Kingdom of Heaven: Ridley Scott’s Historical Epic Starring Orlando Bloom

The coming-of-age that describes Balian, the hero of Ridley Scott’s historical epic “Kingdom of Heaven,” also applies to the actor who plays him, British heartthrob Orlando Bloom.
Grade: C+
Bloom, for the first time in his post “Lord of the Rings” career, plays the lead and but does succeed in carrying the film on his shoulders.

The burning question, Is Bloom a certifiable star who carries a picture on his own, can’t be answered definitively based on his lead here. Bloom is more convincing in the first part, but he remains too bland in the second, a problem exacerbated by being surrounded with colorful secondary characters, played by a skillful and experienced ensemble: Jeremy irons, Edward Norton, Brendan Gleeson. Bloom is particularly weak and unheroic, when he has to deliver an inspirational speech to his men before a fateful battle, with the kind of speech that has become a clich in war epics.

As if in response to his critics that his war saga “Black Hawk Down” lacked individual and distinguishable characters, Ridley Scott takes the route of his 2000 Oscar-winner “Gladiator,” and centers on one heroic figure, and shows all the momentous events from whose POV.

To avoid controversy, since it’s dealing with religious and cultural clashes, timely issue in terms of the longstanding Middle east conflict (and the status of Jerusalem as a City) and the current war in Iraq, “Kingdom of Heaven” takes a rather safe, middle-of the road strategy that goes out of its way to present a balanced view of both Muslims and Christians.

For the sake of authenticity, Scott has cast the Muslim roles with Muslim actors. But the effort to steer clear of controversy results in a film whose religious politics are diffuse and simplistic.

Though the film is long (146 minutes), and its beginning chapters slow, the narrative suffers from major gaps. Scott’s director cut reportedly ran an hour longer; expect the DVD version to compensate for that

“Kingdom of Heaven” is the latest addition to the sand-and-sandals genre, launched by Scott’s “Gladiator” five years ago, but with not much to rave about.

“Troy,” “King Arthur,” and “Alexander” were all artistic and commercial disappointments stateside, though “Troy” performed better internationally. Are we seeing too many historical films? Or are they simply not good enough

Though set in different historical eras and telling different stories “Gladiator” and “Kingdom of Heaven” share several things in common. In both films, the hero has lost his family and faith and needs to come to terms with a new personal and political reality. By now, it’s clear that, as an auteur, Scott favors a particular archetypal hero. It’s usually an ordinary though gifted man, caught up in great events, who through hardship or tragedy emerges as a real hero, like Maximus, the up-from-the-ranks Roman general turned rebel in “Gladiator.”

Ridley views the knights as a combo of cowboys and cops, officers on the leading edge of culture, which enables him to tell a noble story about a hero committed to his vision of fairness, loyalty, and chivalry. The film’s young knight stands for an ideal, and the period that most illuminates that ideal would be the Crusades. Imposing a Western genre format on the proceedings
is reinforced by the importance attached to a solitary hero, who’s as much of a gentleman as the Westerner was, and by the ending (read below), in which the central couple leave the setting on a horse, recalling such classic Westerns as “Shane.”

The massive production involved months of meticulous research, painstaking design work, and location work that involved coordination of crews in several countries. Scott’s canvasses seem to be getting bigger and bigger, but the story of “Kingdom of Heaven: still maintains an intimate scale. Scott’s penchant for visual artistry and attention to detail enables him to create distinctive visual worlds onscreen, from reinventing sci-fi with “Alien” to reimagining ancient Rome with “Gladiator.”

Visually, with this picture Scott aspires to the honorable company of David Lean’s masterpiece “Lawrence of Arabia.” The 100-million-plus film was shot in Spain and Morocco, where Scott impressively recreates the brutal 1187’s Battle of Hattin. In several scenes, the imagery of a single man framed in long shots against vast dunes recalls Peter O’Toole’s desert escapades in the 1962 film, which is far superior.

Scott has become Hollywood’s most reliable master of large-scale productions, building an impressive filmography that includes “Gladiator” and “Black Hawk Down.” In “Kingdom of Heaven,” he turns to the Crusades, that 200-year collision between Europe and the East, to frame the tale of a young French blacksmith, who, having lost his entire world, discovers his destiny as a knight, livings out to the fullest the meaning of that glorious title. The religious wars raging in the Holy Land seem remote to Balian, yet he is pulled into that immense drama. Amid the pageantry and intrigues of medieval Jerusalem he falls in love, grows into a leader, and ultimately uses his courage and skill to defend the city.

