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May 13, 2005

Kingdom of Heaven

This is why I'll never be an actual reporter - deadlines. This thing was supposed to be written last Friday, but events, my dear boy, events, intervened.

I admit, I've always been a sucker for movies where the fate of empires rests on the shoulders of thousands of extras, so I've been waiting for this film for a long time. Indeed, the final battle scene, the siege of Jerusalem, is probably worth the price of admission all by itself. It's not quite Minas Tirith, but then, Saladin is a lot better than chief Orc, too.

Ridley Scott likes to take on themes of grace under pressure. In this case, it's a knight who tries to live up to the Chivalric Code in a Jerusalem completely bereft of honest leadership. The king, Baldwin IV, is dying of leprosy. His successor, Guy, is spoiling for a fight with Saladin for which both he and his army are completely unprepared. His allies in this venture are the Knights Templar, representatives of the Western Church. The Patriarch of Jerusalem, representative of Eastern Orthodoxy, acts as a stand-in for an Eastern Empire that can't and won't fight for what it no longer believes in.

In the middle is Balian, Defender of Jerusalem. He's got some religious qualms of his own, but also a sort of proto-Enlightenment faith in the people he's sworn to defend.

This history itself is pretty good, with most of the incidents reflecting actual events. The story does write little Baldwin V out of the script, and invents a romance between Balian and Sibylla, Baldwin IV's sister and Guy's wife. The real Balian himself was well aware of his ancestry, son of the Count of Tripoli, and he didn't stay behind in Jerusalem, but survived the debacle at Hattin that set it up. But none of this materially affects the story.

What does affect the story is the need to balance the two sides. And the need to secularize Balian, as though his fealty to the Chivalric Code only counts if he's given up on God. Saladin is just as noble, just as decent, only he's able to keep his lunatics in check, mostly because he wins. Indeed, it looks as though he needs to be prodded to take Jerusalem, although later he celebrates understatedly as he takes the city. It isn't until the city is lost that Balian seems to realize that he's really lost anything.

In any hands other than Scott's, this movie would have come out as disdain for religious belief. In Scott's hands, it merely warns of the need to rely on God, but keep military necessities in mind, too. It's not critical of religious belief as such, or even as the motivation for action. But it does seem to put a little too much of the blame on the Christians: Guy and Reynaud may have lit the match, but the wood had been drying out for a while. And Saladin really did want the city.

To the extent that the film fails in its big ideas, it's in the conflation of tolerance with truce. Historically, both sides were forced by the other to tolerate. (The Third Crusade, usually presented as a failure, did restore the rights of Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem.) But both sides were also willing to kill and die in large numbers to be the tolerators rather than the tolerated.

The acting itself is pretty good. Liam Neeson looks suitably tragic, as Balian's father, and the Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud gives Saladin both strength and depth. Ed Norton does all his acting behind a silver mask, used to hide King Baldwin's leprosy, but still manages to make the King three-dimensional and commanding.

I like Orlando Bloom, but he doesn't really radiate army-leading charisma here. He brings courage but rarely victory. The idea that men would fall in behind him so willingly doesn't really seems believable. And while Eva Green is a gorgeous Sibylla, you get the sense that Elizabeth Taylor wouldn't have settled for asking "what happens to us, now?" with her eye halfway through the film.

For those of you who like Scott's charactistic high-contrast, low-saturation camerawork, there's plenty of it here. As usual, it adds to the dreamlike quality of the film, as do the somewhat disjointed storytelling, slightly confused geography, and completely invented Jerusalem.

On the whole, somehwta less than Gladiator. Maximus was an indestructible hero fighting for Rome the Virtuous Republic. Balian's role as Defender of the People seems just a little thin, matched by a Bloom who seems just a little small.

Posted by joshuasharf at May 13, 2005 09:10 AM | TrackBack

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