Kingdom of Heaven
Director(s): Ridley Scott
Writer(s): William Monahan
Reviewed by: Ian Evans on
Release Date(s)May 6, 2005 - Wide
Ridley Scott, who five years ago brought us Gladiator, skips forward a thousand years and heads to the Middle East for the Crusade drama Kingdom of Heaven. I won’t pretend to be an expert on the Crusades so even though I know the film is full of historical inaccuracies I won’t delve into them too much here. Just be aware that if you’ve got a test on the Crusades on Monday, Kingdom of Heaven really shouldn’t be your Cliff’s Notes.
The year is 1184 and Balian (Orlando Bloom) has a lot on his plate. He’s lost his son, his wife recently committed suicide and he has just been told by the Crusader Baron Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) that the Baron is his father. Balian decides not to join his long-lost dad on the Crusades until his decision to kill a priest makes the road trip an attractive option. Sadly, Godfrey dies on the journey back to Jerusalem, but not before he knights his son and makes him the new Baron of Ibelin.
Jerusalem is currently in a state of truce between the Crusades and Balian soon becomes an ally with the King of Jerusalem, Baldwin IV (Edward Norton), a leper, and the Marshall of Jerusalem, Tiberias (Jeremy Irons). These two level-headed men are presiding over a peace where the Muslims and Christians are co-existing, but extremist elements led by Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) want to restart the war against the Muslims. With all this happening around him, Balian still finds the time to have an affair with Guy’s wife, Sibylla (Eva Green), while the Muslim leader, Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), begins to surround the city with an army of 200,000 men.
As I mentioned earlier, this film should not be taken as an History Channel documentary. William Monahan’s screenplay takes liberties with the historical events portrayed here. The real Balian was not the son of Godfrey, didn’t have an affair with Sibylla, and was closer in age to Liam Neeson than Orlando Bloom. That’s the difference between history and Hollywood. Real historical figures didn’t have producers asking how they could skew to a younger audience.
Directors and screenwriters also like to apply their own beliefs to historical periods and the message here, aimed at today’s times, is a call for tolerance between religions, a goal that is being thwarted by extremist elements on both sides. Perhaps Scott’s take on the situation is actually more accurate than we first think. The Crusades are often portrayed as the Christians’ attempt to wrest control of the Holy Land away from the Muslims, a quest supposedly with a divine purpose. As we see here though, religious fervour is often a front for political ambitions, especially in the case of Guy and Raynald of Châtillon (Brendan Gleeson), who use the Knights Templar to try and force an end to the truce with the Muslims, instigating a war and hopefully a Christian takeover of Jerusalem.
Ridley Scott knows how to direct on an epic scale and John Mathieson’s cinematography capture the sweeping vistas of the desert battles. Of course, these days the battle scenes often feature tens of thousands of CGI-created digital extras, so when Saladin masses a vast army of a couple of hundred thousand men and horses and lays siege to Jerusalem with fiery catapults, Scott’s able to pull out all the stops and show us what it really might have looked like. The effect is obviously more impressive than the old method of shooting historical dramas, which would have involved a few hundred extras shooting in the California desert.
Scott’s also aided by superb performances from Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons and Ghassan Massoud. They all seem to have been cast to add the gravitas that’s not always there in Orlando Bloom’s performance. I’m not saying Bloom’s a bad actor, that’s not my point at all. It’s just that he doesn’t seem to come across as a strong leader of warriors, a role he can hopefully play with a few more years under his belt. One speech supposed to get the men ready for battle is delivered in a way that wouldn’t inspire a high school football team to achieve a tie.
Though it may have it’s historical flaws, Kingdom of Heaven delivers when it comes to the battle scenes and its depiction of the senselessness of war, where men often fight and die to right perceived offences committed hundreds of years before. What starts off as a war of honour or religious belief often ends up just being a battle of survival. As Balian says, “We defend this city, not to protect these stones, but the people living within these walls.”