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Utopia and the Middle Ages in Popular Culture: A Reading of Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven

Utopia and the Middle Ages in Popular Culture: A Reading of Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven

By Maria Bonet and John Style

Spaces of Utopia: An Electronic Journal, no. 5 (2007)

Introduction: Academic studies of utopia have tried to define their object of study in terms of either form or function, as Ruth Levitas suggests in the introductory chapter of The Concept of Utopia. When definition in terms of form is attempted, it governs, among other things, the subject-matter of the field, which tends to fall into two large categories: communal societies and utopian literature. While some academics have restricted their interest only to literary texts, cultural critics of other fields have nevertheless identified utopian elements within their areas of study. In our case, the film Kingdom of Heaven, directed by Ridley Scott and released by Twentieth-Century Fox in 2005, has its source in an original screenplay by the American author William Monahan. So, while we are discussing a cinematic narrative, as an object of study it is not far divorced from the literary texts academics of a more restrictive inclination have chosen to study until now.

Functional studies of a utopian text, on the other hand, tend to focus on the conscious or unconscious aims of the text, in terms of its author’s intentions, and on the social, historical and political effect of the text as a means of criticising the current state of affairs or of proposing a blueprint for alternative social structures. If considered from a functional point of view, as a filmic narrative, Kingdom of Heaven offers the viewer images of collective utopian dreams which fail to be realized, perhaps because they are unrealisable. Set at the time of Saladin’s siege of Jerusalem and the lead-up up to the Third Crusade, the film does not aim to attempt a deep historical analysis, or indeed to analyse history as a utopian entity, but rather uses historical elements as utopian and dystopian referents. The documentary on the preproduction process in the Director’s Cut version of the film makes clear that the producers were at all times aware that these elements would be seen to allude directly to contemporary world events in the mind of the cinema-goer. As such, Kingdom of Heaven is one of those utopian narratives which use the past to confer a certain apparent legitimacy on its vision, and to reinforce the idea that if an attempt to realize the vision had actually happened in the past, it could happen again in the future. Its interest in the past is therefore primarily as a source of historical justification rather than as historical criticism.

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