Kingdom Of Heaven

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When I was young I was really into Terry Jones’ miniseries Crusades (1995) when it came out. It’s a chapter of history that I find endlessly fascinating. I wished and wished for a serious dramatic rendering of the Crusades for years. Most of what was available on that front in the nineties were VHS copies of old Hollywood adventure films like Cecil B. DeMille’s The Crusades (1935) which were entirely disappointing from a historically accurate point of view.

Then came Kingdom Of Heaven (2005); Ridley Scott’s swashbuckling epic of the fall of Jerusalem to Salah ad-Din in 1187. Scott’s longer director’s cut of Kingdom Of Heaven may make more sense than the truncated theatrical version but it still suffers from most of the same problems. In many respects Kingdom Of Heaven is a kind of clone of Scott’s Oscar winning Gladiator (2000).

Like Gladiator, Kingdom Of Heaven takes a highly fictionalized look at history where the “good guys” are depicted as ideologically just and progressive while the “bad guys” are ignorant sadists. This simplification, which has its roots in the tradition of DeMille, either ignores or discards most of the historical details that complicate the situation. For instance issues of wealth, title, revenge, power, and faith are distilled to a “black and white” rubric where one either is alright sharing Jerusalem with people of all faiths or one desires the total genocide of any practitioner of a faith other than one’s own.

The star of Kingdom Of Heaven, Orlando Bloom, is hardly up to the task of commanding the screen as the chivalrous Catholic hero Balian. Why Scott chose to reunite with Bloom for this film is as perplexing as it is frustrating. For a swashbuckling hero Bloom is too spindly in stature and too pretty in his looks; not for a second can one believe that Bloom’s face is that of an eleventh century Crusader.

The rest of the cast, particularly Eva Green and Ghassan Massoud, are excellent. This is particularly true during the middle third of Kingdom Of Heaven where the film focuses on the political maneuverings of King Baldwin (Edward Norton) and his enemies. This is where Scott excels as a director of actors. The images Scott can conjure of epic battle scenes may be singular in their beauty, but the nuance and subtlety he brings to scenes of intrigue are his most affecting.

In hindsight Kingdom Of Heaven feels like another quasi-liberal reaction on Scott’s part to Bush’s Iraq War. Scott hits his political messages hard in this film, and props up Salah ad-Din as some exotic sage from the East. Intentions may be noble, but they have rendered Scott’s Kingdom Of Heaven an empty spectacle that is as likely to move the minds of the audience as it is to cure cancer.