The year is 1186, and Balian (Orlando Bloom), a simple blacksmith, grieves for his recently departed wife. His already fragile state is dealt another blow when he learns that Godfrey (Liam Neeson) a knight recently returned from the Crusades is his father. With nothing but sorrow to bind him to his home Balian agrees to accompany the knights to the Holy Land and takes an oath to defend the helpless. Soon after he finds himself the lord of a desert bound manor, He also discovers that in spite of the dogmatic rhetoric of the Church, Christians and Muslims in Jerusalem live side by side and enjoy a tenuous peace. There are those however, notably the fanatical Knights Templar, who are opposed to this imposed abomination and seek to cleanse the infidels from their presence.
Giving em attitude - the Crusader poster boys.
Without launching into a drawn out philosophical debate, it’s difficult to look at the Crusades, which spanned centuries, and not be struck by how little things have changed. Ridley Scott, no stranger to epic films, made clear it from the outset that while Kingdom of Heaven takes place during the Third Crusade (there were a total of eight), he intended it to be an action film rather than an historical exercise. Indeed other than the place names, Balian and Saladin, the bulk of the story is fictionalized, which allows for more leeway with the characters.
If Orlando Bloom isn’t careful, he’s going to become a slave to the sword set: first the Lord of the Rings trilogy, then Pirates of the Caribbean (and it’s sequel) and now this. With Balian, however, Bloom takes his first real steps beyond the teenybopper set: gone are the pithy witticisms, pretty boy good looks, wimpy weapons and wispy frame. Bloom gained 15 pounds for the role, grew a decidedly scruffy beard, appears to be a lot rougher around the edges and wields a truly kickass broadsword. While he lacks the gravity of Russel Crowe’s Maximus he succeeds in keeping the story moving forward. He’s also backed up by a solid supporting cast.
Much like Bloom, Liam Neeson seems to have resuscitated a niche role as the wise mentor of the piece: Godfrey a pious man and a realist, he is as riddled with faults as he is honor. My only complaint about Godfrey is that we don’t get to see enough of him. Brendan Gleeson plays the war mongering leader Reynald who gleefully goes about his business, sowing the seeds of chaos (wait, the pattern appears to be repeating itself yet again, but at least in Troy he’d been slighted). Gleeson looks and acts like a latter day Manson as he skips over bloody corpses, while muttering “I am what I am. Someone has to be”.
Jeremy Irons also stands out as Tiberias, the man charged with trying to keep the peace in spite of daunting odds, bringing a disconnected quiet to the role. Few can match Irons’ ability to play 'drawn' the way he can. And finally there is Ghassan Massoud, who plays Saladin, the charismatic leader of the Saracens. Massoud projects a regal bearing and remains remarkably even-tempered throughout which makes him all the more menacing, as you’re not quite sure what to expect of him. But Massoud also makes it clear that Saladin is a reasonable man who is amenable to non-violent solutions rather than just a simplistic zealot.
After having been deluged with massive CGI battles in the Lord of the Rings, Troy, and Alexander, it was refreshing to see well some choreographed fight sequences that pulled in many different elements, and were enhanced by the up close and personal quality of the cinematography. More importantly, the aftermath of the campaigns was anything but sanitized (they might have opted for a few less vultures though). The set designs, both real and computer generated were carefully crafted so as not to overwhelm the story, and the score matched the onscreen action well. So you’re probably thinking, “With all this going for it, Kingdom of Heaven is surely bound for blockbuster status”. Time to take a step back.
While Kingdom fares better than its contemporaries, that isn’t exactly a major achievement. It’s not that it’s a bad movie, rather it comes down to the simple fact that it’s like watching the summer repeats: Scott chose to recycle almost every major thematic element from Gladiator, changing some names, locations and set dressings along the way. Am I exaggerating? Judge for yourself: battles that feature flaming catapult loads and dramatic showdowns in wintry woods; lead characters that fall in love with royalty; mentors who die early on in the film; slow motion sequences with showers of blood; rousing speeches moments before battle, and…need I go on?
If Scott had jettisoned the obviously tacked on romantic subplot, devoted more attention to the complex relationship between Saladin and Balian, and cut out some of the superfluous exposition, this would have been an eminently more interesting and enjoyable film. As it is, Kingdom of Heaven is an entertaining diversion that requires little thought and in the ending analysis is largely forgettable.