reconnecting fully to his masculine core and to the initiation given from his father.

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Genre Action, Adventure
Production year 2005
Director Ridley Scott
Male actors Orlando Bloom, Liam Neeson, Edward Norton, Jeremy Irons

The power of initiation

The historical adventure that is this movie is surprisingly simple in many ways, superficially appearing to be limited in its scope and vision. However, below the surface rests a richness of examples that demonstrate what it takes for a boy to make the journey into manhood. In my experience, it is often in the most simple of storylines that we find the most enduring of insights, and in the timeless dramas that we unravel the most important learnings. This movie is no exception. Whether intentionally or not, the screenwriters and the director walk us through a number of crucial phases that men need to go through when coming of age.

Set in the latter part of the 12th century, the movie focuses on the main character Balian–a peasant blacksmith in the south of France. From a life of relative tranquility, his existence is turned upside down when his wife gives birth to a stillborn child, and then proceeds to take her own life, stricken by grief. Soon after these tragic events, a knight of Jerusalem visits Balian, claiming to be Godfrey of Ibelin and Balian’s father. He offers the blacksmith to come with him to Jerusalem, and fight in the Crusades, but Balian–still paralyzed by grief–turns down the offer.

However, as chance would have it, the village priest turns out to be a less than empathetic man, provoking Balian by stating that his wife will burn in hell for killing herself. Overcome by rage, Balian is unable to control his emotions and kills the priest on the spot. Well aware that he will be sentenced to death for this crime, he flees the village on his horse, and joins his father’s party.

Balian is now a man who has hit rock bottom. His wife and child are dead, and he’s a wanted criminal in his native village. Furthermore, he’s proven to be unable to control his emotions and unable to adhere to his own moral code. In this state of internal confusion and emptiness he travels to Jerusalem, in hope of redemption and forgiveness, and perhaps just as importantly: in search of a new purpose in life, a purpose that can also serve as his redemption.

The question of what maketh a man is perhaps just as old as humanity itself. I do not pretend to have anything that even approaches a complete answer, but I think Balian’s story can give us an important hint. What is it that he loses to become a broken man? His wife and his child may be what comes to mind at first, but as tragic as these losses are, they do not necessarily represent our hero losing touch with his manhood or masculinity.

Instead, the telltale signs that Balian is out of touch with his own core, is that he acts impulsively (i.e. cannot control his emotions), and that he breaks his own basic moral code. How can he trust himself, or expect the world to trust him, when falling short in these regards?

But even the fact that Balian loses touch with a couple of core masculine qualities, is nothing but the end result of a deeper dynamic. Healthy masculinity is first and foremost associated with a clear direction in life, and the fact that our hero’s family has been wiped out, has likely led to an absence of purpose or direction in his life. This lack of direction can in itself be enough for a man to let go of the other values that he cherishes in his life, such as his moral code and his composure.

Moving on in the story, Godfrey (the father) is lethally wounded in a battle with a group of soldiers that want to capture Balian and have him punished for killing the priest. As sad as this event is, it also represents a much needed turning point for our main character. The impending death of his father, leads Balian to experience something that is rare in our modern times: an initiation from his father. The word-by-word oath goes like this:

Godfrey of Ibelin: Be without fear in the face of your enemies. Be brave and upright that God may love thee. Speak the truth always, even if it leads to your death. Safeguard the helpless and do no wrong. That is your oath. Godfrey of Ibelin: [strikes Balian with the back of his hand] And that’s so you remember it. Hopitalier: Arise a knight and Baron of Ibelin.

Now, not everyone can be turned into a knight in a modern society, but every man could be formally or informally initiated into manhood, as well as have his father pass on some crucial insights or words of inspiration to him. Spiritual traditions have lineages and transmissions, and in many ways I believe that healthy masculinity and manhood are variables that can and should be transmitted from father to son, if at all possible. Needless to say, some fathers are dead, drunk or absent, but in that case a mentor can fill the shoes of the father in this respect.

Once in place in Jerusalem, Balian travels to the Ibelin estate, which turns out to be a less than glamorous remote desert oasis. Instead of cursing his fate, the newly instated Baron starts irrigating and cultivating the lands, side by side with his people. This humility, and this obvious connection to the earth that we all spring from, inform us that Balian is reconnecting to his core, and to a very healthy masculinity.

All too often in our modern times do we associate men and men’s projects with a disregard for mother earth and the interconnectedness of all things. However, as far as I’m concerned this is a pathological expression of masculinity, whereas a more constructive expression of manhood wants to serve as a steward of the earth, and as a servant and steward of the feminine principle.

Step by step we thus see Balian coming into his own, and paying off his karmic debt of being a murderer. This personal growth that he goes through, turns out to be crucial in the huge challenge that awaits him.

After the newly crowned King of Jerusalem makes a fatal tactical error and marches his whole army into the desert, only to be overcome by heat and dehydration, and then slaughtered by the muslims–Balian is left with the overwhelming task of defending Jerusalem with few troops and a large civilian population.

The reasonable response may seem to be to immediatly surrender, however, that may lead to the slaughtering of every last man, woman and child. Furthermore, Balian has been initiated into manhood, and he now has the opportunity to transmit this initiation to a large group of people.

In one of the strongest scenes in the movie, Balian orders a large group of civilians to kneel before him. He then proceeds to initiate them in a similar fashion to how he was initiated, and then orders them to rise as Knights of Jerusalem. The change in body language and facial expression is palpable in these men, after someone they admire has seen the potential in them, and expressed a conviction that they can be bigger men than they have ever imagined.

Using nothing but intelligent warfare and a small army of civilians, Balian is able to defend Jerusalem until the attackers agree to give all of them safe passage out of Jerusalem, none of which could have been achieved had he not been initiated himself.

If you are interested in a movie about pain, redemption, masculinity, initiation and humility, then I highly recommend you check out Kingdom of Heaven.

Powerful ideas from Kingdom of Heaven

  • Losing everything can be just the thing you need to face yourself as a man.
  • You or your life will never be perfect, but redemption and growth are possible.
  • Having a direction is the core masculine quality. Without direction you will likely lose touch with your moral code and other important qualities.
  • Initiation into manhood is crucial; modern and postmodern societies still don’t know how much they crave male initiation.
  • Healthy masculinity is connected to the earth, and acts as a steward of the feminine principle--not an abuser.
  • True strength comes from humility, not from arrogance.
  • Doctors sometimes say about surgical procedures: see one, do one, teach one. The same could be said for initiation: receive, embody, transmit. If you are fortunate enough to be initiated, then make sure you pass it on.

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