Has a historical epic ever told us less about the milieu in which it is set, and more about that in which it was produced, than Kingdom of Heaven? An exuberant war movie that is also a laughably ahistorical anti-war polemic, the film is an exceptional example of what happens when Hollywood's commercial and political imperatives crash headlong into one another.
It seems no coincidence that the movie is directed by Ridley Scott, whose two previous martial exertions, Black Hawk Down and Gladiator, took skeptical and romantic views of battle, respectively. In Kingdom of Heaven, Scott tries to assume both stances at once, a schizophrenia of purpose that renders the film a moral muddle, if occasionally a revealing one.
The year is 1184, a few decades after the conclusion of the Second Crusade and not long before the Muslim recapture of Jerusalem that would provoke the Third. On his way back to the Holy Land, a Crusader named Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), pauses in France to invite the bastard son he has never known, a blacksmith named Balian (Orlando Bloom), to accompany him. Balian demurs at first, but after he murders a priest who insulted his dead wife he decides that relocating a couple thousand miles to the southeast is perhaps not such a bad idea after all. His companions all die along the way: Some (including Godfrey) succumb to wounds suffered in defending Balian from capture; the rest perish in a shipwreck.
Balian himself survives, however, awakening on a strange shore with his possessions intact and a conveniently unscathed horse tethered to a bit of flotsam nearby. Shortly thereafter, a pair of Arabs try to take the horse from him. Balian kills one of them and lets the other go free, ensuring that when he arrives in Jerusalem he will be welcomed as a famously peaceable Crusader.
He's not the only one. The leprous King of Jerusalem (Edward Norton, hiding behind a gilt mask), his sister Sybella (Eva Green), and his chief adviser Tiberius (Jeremy Irons) are all skeptical humanists eager to get along with their Muslim neighbors. Godfrey, too, shared this liberal mindset before his death, as does his surviving aide-de-camp (David Thewlis). Indeed, religious tolerance is so nearly ubiquitous that one might infer that the Crusaders' purpose was not conquest or conversion, but rather an early experiment in multicultural integration, a twelfth-century precursor of busing. Sadly, holy wars have a tendency to attract all types, including a few who actually believe in God and in warfare. These designated bad apples are a sneering French aristo (there had to be one!) named Guy de Lusignan (Martin Csokas) and an animalistic warmonger named Reynald (Brendan Gleeson, resembling a distempered Saint Bernard).
The chief conflict in Kingdom of Heaven, then, is not between the Christian and Muslim armies, but between decent, peace-loving agnostics on both sides and the bloodthirsty zealots intent on pushing them into war. (Though, in fairness, these latter are alluded to only in passing on the Muslim side; the real bad guys are all Christian.) If one had a mind to--and Scott clearly hopes one does--it would be easy to read the entire exercise as a metaphor for America's current Mideast entanglements.
This political updating mangles the film's historical context, of course. But perhaps more importantly it runs badly afoul of the demands of genre and the box office. Who, after all, wants to see a rousing war epic without any war? So Scott stages some grand battle sequences, culminating with a massive military set piece in which Muslim leader Saladin (played by the magnificent Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud) lays siege to Jerusalem. But the movie's clumsy politicking has already drained these encounters of any tension. Having been conditioned to deplore the war, we're hard pressed to root for the Christians to win it. Even the ultimate threat, that if the siege succeeds the entire population of Jerusalem will be killed, rings empty: We've seen too much decency and wisdom from Saladin to sincerely believe he'd let such a slaughter take place.
Another awkwardness for Scott is the fact that his protagonist, Balian, is on the losing side of all the military engagements he takes part in: In his first battle, his men are routed and he is captured; in the second, he surrenders. This may be in keeping with the movie's political vision, but it rather undermines Balian's heroic credentials. Scott bolsters these by allowing him to prevail in a couple of individual battles--the fight over the horse, an encounter with Templar assassins sent to kill him--but these victories still fall rather short of the kind of historic manliness everyone in the film keeps ascribing to him. Indeed, up until the end of the film Balian's greatest skill seems to be saving his own life, often at the cost of those accompanying him. It's an odd conception of an epic hero, but one that flows from the movie's implicit contention that the only justified killing is killing in self-defense, that any larger justification--love, God, country--is a lie and a trap.
Casting Orlando Bloom to play Balian was inspired, and I don't mean that in a good way. There's something passive and indeterminate about him, a lack of conviction that echoes, perhaps unwittingly, Balian's hollowness as a character. Thanks to the success of the Lord of the Rings movies and Pirates of the Caribbean, Bloom has been somewhat typecast as a daring adventurer. But in those franchises he had more emphatic co-stars to push the plot along; on his own, he seems a little listless, as if waiting for a Gandalf or Captain Jack Sparrow to materialize and tell him what to do. Kingdom of Heaven suggests he may be suited to quieter, more ambivalent fare, or a return to supporting roles.