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  • Writer's pictureFrederick Gero Heimbach

King of Jerusalem

I watched Kingdom of Heaven, a three-hour epic film of the old school. It takes place in the Crusades, featuring hair-raising battle scenes realized by hundreds of extras and real siege engines burning and toppling; no CGI. All that effort is somewhat wasted by an inferior script that puts preachy, modern words into its medieval characters' mouths. Still, I give it on balance my thumbs up, especially for the 2nd and 3rd of its 3 hours.

For this post, I'm mainly interested in the plot of that 2nd hour. We meet the honorable, peace-loving, tragically vulnerable Baldwin IV, King of Jerusalem.

King of Jerusalem: for the Crusaders, there could not be a more freighted title. It expresses the mysterium tremendum et fascinans of the entire Crusader enterprise, the instantiation of the promised Kingdom of Heaven for which so many fought and died. The first Christian ruler to win control of the city refused the title, instead calling himself Advocate of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

His heirs did not share his scruples. Their presumption disturbs me. Who did those crusaders think the king of Jerusalem is? Beyond that, the title echos that of Melchizedek from Genesis, an archetype of such mystery and potential the author of the book of Hebrews spilled much ink teasing out the implications.

Which brings us to Baldwin IV, a peace-lover and skillful negotiator. There's a sense of doom about his efforts, as bloodthirsty men seek to undermine him and Saladin the brilliant strategist marshals his considerable advantages. Baldwin's doom stems from another, more implacable enemy: he is a leper. "I will not see 30," he says to his beloved sister, lifting a bandaged hand helplessly, speaking through the silver mask which he always wears, even in her presence.

(He is played by Edward Norton, an inspired choice, whose use of the mask reminds me of Hugo Weaving in V for Vendetta. Neither actor seems limited by the loss of face.)

That mask! It is the icon tremendum of the middle hour of the movie. The king's face: a frozen, dead thing of precious metal. A barrier between him and the people, an object beautiful and uncanny, a sublime horror⁠—I couldn't take my eyes off it. It hearkens to the masked queen of C.S. Lewis' Til We Have Faces, and of all gods who must go about disguised. I couldn't stop thinking of it for days after. It even appeared in my dreams.

The masked King of Jerusalem is the only reason you need to see this movie.

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