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Kingdom of Heaven (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 06 May 2005
It’s not surprising that the best ancient-epic movie since “Gladiator” is directed by the same man, Ridley Scott. He treats the material with seriousness but not solemnity, he chooses stories with epic sweep, human tales that are told through action as well as dialog. Like the makers of “King Arthur,” “Troy” and even “Alexander,” he fills the screen with enormous scenes of hundreds, here even thousands, of warriors in battle. In “Gladiator,” the theme was honor, a very Roman trait; here it is redemption, which should be part of any tale of the Crusades.

That heroically, epically misbegotten enterprise was the efforts of the Christian nobility of Europe trying to thrown “heathens” (Muslims, principally Saracens) out of the city of Jerusalem, a section of landscape with the misfortune to be holy to three religions: Christianity, Judaism and Muslim. For three hundred years, knights and their vassals left Europe for the Middle East hoping to win the land for their God—and largely to make themselves rich in the process. They were finally reduced to limping back to Europe to lick their wounds.

It’s 1186 as “Kingdom of Heaven” begins. Balian (Orlando Bloom) is a young French blacksmith whose wife has killed herself in grief over the death of their only child. Balian has an oath carved in the timbers above his forge, a vow to leave the world a better place than it was when he entered it. He’s confronted by a weary, aging knight, Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), who’s returned briefly to Europe in search of forgiveness. He reveals that he is Balian’s unknown father; “I knew your mother,” he painfully explains, “against her intentions.” It wasn’t rape, but it might as well have been.

He asks Balian to return with him to Jerusalem, to serve Baldwin, the European leper king of Jerusalem, by Godfrey’s die. At first, Balian refuses, but when he sees the thieving local priest with his wife’s small golden cross around his neck, he grabs the cross, shoves the priest into the fires and joins Godfrey. He has a goal: he wants to gain forgiveness for his wife; she’s a suicide, and he knows she’s in Hell—he wants to get her out, and to gain redemption for himself.

Godfrey is tough; he once “fought for two days with an arrow through my testicle,” he tersely explains. When some men arrive to arrest Balian, Godfrey and his men—and Balian—drive them off, though some of Godfrey’s followers are slain. Balian is befriended by a sardonic but sympathetic Hospitaler (David Thewlis), who travels with Godfrey.

They will travel until they reach an area where people speak Italian, then go further to where the speak something else. The brooding, grieving Balian is drawn to Godfrey, but the older man has been wounded. Before he dies, he has Balian swear a knightly oath: “Be without fear in the face of your enemies. Speak the truth, always, even if it leads to your death. Safeguard the helpless and do no wrong.” Now on his own, Balian departs for the Holy Land.
There, he spares the life of a Saracen, Nasir (Alexander Siddig), and arrives at Jerusalem. He meets again the cold, domineering Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), a Knight Templar who, along with his lusty companion Reynald (Brendan Gleeson), is anxious to resume war with the Saracens. Baldwin (Edward Norton), who always wears a variety of silver masks, has kept peace between Christians, Muslims and Jews for years now; he is respected by the bold Saracen leader, Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), and gives free access to Jerusalem to people of all faiths.

Balian arrives at his father’s lands. He is an ingenious man, clever with engineering ideas, and soon strikes water in the arid region. He also encounters the free-spirited Sibylla (Eva Green), sister to Baldwin, wife of Guy, whom she despises. She and Balian are strongly attracted while the forces swirl around them that ultimately lead to the awesome assault on Jerusalem by Saladin and his army.

Most of the characters in “Kingdom of Heaven” are based on real historical figures and the script by the inventive William Monahan basically follows actual events. The Crusades haven’t been depicted often; Cecil B. De Mille made the big-scale “The Crusades” back in the 1930s, but historical accuracy was far from anyone’s mind. “King Richard and the Crusaders” was a 1950s attempt (with Rex Harrison as a sleek Saladin) that fell well below the average of the flood of knights-in-armor epics of that time. In short, “Kingdom of Heaven” is the only big-scale movie about the Crusades that’s worth a damn.

It does have some flaws; we’re never given a hint about the fate of one of the principal characters, and the love story between Balian and Sibylla proceeds in fits and starts. Ridley Scott has maintained that his full-length version will be released on DVD.

The principal weakness of the movie is that while the details are different—knights vs. Saracens, leper kings, etc.—the underlying story is somewhat familiar, with characters falling fairly neatly into Hero and Villain slots. Brendan Gleeson, as usual, rises above his limited role through sheer eye-catching energy, while Marton Csokas’ bad guy is presented in an unfortunately one-dimensional manner, though his performance is good and he looks great in his Knight Templar garb.

