Kingdom of Heaven (2005) / War-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for strong violence
Running time: 145 min.
Cast: Orlando Bloom, Ghassan Massoud, Eva Green, Martin Csokas, Edward Norton, Jeremy Irons, Liam Neeson, Alexander Siddig, Brendan Gleeson, David Thewlis
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: William Monahan
Review published May 9, 2005
With the Western world fiddling around in the Middle East, imposing their own version of government on the people there, perhaps it's no coincidence that Kingdom of Heaven would get released right in the middle of the start of the new Iraqi democratic regime. Not that Ridley Scott (Matchstick Men, Hannibal) designed this to be an overtly political film, as he is far more interested in the spectacle of war to spend time driving home points and parallels to the modern world. Like Scott's previous period piece, Gladiator, there is quite a bit of liberal revisionism going on for the sake of strengthening the narrative and making the events larger than life. Historians may scoff, but taken as a pure piece of entertainment, Kingdom of Heaven strikes all the right notes to make this one of the better epics to come out in the post-Lord of the Rings environment.
The setting takes place in the late 12th Century, between the second and third of the Crusades, whereby the Europeans would try to take hold of power in the Middle East, believing it to be the will of God to lay dominion there. The only problem is that the Muslim opposition also believes the same, and with each side fighting with the belief that God has ordained them to be the victor, every man will fight to the bitter death, even against overwhelming odds.
In the middle of all of this is Balian (Orlando Bloom, Pirates of the Caribbean), a blacksmith turned murderer who is traveling to Jerusalem in the belief that he can save his soul and that of his wife (a suicide) from burning in eternal Hell. A good knight known as Godfrey (Liam Neeson, Kinsey) takes in Balian as he travels, making him his own, as a knight and as a son, teaching him the ways of righteousness not necessarily found in religious texts. When he arrives, Balian finds Jerusalem about to become embroiled in a bloody war, as the peace-seeking King Baldwin (Edward Norton, The Italian Job) is dying of leprosy, which would leave the fate of Jerusalem in the hands of the radical Guy de Lusignan (Martin Csokas, The Bourne Supremacy), who has been salivating to exert what he believes is God's will by starting another war with the army of 200,000 Muslims that lie not far outside of the city's walls. Balian and Guy have an immediate rivalry, as Guy's wife Sibylla (Eva Green, The Dreamers), the woman who would be queen once Baldwin is out of the picture, has developed feelings for the fiercely noble young man.
As stated before, it doesn't appear that Scott is as interested in the social commentary, as he depicts both sides as heroes, although the villains of the film, the Templars, are the ones with the most religious zealotry, leading them to believe that the path to Heaven is opened by those who kill the infidels. If anything, Scott sidesteps the Christianity vs. Islam debate entirely, instead choosing to uphold a belief in moderation, where people can cut through the fervor in order to see the reason of the situations, and not let blindly religious or vengeful personal beliefs lead them to brutality. Those that live as good and honest men, protecting the helpless and living with nobility, are the ones who should be rewarded in the afterlife, and not those who follow one religion over another, or who adhere to stringent rules laid down by the religious hypocrites, who would see men killing innocent people in the name of serving their God.
Enough of the commentary -- is the film good? Yes, is my answer. Although Kingdom of Heaven might seem an unwelcome return to the sword fighting epics like Troy, Alexander, and King Arthur, it bests all of those films by being intelligent in the characterizations and by not turning the entire conflict into ridiculously overwrought good vs. evil showdowns that resemble a pro wrestling match more than a real battle between intelligent men with heartfelt beliefs. There is good and bad in every character, and in the final conflict between Christian vs. Muslim, there is no clear side of virtue. The only way to victory is to try to spare the most lives possible.
Kingdom of Heaven isn't a masterpiece, but it is a solid war film that has fantastic battle sequences, beautiful sets and costumes, and stunning cinematography befitting an epic film of this magnitude. It's an often rousing adventure that should definitely please those interested in magnificent battles, while also offering intelligent historical perspective on the war, both of the times depicted as well as those today. However, even without the underlying themes, it is still a compelling work, perhaps only lessened by the fact that it has been released after many who have thirsted for epic battles have been sated by the mega-blockbusters the studios have been releasing every summer and winter season for the last four years.
©2005 Vince Leo