Kingdom of Heaven
2005Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Orlando Bloom, Eva Green, Liam Neeson
young man’s dreams. A sacred quest. The highest of stakes. Epic battles, with the defeated laying slain on the battlefield. And a scandalous sexual relationship that threatens to rip apart the fabric of the community.
No, I’m not talking about the latest season of American Idol, but rather Kingdom of Heaven, Ridley Scott’s latest contribution to the seemingly unending stream of hack-and-slash medieval epics pouring out of Hollywood. As these things go, it’s better than most, closer in quality to Scott’s own Gladiator than the cringe-inducing Troy and King Arthur. Despite its self-consciously grandiose quality and Scott’s admirable efforts to make a plea for religious toleration the thematic centerpiece of the film, Kingdom of Heaven falls short of out-and-out greatness, but it’s well-made and interesting enough to achieve consistent goodness. As summer blockbusters go, that’s not too shabby.
What is this, The Phantom of the Opera?
The story’s central character is Balian (Orlando Bloom), a young French blacksmith so grief-stricken at his wife’s suicide that he impulsively kills a loudmouthed priest convinced her soul is hell-bound. Oops. Luckily, Balian’s long-lost father (Liam Neeson) is in town to recruit his son for the Crusades, and he’s, you know, a powerful knight and all, so Balian has a convenient method of escape from the inevitable angry mob that prefers its theologians to be more or less alive. Prior to his inevitable death, Papa Knight convinces Balian that Jerusalem is a place for a poor young man to make his mark, in contrast to France, whose primary export in this film seems to be clouds of swirling snow.
So on goes Balian to Jerusalem, where he quickly finds himself embroiled in a sort of triangulated political dispute between two groups of Christians who run the city and the Muslim army encamped just outside of it. Thanks to the enlightened leadership of the leprous King Baldwin (Edward Norton, whose face is never actually seen) and Lord Tiberias (Jeremy Irons) on the Christian side and the warrior Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) on the Muslim side, a tenuous peace reigns in Jerusalem, with people of all religions permitted to worship in peace. Until, that is, the Christian Right makes its annoying presence felt.
That’s right– the precursors to today’s conservative evangelicals, the proselytizing and intolerant Knights Templar, are zealous enough to be pissed off at all this accomodationist happy talk and numerous enough to do something about it. After a little bit of conspiring and skullduggery, the knights inflame religious tensions to the point where war rears its ugly head, with only a reluctant Balian able to defend the city against the onrushing tide of Muslim warriors.
It's like Woodstock, only with less mud and more sand.
If this summary sounds oversimplified, that’s because it is. When Scott’s camera isn’t focused on the stunning desert vistas the film will rightfully become known for, the bulk of Kingdom of Heaven consists of a fairly complex sequencing of politicking, back-stabbing, and heated arguments between the two major sects of Jerusalem Christians. In fact, Scott provocatively argues that, in contrast to the current mainstream view of most global trouble arising with those pesky Arabs and Muslims, a workable religious peace was shattered by Christians unable to handle the presence of other faiths on their Holy Land. I’m not as familiar as I should be with the intricacies of medieval history to know if this is at all accurate, but it doesn’t really have to be. A filmmaker is an artist, not an empiricist, and as an interpretation of the Crusades that offers a heartfelt plea for religious tolerance (and at times even ventures toward an outright condemnation of organized religion) Kingdom of Heaven is an admirable piece of work.
But lest you think your eyes will glaze over from an excess of heavy-handed ideology, rest assured that Ridley Scott knows how to fulfill the classic sword-and-shield expectations, and fulfill them he does. Kingdom of Heaven has more than its share of bloody battles, gorgeously filmed wide shots, and Nobility in Action. Balian is played by Orlando Bloom as a preternaturally self-sacrificing young man, concerned only with saving the lives of “the people”– that is, when he’s not cutting someone’s head off with his sword or bedding the wife of one of the leaders of the Knights Templar. Indeed, at one point Balian forsakes his shot at killing his chief rival, becoming king, and marrying the scorchingly hot Eva Green in one fell swoop, all because he’s reluctant to authorize the death of her husband, a decision so unrealistically noble I found myself actually getting angry at the character.
All this is by way of saying that, for whatever its attempted adherence to historical narrative, Kingdom of Heaven is primarily a work of fantasy, and a very traditional one at that. It is located firmly within the canon of large-scale historical epics, and as such doesn’t do a whole lot to surprise us. But it is beautifully shot and sufficiently action-packed to elicit words of praise for Ridley Scott, and is intelligently written enough to separate itself from some of its mediocre-to-awful predecessors. If Hollywood is going to keep making these sorts of films, let us hope they’re all as thoughtful as Kingdom of Heaven.
By: Jay Millikan
Published on: 2005-05-13