Orlando Bloom and David Thewlis in 20th Century Fox's Kingdom of Heaven - 2005
Photo Copyright 20th Century F
At first glance, it would seem audacious to make a movie about the Crusades, considering the world we currently find ourselves in. Couple the conflict in Iraq with the fact that seemingly every other able-bodied Muslim in the middle east seems to be waging jihad against a horde of infidels, and a film about Europe's invasion of the Holy Lands is either incredibly timely, or in very poor taste. I tend to take the view of the former. With new master-of-the-period-epic Ridley Scott at its helm, Kingdom of Heaven stays the narrow course between being disdainful of and pandering to the Islamic religion and its history, with just a few little bumps here and there.
At the center of the story is Balian, a young blacksmith who, while grieving the loss of his wife in 12th-century France, is approached by Godfrey of Ibelin, a lord in the new kingdom of Jerusalem. Godfrey breaks the shocking news that he is, in fact, Balian's father, and requests that our hero accompany him back to the East and take up responsibilities there. It is a new and better world there he promises, a city that lies at the center of many faiths, and one that welcomes all equally. It is a fragile peace that has been forged by the King Baldwin of Jerusalem and the Saladin, the Muslim King, and, for the moment, it seems as though the fabled Kingdom of Heaven could be upon us. However, human nature being what it is, blood-thirsty knights, Templars, to be exact, hunger to start a war and wipe out the Muslims once and for all. Balian follows his father back to Jerusalem where he is conferred to be knight and told to serve the benevolent king, protecting those who cannot protect themselves. However, when the death of the ailing king puts a war-monger on the throne, death and destruction are all but assured, and it is up to young Balian to defend the holy city from certain annihilation.
Kingdom of Heaven is a rousing epic adventure in the style of Braveheart, and even more so, Gladiator. Ridley Scott, having cut his period-piece teeth on the Roman era drama, has created a worthy successor set nearly a thousand years later. Scott's ability to stage elaborate set pieces, specifically epic battles, is second to none, and unlike depressing films like Troy, he has the writing and story to back it up. His telling of the Crusades is masterful because he is able to combine the grand scale such an event requires, with an intimate point of view, specifically that of a blacksmith who becomes a pivotal player, almost against his will. Not only does Scott work with a superb script here, he works with top-notch actors, not a one of whom is slumming. Orlando Bloom, excellent in his first starring role, proves that he is more than up to the task at hand. Also excellent in supporting roles are Liam Neeson, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, and Jeremy Irons. The movie is light on female roles, but newcomer Eva Green is radiant as the king's sister and queen to be. At two and a half hours, the film may seem long to some, but I was completely caught up in the story and didn't mind the length at all.
On the other hand, a film that treads a fine line such as this, is bound to make some missteps, although to be fair, I'm not sure how I would have done it differently. In order to paint a balanced picture, Scott portrays the villains in the film as the Crusaders, a fair idea considering it was Europeans bent on expanding their lands and power, under the guise of liberating the Holy Lands from the infidels that fueled the Crusades. However, Scott, by denigrating the acts of his forefathers, fails to accurately portray the Islamic population, all of whom are shown as either benign or benevolent. The brief shots of saber-rattling Muslims are not enough to draw away from the fact that Scott obviously intends the film to be a mea culpa for the Crusades themselves. While I'm sure that the majority of the Islamic people of the time were peace-loving and open, there is no denying that the Muslims had been conducting their own territorial expansion for hundreds of years, often wiping out whole groups of people who disagreed with their world-view. This statement is not meant to take sides on the issue, but to show that there are always two sides to every story and rarely is one side blameless.
Ridley Scott has taken on a difficult task in filming one of the most contentious historical conflicts between Christians and Muslims, but has succeeded admirably. Kingdom of Heaven is exciting and entertaining, thought-provoking and stirring. And if it is a little slanted, well, so be it. It at least offers an attractive ideal. Grade: A-
Kingdom of Heaven is rated R for intense violence and adult themes.
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