“Kingdom of Heaven” navigates through the minefield of the Crusades and, by extension, the contentious background of Christian-Muslim relations in ways both shrewd and calculated. Genuinely spectacular and historically quite respectable, Ridley Scott’s latest epic is at its strongest in conveying the savagery spawned by fanaticism, as well as in creating a convincing view of a late 12th century when East and West co-existed, then came to blows for neither the first nor last time. Dramatically, however, there is a vaguely programmatic feel to the drastic upward mobility of a simple French blacksmith to the ruling echelon of the Latin Kingdom. Domestic B.O. prospects look robust if not gladiatorial, while the international campaign will, in line with the new wave of ancient spectacles, net significantly more spoils.
The notion of basing a $140 million Hollywood production on the most calamitous episode in the joint history of the world’s most dominant religions — and at a time like this, no less — would run the gamut from unlikely to sheerest folly in the minds of cautious industry execs.
But Scott and screenwriter William Monahan have craftily solved most of the thorny problems by beginning their tale toward the end of the nearly century-long truce that followed the Crusaders’ bloody conquest of Jerusalem in 1099; correctly pinning the lion’s share of the blame for reigniting hostilities on a couple of rash Christian belligerents; making the Muslims look good in comparison by more thoroughly detailing Frankish deviltry and, perhaps most importantly, bestowing the most sympathetic characters with an anachronistic post-French Enlightenment humanistic attitude that, while not denying God, at least suggests a desire on their part to take an extended vacation from doing His fighting.
In this respect, pic may irritate traditionalist Christians more than it will Muslims, who can delight not only in the ending, but in the hugely noble, if one-dimensional, portrait of the legendary warrior Saladin, strikingly impersonated by Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud.
But once all the intricate historical needle-threading is said and done, it’s the story that counts. First-time scribe Monahan has done quite an adroit job merging fact with fiction, shifting and adjusting certain elements to streamline and augment the drama but never betraying the subject matter in a way that remotely recalls the Hollywood approach epitomized by Cecil B. DeMille’s laughably inauthentic 1935 epic “The Crusades.”
There really was a Balian who led the doomed defense of Jerusalem in 1187, but he was not the ordinary bloke vaulted to lofty rank played here by Orlando Bloom. Brooding over his wife’s suicide after the death of their son, this Balian is shaken from sullenness by the arrival in rural France of imposing knight Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), who informs the youth he’s his father and beckons him eastward.
On the way, Godfrey gives Balian fighting lessons before an ambush truncates the blooming father-son bond. But in his limited appearance, Neeson excels, his voice carrying the authority of experience and the lines around his eyes suggesting that nothing in life is any longer foreign to him.
On his own, Balian makes his way to bustling Jerusalem, where he quickly assumes control of his esteemed father’s estate and sizes up the fractious factions that control the world’s most bitterly contested religious site.
Ruled by a wise Christian king, frail leper Baldwin IV (beautifully voiced by Edward Norton from behind a sculpted silver mask), the domain is further dominated by Baldwin’s comely sister, Princess Sibylla (Eva Green); her snaky husband Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), and the latter’s warmongering cohort, Reynald of Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson).
Balian finds more natural allies in Tiberias (Jeremy Irons), a peace-minded and pragmatic military expert, and the Hospitaler (David Thewlis), a court counselor who has also seen enough fighting for one lifetime.
With all these colorful and intriguing characters circling around, the one in the center, Balian, looks bland by comparison. He seems uncomfortably like a reactor instead of an instigator, a consciously concocted Everyman designed for audience identification who has greatness thrust upon him.
Given that Balian is a cipher needing to be filled, a bigger personality than Bloom’s would have helped. Upon arrival in Jerusalem, Balian heads straight for Calvary and spends the night meditating at the site of Christ’s crucifixion, hoping but failing to feel God’s grace. One never senses any urgency or anguish to Balian’s spiritual dilemma in Bloom’s performance, nor even the more easily expressed ambivalence in his relationship with the enticing Sibylla, who gives herself to him like a present, and later schemes to install him in Guy’s place.
Narrative contains significant gaps, notably in the romance, Balian’s adoption of his new home and especially in his rapid assimilation of military savvy. (Indeed, Scott is on record as saying his definitive cut of the film runs 220 minutes, a version he claims will be released on DVD.) Suddenly, after Reynald has outrageously provoked Saladin by attacking a Saracen caravan for no reason, it is Balian who warns in vain against Reynald and Guy’s ludicrous decision to take on Saladin’s army at the broiling Horns of Hattin, a miscalculation that made Jerusalem’s fall inevitable.
Scott strikingly shows not the massacre that was Hattin (ironically the same location where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount), but only its grisly aftermath, so as to save the big action for Saladin’s siege on Jerusalem. Although much may be made of would-be contemporary parallels, the filmmakers have actually gone out of their way to avoid them. The only scene that yanks the viewer into a modern mindset is Saladin’s opening salvo, in which his fireballs lofted into the night sky above the walled city eerily evoke the initial U.S. nocturnal airborne attack on Baghdad.
The sights and sounds of the battle are staggering, with the enormous Saracen force bearing down on the Christian-held enclave with the help of enormous siege towers and trebuchets (giant catapults), and the vastly outnumbered Europeans holding their own with ingenious defenses that prominently include large amounts of boiling oil.
Despite the huge scale and vivid carnage, the sequence is a bit deflated by Balian’s quasi-Shakespearean speech that’s meant to be inspiring, but isn’t. Resolution is essentially true to history.
Among the cast, vets Neeson, Irons and Thewlis come off best, along with Massoud. Green makes for a fetching princess, although the role could have been a much more complex one, torn as she is among her sovereign brother, usurper husband and appealing new lover; as it is, Green plays up her coquettish side and is allowed to smile too much.
Scott is content with one-dimensional villains, and Gleeson and Csokas indulge him with bluster, glares and dismissive put-downs that are both delicious and far too easy.
With John Mathieson behind the camera, pic looks much like “Gladiator,” bathed in blues and densified whenever possible with atmospheric particles such as snowflakes, smoke, dust and shafts of light. Arthur Max’s production design outdoes his efforts on the previous film, conjuring a world, particularly the amazing confluence of influences that was Jerusalem 800 years ago, never before seen nearly so elaborately or credibly onscreen. Janty Yates’ diverse costume designs also contribute importantly.
With CGI work improving all the time, the mix of live and computerized elements creates numerous extraordinary canvases of virtually seamless quality. Harry Gregson-Williams’ score emphasizes the uniformly solemn tone of the proceedings while mixing in such diverse sounds as traditional and liturgical songs, Arabic and world music and, most surprisingly, bits from “The Crow,” “Blade II” and a piece by Jerry Goldsmith called “Valhalla.”