Orlando Bloom doesn’t quite have the star quality that the role of Balian required; it’s not that his performance is lacking in any way, it’s that the actor himself doesn’t have the I’m-in-charge-here appeal of a classical movie star—which is what was called for. This is one reason why Russell Crowe was exactly right in “Gladiator”—whatever his qualities as an actor, and they are many, Crowe is unmistakably a movie star.

In the Holy Land, Balian ascends the hill where Jesus was crucified, hoping for spiritual comfort; he finds none, but does bury his wife’s cross there, hoping uncertainly that this will free her soul from Hell. Interestingly, most of Balian’s character hinges directly on his spirituality, his desire to be a perfect knight, and his hoping for personal redemption. It’s unusual to see a driving desire for virtue, to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven, as central to a leading character. But the movie doesn’t overdo this, either; there are no scenes of Balian in despair—he’s too much a man of action. But his actions are largely guided by a desire to do what’s right. As he leaves Europe, priests declare that “to kill an infidel is not murder—it is the path to Heaven.” Balian wants to find the path to Heaven, but it’s already clear he doesn’t consider killing someone to be the first step. He wants a kingdom of conscience, of peace. Even when someone tells him that Jerusalem has no need of a perfect knight, Balian is sure that it does.

It’s bold to release in today’s troubled world a movie that deals with a conflict between Christians and Muslims—especially when it’s clear that the Christians are more at fault for the troubles over Jerusalem. But the movie does not suggest that the religions themselves are to blame for the conflicts here; there are too many decent Christians—Godfrey, the Hospitaler, Baldwin, his right-hand man Tiberius (Jeremy Irons), Balian himself—in this story to think that the filmmakers are blaming anything other than the cold ambitions of some men in power.

In sheer spectacle, the movie is immensely satisfying, and Scott knows how to dole out the big stuff wisely. When Guy and Reynald lead an army to battle against Saladin and his soldiers, we don’t see the resulting battle, just the aftermath, some decapitated heads, a vast field of bodies and a sky full of vultures. The big-scale battle scene is at the end, when Saladin lays siege to Jerusalem. Giant siege towers advance on the walled city; huge devices like powered catapults fling blazing balls at the city, and thousands of men swarm across the plain.

All this is rendered with extreme realism and a lot of imagination; there are stately aerial shots of the mile-long city, the towers, the men below, both by day and night. Marc Streitenfeld’s wide-screen photography is satisfyingly epic; the production design by Arthur Max tends toward blues and steely grays in Europe, dusty oranges and tans in the Holy Land. The sound is remarkable; in the battle sequences, the surround speakers come effectively, even surprisingly, into play. Neil Corbould supervised a wide variety of special effects, including very well-rendered CGI. This is the kind of movie you could rewardingly watch several times just to pick up the details in the panoramic scenes.

In movies like this, often the acting recedes somewhat into the background, and it’s true here, too. Liam Neeson dies early once again (as he did in “Gangs of New York”), but he clearly establishes his believable character, whose influence lingers after he’s gone. Edward Norton’s face is never seen, but he’s clearly a man of grace, wisdom and failing strength. Jeremy Irons is another knight as weary and aging as was Neeson’s Godfrey; it’s a supporting role, but his gentle, sad eyes express strength and courage. Ghassan Massoud is given a few well-chosen traits to express as Saladin, and he’s quite memorable.

Eva Green, an actress new to me, is lively as the too-crafty Sibylla, but the script treats her a little awkwardly. When Balian refuses to become King over the dead body of Guy de Lusignan, she’s angry—but it’s not clear why she then does what she does. Late in the film, during the siege of Jerusalem, she cuts her long hair while looking into a hammered copper mirror. It’s distorted so much that for a moment, she looks like her leper brother; this is clearly intentional, but what it’s supposed to suggest isn’t.

After the success of “Gladiator,” Hollywood returned again to epic tales of ancient lands, but the results have been mixed. “Troy” was okay, “King Arthur” wasn’t, and “Alexander” reeked. The first two did reasonably well but were hardly runaway hits; “Alexander” died at the boxoffice. “Kingdom of Heaven” is considerably better than the others—the characters are better drawn (if familiar), there’s a wider variety of action scenes, from man-to-man to army-to-fortress, the details are less familiar, and it’s beautiful to watch, with scenes of huge scale. But is there an audience for a tale of this nature, however well told?

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