Destiny comes seeking Balian in the form of Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), a Crusader briefly home to France from fighting in the East. In the first scene, shockingly revealing himself as Balian’s father, Godfrey passes onto him both his barony and his legacy of knightly honor.

At that moment, a fragile peace prevails between the Second and Third Crusades in Jerusalem, through the efforts of its enlightened Christian king, Baldwin IV, aided by his advisor Tiberias (Jeremy Irons), and the military restraint of the Muslim leader Saladin (Ghassan Massoud). But strains of fanaticism, greed, and jealousy among the Crusaders threaten to shatter the truce.

King Baldwin’s vision of peace is shared by a handful of knights, including Godfrey of Ibelin, who swear to uphold it with their lives. As Godfrey passes his sword to his son, he also passes on that sacred oath: Protect the helpless, safeguard the peace, and work toward harmony between religions so that a kingdom of heaven can flourish on earth.

“Kingdom of Heaven” tells the sweeping saga of the Crusades through the eyes of one man caught up in a struggle for an ideal. Using historical events as backdrop for an intimate human drama, Scott puts flesh on the mystique of the knight errant, bringing to vivid life the struggle between Muslims and Christians over the Holy Land that took place a millennium ago and echoes into the present.

Scripter William Monahan worked from primary sources, using firsthand accounts by people who were present while history was being made, and avoiding interpretations written over the subsequent centuries. He dramatizes a fascinating episode before the Third Crusade, when Jerusalem is ruled by European knights drawn to crusading by religious fervor. The story centers on one knight, Balian of Ibelin, who becomes a hero by undertaking the odyssey of his life for a just cause.

In Jerusalem, Balian falls in love with the princess Sibylla, King Baldwin’s sister (“The Dreamers” Eva Green, who looks like the young Debra Winger). She is the reluctant wife of the power-hungry baron Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas). This is the film’s weakest aspect, which feels anachronistic, a concession to the masses, fearing that, without a strong female character, the tale’s appeal might be restricted to boys. Actress Green is accorded too many close-ups, which usually display enigmatic expressions of faint smile.

In 1095, Pope Urban II urged Christian Europe into a frenzy to reclaim the Holy City, conquered by Muslim armies in the seventh century. Thousands, from kings to peasants, answered the call, and successive waves of Crusaders made their way over the next 200 years, laying siege to ancient cities, founding kingdoms, and sowing the seeds for inevitable future religious conflicts.

Jerusalem was retaken in the First (out of eight) Crusade, and several generations of Christian princes ruled there. By 1186, when the story opens, the kingdom is rife with dissension, and Saladin’s growing power threatens its existence, maintained by replenishing the garrisons with forces from Europe; a king’s vassal like Godfrey goes home to recruit new fighters for the Holy Land.

At the start, having lost his wife and child, Balian is in desperate nihilistic state. At this vulnerable moment, a mysterious knight appears with his band of brothers, Godfrey of Ibelin, who had left France to become a Crusader and whose bravery and integrity have earned him the respect of King Baldwin. When the Crusaders took over Jerusalem, they were given large lands that became like little kingdoms; Godfrey was given land outside of Jerusalem. Godfrey has returned to France to find the illegitimate son he had never met. Godfrey doesn’t offer Balian land or money, but he offers family and legitimacy, the chance to be recognized as his son.

Though initially Balian resists Godfrey, he joins his father, claiming that his sole purpose is to find answers to the big questions. A young man on a journey of spiritual, personal, and political growth, he’s trying to understand the meaning of life and seek forgiveness for his sins. Godfrey travels with other knights, like the Hospitaler (David Thewlis), a knight-confessor type that originated in the eleventh century. The Hospitaler is part of a monastic brotherhood that caters to the needs of Christian pilgrims, and although he can be a fighter, he’s essentially a pacifist.

