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.
The rest of the cast is fine but unmemorable. As Godfrey, Liam Neeson proves that he has cornered the market on warrior father-figures destined to die (Star Wars: Episode I, Gangs of New York, Batman Begins). Brendan Gleeson plays Reynald as a savage noble distinguishable from his Menelaus in Troy chiefly by the style of his armor. And Eva Green's Sybella demonstrates that even eye candy loses its flavor when buried under a quarter-inch of kohl.
Kingdom of Heaven's oddest bit of casting has to be the choice of Scott as director. He adores violence, or at least its cinematic depiction (remember, this is the man who presided over the anatomical explorations of Hannibal), and his obvious relish for the aesthetics of arterial spray is a decidedly awkward match for the movie's pacifist moral. Worse, he uses the same bewildering, overly stylized effects that so muddied the fights in Gladiator, alternating between quick cuts and slo-mo with such promiscuity that one rarely knows whose blood it is hurtling toward the camera. The culminating siege of Jerusalem is clearly intended to be an awesome spectacle, a visual symphony of catapult- and bow-fire, siege towers and flaming oil. Unfortunately, it was preemptively one-upped by Peter Jackson in the last two Rings films. As a result, it seems like a disappointing replay of the siege of Minas Tirith, minus the dragons, elephants, and orcs.
Where, in fact, would Hollywood be without orcs? Kingdom of Heaven may be something of an outlier in its aggressively political vision, but it does help illuminate a broader cinematic dilemma: Put simply, we're running out of acceptable bad guys. Had Kingdom of Heaven been a straight war movie, with Christian heroes and Muslim villains, there would have been a political uproar, and perhaps rightly so. The list of onetime cinematic Others who can no longer be counted on as generic enemies--Native Americans, Mexicans, the Japanese--continues to grow; one day, perhaps, it will even encompass that evergreen of evil, the Nazis. That this represents social progress is beyond question. But it does create problems for certain types of genre cinema. For example, it's hard to imagine that the long decline of the Western, once the dominant genre in American film, hasn't been aided by the fact that since the '70 it's been far more common to give the Indians white hats and the cowboys black than the other way around.
Thoughtful films will be able to get around this problem, of course, but who wants a world with nothing but thoughtful films? Sometimes you crave a little moral simplicity, a movie that will provide not only someone to root for but someone to root against as well. This latter is becoming harder and harder to come by, at least in the quantities needed for a good war movie. It's little wonder that so many of the big epics of recent years--Troy, King Arthur, Alexander--have seemed a little tepid and squeamish: I mean, who really cares which side wins? For compelling stories of good-versus-evil these days we have to venture into space or a fantastical past, where we can find Sith or Nazgul in clear need of smiting. The recognition that our own universe lacks such ethical certainties may be mature and it may be accurate, but it's not always very cinematic.
The Home Movies List: Heavenly Quotes
"She was a suicide. She is in Hell. Though what she does there without a head...." Kingdom of Heaven announces its view of organized religion early, when a priest mocks Balian's dead wife. (The last line, signifying that her corpse was beheaded before burial in accordance with her sin, is of course delivered with a malicious leer.) Lest anyone fail to get the point, the priest is also a thief, having stolen a crucifix from her body.
"Haven't we all [committed murder]?" The movie offers its equally subtle take on war moments later, when Godfrey describes himself--not once, but twice in the movie's first 15 minutes--as a murderer. There's no suggestion that by this he means anything other than "soldier."
"I put no stock in religion." There are probably more twelfth-century agnostics in the Kingdom of Heaven cast than there were in the entire Holy Land. This all-too-typical line is uttered by David Thewlis's wise, humane character, a person about whom we know little (not even his name) other than that he is a member of the Knights Hospitaler, an explicitly religious order.
"I am here because, in the East, between one person and another there is only light." This quote, from Princess Sybella, is not a religious metaphor but a sexual one, with "light" apparently a euphemism for "bodily fluids." Sybella (who is married) carried on an affair with Godfrey; when she learns he is dead, she immediately starts sleeping with his son, Balian, with the film's evident approval. Because, hey, as long as we're trashing religious repression we may as well make the case for free love, right?
"God will understand, my lord. And if he doesn't, he is not God." A bit of magnificently anachronistic pop theology that Balian offers the bishop of Jerusalem (who is, of course, a coward and hypocrite): It's God's responsibility to comprehend human purposes, not the other way around.
"Before I lose [Jerusalem], I will burn it down. Your holy places, ours. Every last stone that drives men mad." So Balian tells an approving Saladin at the movie's conclusion. For those who may have dozed off: Religion equals war; without it there would be no armed conflict--especially not in the Middle East. If only we could find a way to get rid of all those troublesome holy places...
This post originally appeared at TNR.com.