Balian, stoically mourning the suicide of his wife and, learning that he is the bastard son of a Baron, stoically takes his father’s place as a defender of the king of Jerusalem while searching for meaning and forgiveness. But the king is dying, and his successor is a fanatic templar who will start a war with the Muslims, and isn’t the slightest bit stoic. Balian also has an affair with the wife of the templar leader in an amazingly stoic manner. As the Christian forces splinter, Balian must find a stoic way to save the people of Jerusalem from the two hundred thousand troops of Saladin. Now it could be me, but I think Balian might be just a little too stoic.
Ridley Scott closes off this cycle of sword epics with the politically infused Kingdom of Heaven, a morality play on religion and the modern Middle East. Since Scott revitalized the sub-genre in 2000 with Gladiator, it’s only proper that he lays it to rest, and does it with the best of the bunch. After having to suffer through the unending Troy (2004) and the excruciating Alexander (2004), I wasn’t expecting much from a bulked-up pretty boy (that would be Bloom) keeping the riff-raff out of the Holy Land, particularly at 145 minutes.
But this is a thrilling, thoughtful, and beautifully filmed work. With a minimum of speeches, Kingdom of Heaven doesn’t overstay its welcome. Bloom is adequate in the lead, and benefits from a superior supporting cast that supplies the energy for each scene without stealing the movie from Bloom. As this is a Ridley Scott film, it was going to look good, but he exceeds his own normal level of excellence with breathtaking shots of desert vistas and ancient cities.
The pre-battle scenes—with huge armies positioning themselves, horses charging across the desert, siege towers rolling, and archers notching their arrows—take you into the glories and horrors of combat, and the ballista warfare is magnificent, but, much like Gladiator before it, the melee skirmishes lack excitement. They are filled with cheap cinematic tricks I would only expect from film school students. The camera zooms in and out, rocks back and forth, and lingers overlong on legs. Slow motion is used to indicate that what is happening is important, as if Scott doesn’t trust the situation or his actors to make that clear. Worse, after the slow motion, there’s often a fast motion catch-up that makes the whole thing look fake. What works in The Matrix does not work in ancient sand.
But then this isn’t a combat movie. For all the sword swinging, this is really about a man trying to find an ethical basis for life. He can’t accept that his wife is doomed to hell for her suicide, and believes that both God and the Church have turned against him. But, with a Christian background, he has nothing else to cling to. So his physical journey to The Holy Land is a mental one as well. He is given what he needs early on from his father and an oddly agnostic priest. He’s told that all of the spiritual rambling means nothing. It is good deeds that count. Here and now is what matters. But Balian isn’t ready to accept that, not entirely. First, he must see fanatics slaughter each other and the innocent for their God. He must see the corruption of the Church, and the even worse behavior of those who truly believe. He must meet people of different faiths and see that all religions have good and bad adherents, but the best people are those who put little stock into the views of Heaven. Then he can see that morality does not have to be based on a mythical guy in the sky. Perhaps the film’s finest moment is when an enlightened Balian rides past a stone cross. He gazes at it, and then rides on. He has not decided that there is no God, but only that it doesn’t matter.
The Christians and Muslims are painted darkly, as they actually were (notice my clever use of the past tense). The Knight Templars, with their bright red crosses, are the real villains. They believe that killing anyone not of their faith is their greatest duty, and they will destroy civilization to do it. The Muslims get off slightly better, but not much. One fanatic points out to Saladin that men must prepare for battle instead of rushing in and leaving it in Allah’s hands, could get him removed from his position. Even great success is no defense against religious extremists.
While the philosophy is spot on, and the politics relevant (hmmmmm; what could be going on in the Middle East involving Western armies and Muslims now?), the plot could have used some adjustments. Balian, a blacksmith with no stated military experience (perhaps he’d been a knight and Scott didn’t find it worth mentioning) learns his skills far too quickly. Suddenly, not only is he a great swordsman, but the best strategist in the land. Worse, the film wants us to empathize with him, but any connection vanishes during the middle of the picture. Balian could have stopped a war, saved the lives of thousands on both sides, created a peace that would have meant a better life for all, saved his friends, all while getting the girl he loves (I guess he loves her; there’s not much chemistry). All he needs to do is agree to the execution of an evil traitor. I put the word “evil” in there not to be repetitive or juvenile, but to point out that this guy is slime both legally and ethically. But Balian won’t do it. I suppose Scott meant this to show Balian’s developing sense of morality, but it doesn’t. It makes Balian selfish, stupid, and out-of-touch with the situation. No one would act as he does.
Kingdom of Heaven is a marred masterwork. The blemishes are large and unsightly, but if you go in for the philosophy and the spectacle, you’ll find plenty worthwhile to see.