Troubled with a dark sorrow, Godfrey rediscovers family love and finds redemption upon meeting Balian. In an ambush during the journey, Godfrey is mortally injured, and in a final act of ritualistic redemption, he knights his son, passing onto him his mission of keeping the peace in Jerusalem. The Hospitaler, who becomes Balian’s companion and counselor after Godfrey’s death, talks about “doing the right thing” at all costs. It’s not about voices or prayers; it’s about the right action. Reflecting the knighthood code, Balian takes his title with gravity, defined by action rather than words or intent.

Balian’s first significant encounter is with the King’s sister, the beautiful princess Sibylla, who is mired in an arranged marriage to Guy de Lusignan. Though brought up with Christians, Jews, and Muslims, she has been living in repressive circumstances, and hates her husband. She’s idealized as an incredibly intoxicating, otherworldly creature. Sibylla and Balian are immediately drawn to one another, despite political complications. It’s a very emotional relationship, something he’s yearning for and yet is reluctant to succumb to. Sibylla finds some sanctuary in her relationship with Balian, whose purity, faithfulness, and nobility makes him the ideal man.

Baldwin IV is a good, just King doomed to die young from leprosy; the disease is so advanced that he must hide his face behind a silver mask. Baldwin tells Balian that as the new Lord of Ibelin he is to continue his father’s mission of defending the road to Jerusalem so that it remains open to pilgrims of all faiths. He says: “All are welcome, not because it is expedient, but because it is right. ”

Since Baldwin is a leper, he’s not able to command the kingdom. He relies a great deal on Tiberias (Jeremy Irons), his wise military advisor and the marshal of the army. At man at the end of his career and tired of fighting, Tiberias reminds the citizens of the respect they must accord each other. The truce between Baldwin and Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) is constantly under threat by conspiracies within the kingdom. The peace in Jerusalem is tenuous, beset by conspiracies within and Saladin’s 200,000 troops surrounding the kingdom. There are complex itineraries, confusions, cross-politics, and corruption, all delicately balanced by King Baldwin and Tiberias.

Saladin, the Saracens’ charismatic leader is first a statesman, and only second a man of war. Revered as a Muslim leader, politician, and great strategist, he makes dialog with the enemy. Balian and Saladin come to respect each other. In contrast, Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), Sibylla’s husband, is a member of the Knights Templar, an extremist military/religious order faction that doesn’t want any relationship with the Muslims. A military person and glory hunter, with desire for power that makes him the opposite of Balian, he sees the King as inept. Guy’s co-conspirator in extremism is Reynald de Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson), who has a massive fortress at Kerak. (Its ruins are in Jordan some 50 miles southeast of Jerusalem). Reveling in mayhem, the savage Reynald represents everything that was wrong with the Crusades, a mad imperialist and xenophobic hedonist, driven by avariciousness and lust.
With their impetuous urge for chaos and domination, Guy and Reynald set off a chain reaction that inevitably leads Jerusalem into war with the Saracens. As the end of Baldwin’s reign nears, Reynald falls in with Guy’s power scheme. The turning point comes when Guy murders a Saracen messenger in cold blood, which terminates the pluralistic society of tolerance Baldwin and Saladin have tried to maintain.

In a final act of folly, Guy leads the Army of Jerusalem against Saladin’s vastly superior force at the Battle of Hattin, where the Christian knights are annihilated. The climax of the story occurs when Saladin brings his army to the walls of Jerusalem. Faithful to his knight’s code, Balian takes it upon himself to defend the city, and with his skills as leader and engineer, he turns the city into a fortress. Ultimately, it’s a fight he cannot win, but he triumphs in uniting the defenders and in negotiating their survival.

The era of “Kingdom of Heaven” offers many parallels in today’s world, depicting how the Christians and the Muslims have used and abused each other. The film uses historical events as a canvas on which to paint a human drama, choosing period of equilibrium between the Crusaders and the Muslims, in which a balance of power prevailed. The peace is maintained by Baldwin IV and Saladin, men who are both at odds with extremists within their respective camps. The film suggests that the Latin Kingdom has stood for hundred years, and that it’s “mistakes” like greed, ambition, fanaticism that began to shake it.

Though recouping its budget (largely due to more successful run in Europe), Kingdom of Heaven was not popular at the Box office.

Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release dates: May 6, 2005 (US)
Running time 144 minutes
194 minutes (Director’s cut)
Budget $130 million
Box office $218.1 million

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