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20th Century Fox

Official Site

Director: Ridley Scott

Producers: Ridley Scott

Written by: William Monahan

Cast: Orlando Bloom, Liam Neeson, Edward Norton, Eva Green, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, David Thewlis


Modern audiences have come to expect a greater realism from the new crop of historical epics that have arisen in Gladiator’s wake. Dirt, dried blood, scars, even split ends, are all part of the new verisimilitude, but despite the cosmetic changes, these new epics are as rigorously formal and thuddingly simple as their Golden Age counterparts. Case in point, director Ridley Scott’s new, heavily fictionalized Crusader epic, Kingdom Of Heaven, is in many ways simply a rehash of his own Gladiator, which was itself a reworking of Anthony Mann’s The Fall Of The Roman Empire. Of course the setting is different, (12th-century Jerusalem) and Ridley has new toys to play with (catapults, siege towers), but the only thing substantially different in this new film is a persistent attitude of cynicism toward organized religion.

Orlando Bloom, who seems stuck in period roles, (LOTR, Troy, Pirates Of The Caribbean) is our hero Balian, a character based on an actual crusader, though as in Gladiator, Scott takes considerable license. We meet Balian, a humble blacksmith, shortly after the deaths of his daughter and wife. His long-absent father, the Lord Godfrey (Neeson) is riding through town on his way back to the Holy Land. Offered a chance to leave, Balian gloomily turns him down. But Balian has a change of heart, after killing a nasty, local priest for claiming that his wife’s suicide has put her in Hell. The killing of the priest, like the suicide of Balian’s wife, barely seem to have any weight over the rest of the film; murder is just a good reason to hit the road.

After a raucous journey, Balian arrives in the Holy Land to find a kingdom divided. The enlightened allies of the King Baldwin, a leper who wears a metal mask (an unrecognizable Norton), seek to achieve a harmonious co-existence with their Muslim neighbors, but are undermined by the murderous Knights Templar and by Guy de Lusignan, a hissable villain married to the King’s sister Sibylla (Green). The lovely proto-feminist Sibylla becomes immediately infatuated with Balian, and the king strikes upon a plan to remarry her to Balian and make him his heir, but Balian turns them down flat, babbling something about how this must be “Kingdom of Conscience.” This is of course nearly exactly the same deal that Russell Crowe rejects in Gladiator. At least in that film Maximus had some conflicting loyalties, but here Balian’s rejection makes no sense at all. He is merely conforming to the modern notion of heroism that suggests that the great leader must never chose (much less desire) power, but only accept it when circumstances force it on him, which is exactly what happens when the new King Guy’s army is routed by the Muslim King Saladin. Nietzsche would be dismayed to see how much contempt modern screenwriters have for the Will To Power.

Bloom’s Balian resembles Crowe’s Maximus in several other ways. He is brave and brutal—at one point he defeats a group of Templars with his bare hands, in a scene that would have been more convincing had Crowe played it—but also noble and enlightened, and aside from the occasional rousing speech, he has almost nothing to say. Dialogue plays so small a role in these new epics, partially because the pace is so maddeningly fast. I know modern audiences don’t have much patience, but at just under two and a half hours, the filmmakers barely have time to develop any of the several characters and we in the audience are never given a chance to really savor any of Ridley Scott’s typically sumptuous visuals.

As I’ve said, what distinguishes Kingdom Of Heaven and invites controversy is the film’s cynical views on organized religion. Those characters claiming religious motivation are either fools or frauds. It would have made more dramatic sense for Balian to at least start out as a believer, but he is always too modern and never seems truly inspired, so his disillusionment comes off as a bit shallow. For good measure, Scott offers a miniaturization of this problem on the Muslim side, but these scenes feel self-conscious and, like everything else Kingdom Of Heaven, are treated in such a cursory manner that we hardly care about the film’s message.

—Edward Rholes

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