Kingdom of Heaven

May, 2005, Drama

Directed by:Ridley Scott

Starring:Orlando Bloom, Eva Green, Jeremy Irons, David Thewlis, Edward Norton, Marton Csokas, Liam Neeson, and Ghassan Massoud

Poor Ridley Scott; after the lackluster showings of Troy and Alexander earlier this year, Scott's historical survey of the Crusades greets bleary-eyed fans of the “epic” genre at the outset of this year's big summer schedule, thus bearing the weight of great expectations. Not cheesy enough to score as La Grande Fromage, nor sufficiently unaccomplished to be simply ignored, Kingdom goes down like a heavy meal resting uncomfortably on the cinematic stomach, its 145 minute running time providing too much bulk and not nearly enough taste. The director of such first-rate movies as Blade Runner, Alien and Thelma & Louise can be forgiven much…but not this much.

A good portion of the blame can be laid at the word processor of first time screenwriter William Monahan, former editor of Spy Magazine, who reportedly got this assignment after selling his idea for an as yet unfinished film called "Tripoli" which Scott is also scheduled to direct. Monahan's meandering screenplay tries to make sense of the late years of the 12 century, during the interregnum between the First and Second Crusades, when Jerusalem was a tiny Christian city-kingdom surrounded by the Saracen warriors of Islam's Saladin. Scott and Monahan manage, with the considerable help of the truly impressive technical accomplishments of the art directors, set designers and cinematographers involved, to provide a textbook case of cinematic schizophrenia, presenting a consistently evocative atmosphere undermined at every turn by dialogue that ranges from the pompously dull to the wondrously silly. (Sample: Saladin's army commander to his King during the initial bombardment of the city: "Why do they not reply? Saladin: "They wait".)

The storyline follows the adventures of Balian, (Orlando Bloom) bastard son of Baron Godfrey, (Liam Neeson) who gets swept away from his role as a blacksmith in a small town in the south of France to join his father's knights in defending the Christian king of Jerusalem. In short order, Balian gets shipwrecked, fights one of Saladin's chief lieutenants, meets Tiberias, (Jeremy Irons) the king's right hand man and beds the King's married sister Sibylla. The Baron having gone to his eternal reward in an scene worthy of The Hallmark Hall of Fame, Balian inherits the title, converts his father's arid lands outside the city into a blooming oasis and then gets tapped to defend Jerusalem when Sibylla's wicked husband commits the Kingdom's entire compliment of knights to a horrifically bloodily desert battle with Saladin's forces. This makes it necessary for Balian, (mysteriously possessed of military training and logistical prowess unknown to most 12th century blacksmiths) to rouse the civilian citizenry by knighting all of Jerusalem's male noncombatants. He does this in a ceremony that features a variation of Rodney King's famous entreaty, ("Why can't we all just get along"?) packaged here in a sonorous declaration which suggests that religious wars are pretty stupid because of all the harm they do. This curiously Unitarian peroration inspires Balian’s army of the unwashed to participate in a blood-bath which culminates in the loss of the city to Saladin, safe passage for its Christian defenders and Sibylla's renunciation of her royal status so she can accompany the now enlightened Balian back to France where he tells England's King Richard the Lionhearted that fighting over Middle East real estate is no longer part of a sensible game-plan. 

What was Scott thinking when he took over the helm of this project? Fresh from his highly successful examination of the Roman Empire, (Gladiator) did the director think he could make commercial lighting strike twice? If so, he'd need the magnetism of a leading man like Russell Crowe and not the handsome but oddly subdued Bloom, whose pretty face consistently fails to register the emotions his character requires. Simply put, Bloom's Balian lacks the charisma to be even the least bit credible and as a result, the absurdities of the storyline are painfully magnified. The rest of the cast, unremarkable in everything but their often-impressive resumes, can't overcome Kingdom's meandering plot and clumsy dialogue. 

Is the current geo-religious climate the real culprit behind this bloated failure? At a time when the western world struggles to understand Islam and its role in the events that occupy so much of today's political headlines, Kingdom's uneasy treatment of the religious motivations that lay behind the Crusades makes the events it depicts suspiciously simplistic and its call for religious pluralism sound hopelessly out of place as a postmodern solution awkwardly superimposed on this late medieval era. Historians have clearly established that the barbarism of the Crusades can be attributed primarily to its Christian combatants and that the response of Islam was remarkably civilized, even by today's standards. Kingdom could have been far more honest--and every bit as excitingly gore-filled--if the Christian fanaticism which fueled these events were displayed with more candor. (Since box-office revenues depend so heavily on nominally Christian moviegoers however, this may be asking too much). 

With its visual good looks and the grandeur of its climatic battle siege, Kingdom isn't as bad as it might have been--but coming as it does from a director whose credits contain so many fine examples of his craft, this movie should have at least been worth the time and ticket price. Unfortunately, it isn't, and that's a real shame.         


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