Why is there a movie about the Crusades in 2005? Is British-born, American-employed Ridley Scott trying to say something about the current Western involvement in the Middle East? These questions alone would get an avid moviegoer like me into the theater.
Those of us wanting to read something of the modern Middle East schisms into Kingdom of Heaven will be able to find some good advice (“proceed with caution”) but no overt political commentary. Kingdom of Heaven is less a political parable than a 1,000-year followup to Scott’s popular Gladiator.
Building a Head of Steam
The movie’s title refers to the city of Jerusalem. Set 100 years after Jerusalem first fell to European Christians in the first Crusade, the film follows Balian (Orlando Bloom), a blacksmith who has lost his wife and child. Since his wife was a suicide, he also faces scorn from his Christian neighbors for whom suicide is a shameful sin.
But rather too quickly, a knight, Baron Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), shows up claiming to be his father. He offers to take Balian to Jerusalem with him, where perhaps God will speak to him and allow him to save his wife’s soul. Take it now or leave it forever, Godfrey says, and Balian burns his bridges to join his father.
It takes an hour of screen time before the conflict is introduced. This hour is spent traveling, arriving, and settling in to Jerusalem. In a port city Balian meets Guy de Lusignan (Martin Csokas), also a knight, but with enough cold ambition and contempt for our hero to make him the movie’s villain. After a shipwreck, Balian spares a Muslim servant whose master he killed in self-defense. And in Jerusalem, he meets up with more of his father’s men and settles on his father’s lands, meeting the film’s only female character, Sibylla (Eva Green), sister of King Baldwin (Edward Norton), a leper who wears silver masks rather than reveal his face. Jeremy Irons resurrects his Scar voice from The Lion King as Balian’s new mentor Tiberias.
There are escalating levels of diplomacy and war among the factions of Christian knights of Jerusalem, and between the Christians and circling Muslims. The political story boils down to the problem of hotheaded Guy, married to Sibylla and heir apparent, possibly doing something rash and losing the city after the sick king dies.
Like most episodic movies, Kingdom of Heaven is somewhat unsatisfying in its lack of conciseness. Orlando Bloom is photogenic, and traveling with Liam Neeson is one of the movie’s best pleasures. But it’s sometimes hard to see where it’s all going.
But for sheer spectacle, Kingdom of Heaven is impressive. Either computer-generated animation is getting much better, or Scott really hired a lot of extras, costumers, and horses to act out their big battles. Probably both are true. In any case, the aerial shots of armies massing, cavalries clashing, and cities under siege are thrilling. Even down in the ranks, as in the otherwise forgettable Timeline, Kingdom of Heaven conveys the sheer weight of medieval weaponry and the amazing physical prowess required to wield it.
Production and costume design add to the movie’s visual appeal. The factions in Jerusalem all have their own team colors and logos. The bullies in the film have a blood-red cross on a field of white, while Balian and Godfrey wear a mottled coat, split down the middle, a compromise between maroon and white. And like the weaponry, the armor looks uncomfortably authentic.
Kingdom of Heaven also features a wonderful score by Harry Gregson-Williams. Instead of a simple orchestral score, Williams includes both period and regional instruments, as my musician in the family said Lord of the Rings should have done (wouldn’t that have been something?) The music is certainly not dated or quaint; it is big and heavy enough when need be, and the flavor of medieval Middle East adds to the traditional orchestral score.
A Moral to the Story
Kingdom of Heaven doesn’t seem destined to be one of the greats of film history (then again, I am one of the few who didn’t care for Gladiator, so what do I know?), but it makes for a pretty good summer action-adventure movie, if nothing else.
Returning to the question of “why now?”, I have to admit that the movie isn’t entirely free from modern political commentary (spoilers ahead). There is something of a message in the film’s ending. It’s a call for sanity, rationality, and compromise. Orlando Bloom is cheered by a crowd as he does what Jim Bowie, Davey Crockett, and William Travis never considered. I hate to admit that it weakens the ending somewhat not to have a gloating, total victory over “evil,” and the cheering crowds seems somehow inappropriate for a compromise instead of a victory.
Nevertheless, the ending of relative peace is one I’d like to see more often in popular culture, even if it’s not as viscerally satisfying — particularly in a movie such as Kingdom of Heaven where the subject matter — the Crusades — is not so far removed as it used to seem.