What this historical epic on the crusades has going for it is a bunch of lush visuals, and, at its heart, a complex and intriguing story. What it doesn’t have going for it—and in a big way—is its insistence on making every single “good” character in the film a good, modern person.
Seriously, what is up with all these agnostic, secular humanist crusaders? I don’t mean to belabor the point but the crusades were, well, the crusades. An epic religious struggle characterized by intolerance, or, at beast, grudging acceptance. Yet this movie would have us believe that not one, not, two, but every single one of the protagonist’s friends and allies share a very modern worldview centered around tolerance, peace, and co-existence. The King of Jerusalem exhorts Balian, our protagonist, to defend the Jews and the Muslims “not only because it is expedient, but because it is right.” Balian, in a later scene, throws a stone at a bush, sparking a fire. “There’s your burning bush,” he proclaims. But perhaps the best moment of all is when the Knight Hospitalier (yes, that’s right, a knight who is also a priest) tells Balian “I put no stock in religion.”
Does Ridley Scott (or whoever wrote this thing) expect us not to roll our eyes at that? A monk of a military order saying he puts no stock in religion is sort of like Bill Gates saying he puts no stock in computer science.
Just as in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, in which the Roman Senate decided to restore the Roman Republic (don’t even get me started), the lack of fidelity to the mindsets of ancient and medieval people comes across as a slap in the face, and worse, a sign that the screenwriters lack faith in their ability to craft a compelling protagonist. Rather than develop a truly believable, interesting, and medieval protagonist, they simply take Orlando Bloom, twenty-first century values intact, and slap him into the crusades. It’s as if they think the audience can’t relate to a character that isn’t exactly like them, and that in itself is insulting. A lot of people have criticized Orlando Bloom’s acting in this film. To which I rejoin: it’s not Orlando Bloom’s fault, it’s the fact that his character is so blandly perfect it’s frustrating. How did a bastard blacksmith become a master of siege warfare? How come he is a better sword-fighter than the king of Jerusalem, Guy de Lusignan (who was trained in sword-fighting since he was a boy)?
Or better than the entire Muslim army, apparently?
Where did he learn to read? To play chess? To build wells and complex irrigation systems? To command armies? To excel at, seemingly, every single thing there is to excel at? And then there’s the fact that his character is supposed to me a man filled with guilt over a sin he committed, looking for redemption in the holy land What does he do upon arrival? Start an adulterous liaison with Eva Green, aka Sibylla the princess of Jerualem. Ah, but her husband is an evil bastard, and they were in love, so it’s all right. After all, sex outside of marriage isn’t really a sin, right? Well, that’s the modern ideal, but again, Balian is a medieval crusader obsessed with being “the perfect knight.” So it’s rather odd that he never does he show any sign of guilt or remorse about this affair.
Honestly, I’d go so far as to argue that Orlando Bloom’s subdued, earnest performance is the only thing that partially redeems this complete Mary Sue of a character.
The thing is, the story of this film is pretty good. Were it free of its corny dialogue, and its insistence on bashing the audience over the skull with its values, it could have been a great film. As it is, it’s not really a bad one, no worse than Gladiator, when you get down to it. They share entirely the same faults—however, they also share the same strengths.
The sets are lavish, and the large cast of characters, combined with a story of political intrigue that has the scope and feel of a Shakespearean tragedy, make for a film that has enough going on that you are able to suspend your disbelief and ignore its shortcomings. It could have been the next Lord of the Rings, if it had only had more faith in itself—instead, it’s a passable historical epic.
The film’s highlights are the peripheral characters, the ones with the most complexity. Liam Neeson does a good job with the limited material he has to work with, portraying a tough as nails baron. Brendan Gleeson is gleefully fun as the villainous and psychopathic Reynald de Chatillon. Perhaps best of all are Ghassan Massoud, who plays Saladin, albeit only in a disappointingly tiny handful of scenes, and Edward Norton as the leper king of Jerusalem, who somehow manages to turn about half an hour of screen-time hidden behind a mask into the most memorable role in the film. Most of the other characters are either one-note good, or one-note evil, and rather forgettable.
The battle scenes are well-staged, though this isn’t really an epic war movie, per se. It’s more of a political drama, focusing on the forces that impel two great nations (and religions) to war.
The Director’s Cut:
The Director’s Cut is a lot better than the previous version. It adds a lot of character development to Eva Green’s Sibylla, Liam Neeson’s Godfrey de Ibelin, and even Martin Csokas’ Guy de Lusignan, the main villain of the film. In one scene, we see him slashing his swords angrily around an empty corridor , giving us the impression of a man whose entire life has been built around warfare and violence, a mad dog chafing for action because it’s what he knows and understands. “Give me a war,” he pleads to Reynald in a later scene.
The final, added climactic scene between Balian and Guy is also powerful and filled with meaning, though it´s fair to argue the film doesn’t really earn it.
The director’s cut tries to portray the film as one of those old, 1960s epics in the same vein as ben Hur and Spartacus, complete with Overture and Intermission. A truly pretentious move on Ridley Scott’s part, but nothing that can’t be fixed with the judicious use of a fast-forward button. Seriously, an intermission in a movie that’s only designed for DVD release?
97 seconds of your life wasted unless you really like this music…
On the whole, the Director’s Cut is a sign of what happens when a meddling studio decides to make an action-adventure movie out of a drama by cutting an hour of screen time. Doubtless they wee shocked to discover the oh-so-not-surprising revelation that you can’t just cut an hour out of a movie and expect the movie to be of the same quality.
On the whole, Kingdom of Heaven is decent. It’s brought down by its constant references to ideology that is just plain unbelievable, but is brought up by its compelling story and well-staged scenes.