Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by William Monahan
There are some minor spoilers ahead, but this story is based on historical events of almost a thousand years ago, so you’ve had plenty of time to learn the story even though the events probably aren’t completely factually accurate.
Kingdom of Heaven is a Swords and Sandals epic set between the second and third Crusades when King Baldwin IV opened the holy city of Jerusalem to all religions. This didn’t sit well with Christians Guy de Lusigan and Reynald De Chatillon, members of the Knights Templar, because of their hatred of the Muslims. They craved an all-out war, fully confident that they would win since they fought for God, but they bided their time because Baldwin suffered from leprosy and didn’t have long to live. Guy was next in line to be the King since he was married to Baldwin’s sister, Sibylla, who would be named Queen upon Baldwin’s death. The first chance he got Guy declared war on the Muslims. With the armies gone, Jerusalem was left seemingly unprotected. Stepping into that breach was Balian of Ibelin, a French blacksmith, who rallied the citizens together to fight for their lives.
Balian had followed his father, the widely known knight Godfrey, to Jerusalem for two reasons: he ran afoul of the authorities of his village, and he wanted to earn salvation for he and his family. Godfrey, played by Liam Neeson, who is cornering the market of portraying wise, father figures who don’t make it out of the first act, was the catalyst for his son’s/the hero’s journey. He passed on his title as Baron and bequeathed his land to Balian, who couldn’t help becoming embroiled in the political wrangling upon his arrival in Jerusalem.
Kingdom of Heaven is a good action adventure film with spectacular battle sequences. I couldn’t get enough of the catapults’ flaming projectiles and the assault on Jerusalem’s walls. It looked so realistic you might duck for cover. The film also had great cinematography, a trademark of a Ridley Scott film. You can tell it is his film as soon as it starts as snowflakes flitter through the sky during the opening frames. The sets and backgrounds looked marvelous, especially Jerusalem, and are sure to get some notice during the awards season if people can remember this far back.
Unfortunately, the film did have negative aspects. The camera work got too frenetic during some shots of the fight scenes, making it difficult to clearly see what is taking place. It creates the sense that the crew is trying to cover up the fact that they don’t have all the action to show you that they alluded to. The CGI for the large battle scenes looked good, but during small, up-close moments they became distracting. During an ambush in a French forest, so many arrows were flying around amongst the men that the limits of credulity were surpassed. The scene became absolutely unbelievable and lost all its suspense. During the battle over Jerusalem, there is a large skirmish that leaves hundreds dead. The buzzards circled the corpses and gathered for the feast, yet they never landed. Instead, they just hovered around, calling attention to themselves in the background. One close-up of a couple of birds tugging at a corpse would have made the illusion work.
The film’s main problem is our hero, Balian. He becomes all knowing and all-powerful without any explanation. He’s a blacksmith who doesn’t appear to have much fight training, yet he becomes an amazing war tactician. He previously lived in a forest, yet he knew the ways of the desert better than the men that had been serving there for months, if not years. He is amazingly smart and perceptive about God and religion for a simple craftsman. The viewer is left feeling that a large collection of deleted scenes is going to appear on the DVD that highlight back-story and characterization, which were cut to streamline the action. While I thought the character was poorly written, Orlando Bloom handled the role well, creating one of his better performances. I have not been impressed with any of his previous work, but to be fair, I’m not a teenage girl.
Kingdom of Heaven is a big movie and its action is worth seeing on the big screen. It has more positives than minuses and had the potential to be very good. I recommend it to those who enjoy these types of epics. In comparison to similar films of the genre, I would rate it better than Troy and Scott’s own Gladiator, but not as good as Braveheart.
The film as a whole is elevated by its underlying theme about religion and war that will be forever timely. The closing credits point out the volatility that still exists in Jerusalem almost a thousand years later. It is lesson that mankind seems incapable of learning as long as people fail to realize that the Kingdom of Heaven isn’t a location without but a state of being within. To paraphrase Paul Simon, “Where have you gone, Joseph Campbell/A world turns its lonely eyes to you (Woo, woo, woo)”