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Wednesday, May 18, 2005
The mother of holy wars
After the misfires of "Troy" and "King Arthur," and the great travesty that was "Alexander," it was starting to look like the swords 'n' steeds genre had quickly worn out its welcome. Then back comes director Ridley Scott -- the man who kick-started the ancient-era action flick and took up the reins of "Ben Hur" with "Gladiator" -- to show us how it's done with "Kingdom of Heaven," his lavish epic on The Crusades.
Many filmmakers have tried to portray The Crusades and failed; at one point, director Paul Verhoeven had Arnold Schwarzenegger on board for one such, but the numbers involved were too daunting. But Scott has finally come through with a fine-looking film, with a younger, more sensitive actor, Orlando Bloom, in the lead role, and that's not a bad thing. An Arnie flick would certainly have featured a heathen-shredding Terminator in armor, but such a one-sided view wouldn't serve history well.
To be honest, though, it was hard to have great expectations for Scott's project. "Black Hawk Down," his film on the 1993 battle of Mogadishu between U.S. and Somali forces, had taken an exclusively Western, pro-Pentagon view. It ignored the Somalis' reasons for fighting, and -- pointedly -- the hundreds of civilian casualties inflicted by the U.S. Rangers' free-fire.
A similarly pro-interventionist viewpoint seemed likely in "Kingdom of Heaven," one which would gloss over the brutal excesses committed by "God's army" in favor of post-9/11, anti-Islamic jingoism.
Maybe it's the absence of Pentagon poodle Jerry Bruckheimer as the producer, or maybe it's the gravity of the current East-West conflict in the region, but whatever the reason, Scott has turned out a remarkably balanced film that, while replete with history, still provides plenty of sword fests and sieges. Every war movie is pretty much the same at the end of the day, but what's interesting is Scott's clear delineation of what's worth fighting for and what's not. Religion, in his view, is not.
"Kingdom of Heaven" is set roughly 100 years after the Western capture of Jerusalem, in which the Crusaders ruthlessly massacred most of the city's population. (An event remembered well in the Arab world but rarely at all in the West; Scott addresses it head on, to his credit.) The time is circa 1185, between the Second and Third Crusades, when the Crusaders clung to Outreber, a thin state stretching from Antioch to Ascalon, menaced by the belatedly united Muslim forces under the legendary leader Saladin (played by Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud).
A tenuous peace reigns, thanks to a truce agreed between Saladin and King Baldwin (Edward Norton), who despite his crippling leprosy, proved to be one of Outremer's wisest leaders. Baldwin allows Muslim pilgrims access to their holy sites in Jerusalem, and lets their caravans pass unmolested on to Mecca.
The Knights Templar, a Rome-backed Crusading order that is more fundamentalist in its outlook, sees no need for peace. As one warrior monk puts it, "To kill an infidel is not murder; it's the path to heaven." It is an outlook that, depressingly, is still prevalent today, and finds its direct echoes in 2005.
One powerful Templar, Reynald de Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson), found his calling in attacking unarmed Muslim caravans, feeding his piety through blood, and his more worldly needs through plunder. Reynald's actions were designed to provoke war, and the film's assigning him the villain's role is totally in keeping with history -- the war he would instigate was to bleed Outremer dry at the disastrous Battle of Hattin in 1187, which comes later in the film.
Our hero, a man of ethos and chivalry -- in contrast to the greedy, opportunistic Reynald -- is Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom, who must wake up some mornings wondering what century he's in). Balian starts as a mere blacksmith in France, where we find him burying his wife. The elegiac tone set by the menacing dusk sky, with baleful flakes of snow fluttering in the wind as the body is lowered into the ground, is is the kind of lush, evocative cinematography for which Scott is known. This loss also establishes Balian as a man adrift, seeking redemption, not unlike Russell Crowe in "Gladiator."
A group of armored knights, Crusaders returning to the Holy Land, pass through the town. Their lord, Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), takes Balian aside and informs him he is his bastard son, while proposing to make him his rightful heir. Balian initially declines, but after being goaded by the village priest -- who says that his dead wife, a suicide, will burn in hell -- Balian slays the priest and hits the road with Godfrey, with the law hot on his heels and the first of Scott's "Gladiator"-esque frenetic, chaotic battle scenes just around the bend . . .
Godfrey instructs Balian in his duties as a knight with advice like "safeguard the helpless, and do no wrong," that were more often honored in the breach. But Godfrey particularly emphasizes the need to create "a kingdom of conscience, a kingdom of heaven . . . peace . . . that Muslim and Christian may live together." Some pundits may call this a crock, but historians have noted that there were Crusaders who, if nothing else, saw the pragmatic value of peaceful coexistence. At any rate, the "Kingdom of Heaven" line returns at the film's end, over a pile of bodies, to great cynical effect.
Balian arrives -- after a shipwreck and desert duel -- in Jerusalem, and quickly finds himself in a web of intrigue involving the king, who's trying to uphold the truce, and Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), who is married to the king's sister Sibylla (Eva Green) and is being manipulated by the Templars. Balian retires to his father's lands, where he proves to be a good lord, attracting the romantic attentions of Sibylla. (This is one of the film's bigger fudges; recorded history has it that Balian was actually dumped by Sibylla before she married Guy.)
A war nearly erupts due to Reynald's provocations, and Balian proves himself in a suicidal charge to hold off the Muslim army while the populace flees to the castle. Cooler heads prevail, though, and Baldwin and Saladin negotiate a peace. When the king succumbs to his leprosy, though, Guy gains the throne, and together with Reynald, leads the kingdom into a disastrous war. It is up to Balian to defend the city of Jerusalem, in what seems a hopeless cause. (Again, out of history, but the denouement was even more tragic than in the film.)
The final siege is a magnificent piece of filmmaking, and fortunately it's not preceded by Balian giving a speech on how they're fighting for freedom and democracy (though his line "This city . . . belongs to all, none have claim" rings more of idealism than fact). Saladin's army encircles the city, and there's a shattering moment when the camera pulls back to show rows of catapults launching flaming missiles that arc high over its towers and minarets. The scene climaxes with a row of siege towers that try to storm the city's walls with satisfyingly apocalyptic results.
Bloom's Balian is believably stolid, and he handles the action with grit and groans, far more rugged than his fey elf in "Lord of the Rings." If they ever start an anti-doping regimen in Hollywood like they do in sports, then Bloom's day will come. His Balian's a bit bland, perhaps, but he's sort of an avatar taking us through the exotic realm of Outremer. His role is more complex than most have noted, though: It's interesting to see how it is his very idealism that leads to disaster, since if he had allowed one small lapse of conscience, an act of treachery against Guy, thousands of lives could have been saved. Morally complex stuff for a blockbuster.
The period feel is wonderful, with convincing costumes and castles, and it's hard to catch any modernisms creeping into the dialogue, a common way to kill the illusion in these films. As for the battles, Scott again proves he's a master of mass movement on screen -- they're thrilling, ferocious, explosive. But he also proves himself in the quieter moments: In a wonderful scene, Balian, just arrived in Jerusalem, spends the night on Golgotha waiting for the sun to rise. He contemplates his purpose in life and buries his dead wife's crucifix under a handful of rocks. It's a portrait of a man grasping for faith, while all those around him who profess it don't practice it.
More such moments would have been welcome -- particularly in fleshing out Sibylla's character -- but we can expect to find them on the DVD, which will likely give us Scott's more expansive first cut, with an additional 80 minutes. At that length, it could be truly great.