Kingdom of Heaven Not the Epic It Could Have Been
- Thursday, May 05, 2005
Release Date: May 6, 2005
Rating: R (for strong violence and epic warfare)
Run Time: 145 min.
Director: Ridley Scott
Actors: Orlando Bloom, Eva Green, Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson
In these days of political correctness, you can't help but wonder what historical movies might look like if filmmakers could move beyond their personal, political agendas and tell stories the way they actually happened. It's as if they are somehow afraid that we might actually learn from history, as opposed to learning from them.
It's 1186 in a small French town, during the Second and Third Crusades, and a young blacksmith by the name of Balian (Orlando Bloom) has lost his wife and child - along with his faith. The child's death, from illness, prompted the suicide of Balian's wife. Soon after, a band of knights arrive, led by Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson). Godfrey announces that he is Balian's father, thanks to an illicit love affair with Balian's mother, and asks Balian to become a Crusader. Balian refuses, but when a self-satisfied, sanctimonious priest taunts Balian about his wife's eternal condemnation, Balian kills the man with a fire-soaked piece of iron and joins Godfrey on the road to Jerusalem, hoping to find the oft-promised redemption of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Balian receives a few sword lessons from his fellow soldiers and mercenaries, under the watchful eye of the Hospitalier (David Thewlis), a knight-confessor from an order of monks created in the 11th century to cater to the needs of Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land. After Godfrey is mortally wounded in a surprise ambush, he knights Balian and tells him that his mission is to keep the peace in Jerusalem.
Given the factions among Christians in the ancient city, that's easier said than done. Tiberias (Jeremy Irons, with a bad scar), the king's trusted advisor and marshal of Jerusalem's army, believes that war is wrong and that the way to righteousness is peace. Guy de Lusignan (Martin Csokas) is another commander who believes in fighting to the death to keep Jerusalem from the Muslim vermin. Of course, there's also a woman - de Lusignan's betrothed, Sibylla (newcomer Eva Green), the king's sister who falls madly in lust with Balian, on first sight. (Why, one can only wonder.)
It's all held tenuously together by the peace-loving King Baldwin IV (Edward Norton), who is dying of leprosy and who hides behind a slew of artistic, silver masks, never showing his face or hands. The other peacenik is the infamous Muslim warrior, Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), who just hates that he has to fight the Christians, because he really doesn't believe in it, either. But hey, they were the ones who struck first. Such a shame. Also, although we're in Jerusalem, we don't meet any Jews. One can only presume that they are hiding from the indomitable, charismatic, terrifying Bloom.
In the end, Balian becomes a confidant of the king and righteously refuses his offer of Sibylla in marriage (which would mean de Lusigan's death), even though he is sleeping with her. He reluctantly leads a ragtag group of would-be warriors into battle against Saladin and, though he never finds faith, still finds his destiny - typically, from a Muslim leader, to whom he speaks in Arabic.
Without a doubt, the Crusades were a doomed and sinful mission from the start. They led to some of the bloodiest, most prolonged conflict in world history, and they are hard to justify on any grounds - particularly Christian. That being said, it's absurd to think that the tens of thousands of men who participated on both sides of these battles did so under the auspices of a few misguided, warmonger Christians. What a shame that director Ridley Scott couldn't see beyond his political agenda to portray these men as they really were. Only in today's world could a director make a war film about pacifists and actually be taken seriously - much less hope that the film would become an epic blockbuster. While Scott (Gladiator, Black Hawk Down) strives to portray both sides "fairly," it's fair in the eyes of a 21st century audience made up, one would have to assume, of liberals who believe that war is wrong, under any circumstances.
Instead, we are treated to, well, an elf, with no battle experience whatsoever - and even less leadership abilities or military know-how - shrewdly leading a nation into war. Certainly, Bloom is not as bad as he was in Troy, but that isn't saying much. And he has acquired a few muscles. But he's still the same, scrawny guy who couldn't weigh more than 100 pounds, soaking wet. Moreover, Bloom doesn't give us anything in the way of facial expressions - not when his wife dies, not when his father dies, and not when he loses Sibylla. He couldn't even stand next to actors like Mel Gibson (hardly a giant) or Russell Crowe, who would blow him off the set with a mere whisper. Bloom in this film's lead is a casting mistake that may well doom the film, and Scott should know better. Even if it means box office returns, it's absurd to ruin a film in order to cater to the pre-pubescent girls who worship this would-be Hollywood hero.
Neeson, as always, is superb, but we see too little of him. Now there's a real Balian, and who cares if he's "old." Neeson is rugged, he's got presence and the man could act his way out of a dungeon. Then again, no one's hanging his posters on their bedroom walls now, are they? Irons' role seems superfluous, although he handles it well, and Green does a passable, though unremarkable, job with her part, which consists mostly of lusting after Balian through mascara-smeared eyes, then seducing him. There is little chemistry between the couple, however, which ruins this "David and Bathsheba" style storyline.
The most compelling performance of the group comes from the uncredited Norton, who moves us with his compassion, his leadership and his love for his sister. That he remains behind his mask for the entire film only heightens the moment when it is finally stripped off. We feel great pity, yet great admiration, for King Baldwin.
The message of the film is, firstly, that religious authority of any sort is bad. Not only are we treated to the usual stereotype of evil priests, but the one religious man who isn't - the Hospitalier - states, "I put no stock in religion. Under religion, every denomination calls itself the will of God." Unfortunately, "denominations" didn't exist back then (and various religions weren't called that). Moreover, it's highly unlikely that a monk would utter such heresy.
The second part of the film's message is that war is wrong, and that we should all give peace a chance. Godfrey says that he is fighting for "a better world - a land of conscience, where Muslims and Christians get along." What a lovely thought. Let's all join hands and sing a few rounds of "We Are the World."
Ridiculous, too, is the assertion that one of the great warriors in Muslim history (at least since he's been revived, in recent years, and portrayed as such) was really a pacifist. "They try to be one," says one character, describing the Muslims. "One heart, one morality." Yes, with one big shout of "Jihad! Death to all the infidels!"
Of course, this two-dimensional portrayal of Muslims is intended to keep them happy, while the somewhat positive portrayal of Christians is intended to keep us happy - and all of us away from any demonstrations in front of movie theatres. Everyone, that is, except acclaimed author and historian James Reston, Jr., who has publicly accused Scott of lifting material straight from his book, after he optioned it in 2001, rejected it, then made a movie with the exact same plot and characters.
On the other hand, it is nice to see Christians - at least some of them - portrayed as good people. But clearly, for Scott and screenwriter Bill Monahan, whose dialogue sounds like the victim of one too many self-empowerment conferences, "good" Christians must necessarily be pacifists. If Scott wants our admiration - as well as filmmaking that accurately reflects history - perhaps he should portray Christians as both warriors and righteous. Has he heard of the Just War Theory?
Moreover, while religion and the current war in Iraq (though indirectly) are lambasted fairly soundly ("First, I thought we were fighting for God, then I realized we were fighting for wealth and land"), the film does espouse a certain righteousness, in the form of the knight's oath. A young man receiving his oath of knighthood hears the words, "Be without fear in the face of your enemy; be upright; speak the truth, even if it leads to your death; safeguard the helpless - this is your solemn oath." This, of course, is the Gospel - only the film makes us believe that it can stand alone without the Gospel. The only problem is, how is a man to be "upright" when no one and nothing - save his wounded, sinful conscience - tells him what that means? Without a frame of reference, without an authority that is higher and far more righteous than himself, what can man rely on as truth?
Because of Kingdom of Heaven's many weaknesses, it fails at being the epic that it could have been. Still, with its phenomenal sets, scenery and costumes, courtesy of the Oscar-nominated Arthur Max (Gladiator, Black Hawk Down), not to mention a worthy attempt at storytelling, however biased, it is a visual extravaganza that deserves viewing - along with much discussion afterwards.
- Drugs/Alcohol Content: Various scenes where characters drink wine.
- Language/Profanity: None.
- Sexual Content/Nudity: Married woman approaches single man in his tent at night and makes suggestive comments; very brief love scene with nudity but nothing apparent.
- Violence: Extreme wartime violence throughout film, particularly stabbings, throat-slitting and beheadings.
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