A film review by Craig J. Koban
KINGDOM OF HEAVEN
2004, R, 145 mins.
2004, R, 145 mins.
Balian: Orlando Bloom /
Godfrey: Liam Neeson / Hospitalier: David Thewlis / Guy de Lusignan: Marton Csokas
/ King Baldwin: Edward Norton / Sibylla: Eva Green / Reynald: Brendan Gleeson
/ Tiberias: Jeremy Irons /
Saladin: Ghassan Massoud / Gravedigger: Martin Hancock / Priest: Michael Sheen
/ Balian's Wife: Nathalie Cox
“Difference of religion breeds more quarrels than difference of politics.”
When you really stop and think about it, Ridley Scott's daring and provocative new historical epic - KINGDOM OF HEAVEN - may feel very familiar to contemporary eyes. The film ostensibly details the quarrels between Christian and Muslim soldiers over the Holy Land that was Jerusalem during the 12TH Century. Of course, biases were formed, accusations were thrown at one another, and claims of righteousness and ownership over the land were made, all done in “God’s Will”, by both sides.
Hmmm…does any of this seem to resonate with the way many contemporary societies conduct their daily business? I guess the fascinating aspect about Scott’s film is that, despite the fact that it takes place nearly a thousand years in the past, nothing really has changed that much. If it truly was (and is) God’s will to encourage men to wage war on other men and cause the subsequent deaths of tens of thousands, then am I the only one that feels that maybe it really is not His will at all? Perhaps other, secular factors are at play, namely wealth and land, but it sure sounds more agreeable to get this when you claim to have an all-powerful deity in your corner as your motivational speaker and quarterback.
Make no mistake about it; KINGDOM OF HEAVEN is the kind of engrossing, expansive, and grand historical epic that Scott seems to have been preordained to direct. Considering his recent film resume, HEAVEN seems like the most logical progression for the veteran Scott. He is definitely no stranger to the epic war film. He made GLADIATOR in 2000, an eventual Oscar winner from that year for Best Picture that detailed the Roman Empire of 180AD. He followed up that historical film with the much more involving and technically superb BLACK HAWK DOWN. He finally comes full circle with his blood n’ guts spectacles of the past with HEAVEN. GLADIATOR seems like the most analogous film to HEAVEN for immediate discussion. Both works are stirring films of courage, camaraderie, and overcoming odds, not to mention that they both contain the brilliant marriage of large scale action scenes and modern visual effects to create a dark and dirty portrayal of combat, both in terms of Ancient Rome and the time of the Crusades respectively. In terms of these types of films and catering to audience expectations, Scott has the technical verisimilitude down to a science when filming them, and is definitely ahead of the pack.
However, I think that the one aspect that segregates HEAVEN from a good film like GLADIATOR is just how much more intrinsically fascinating and involving the context of the events are in the film. Lesser epics would be more interested in the spectacle and battle scenes than anything else of substance. HEAVEN does have spectacle and has several magnificent battle scenes that deserve rightful comparisons to the best moments of RETURN OF THE KING, but in Scott’s competent hands he crafts a film that seems to focus more on the stimulus and motivation that is intrinsic in the respective participants involved. What’s even more astonishing is just how much an even hand that Scott demonstrates with dealing with both sides of the warring parties. This is one of those rare historical war films that does not pick sides and take great pains to point out the innocent and guilty parties. The line between who is righteous and who is not is a remarkably grey one in the film, and that is precisely what makes HEAVEN so invigorating and fresh.
The film has two distinct cultures that use God as the ultimate excuse to go to war for what otherwise seems like material gains. Who’s God is right? The Muslim or Christian version? Scott never answers that question but instead sits back as an objective witness to the action. The end result, maybe, is that neither of them are “right” and that both sides are more alike than they would otherwise perceive; it's just the fanatics that prevail on both sides that spoil it for the rest of the them. Both the Muslims and Christians use their strong affinity with God to direct their war-mongering ways. Every minute of this film I was constantly reminded of that great quote by George Bernard Shaw – “There is only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it.”
The film is remarkable forthright and revealing in terms of its subject matter, and in hindsight, it's kind of a modern miracle that it was even made in our highly politically correct times. For Scott to make a film that depicts acts of savage barbarism, terrorism, and brutality that are committed by both Muslim and Christians on each other is kind of astonishing. In our highly volatile and violent times where Arabs and the Western world are fighting and killing each other by the thousands, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN could have the power to polarize the two sides even more. I am sure that it hits a bit close to home for many contemporary audience members. HEAVEN has already garnered its share of controversy and overt criticism. Some historians have criticized the film’s accuracy (which is so superfluous in cinema, as just as long as the film works, who cares if dramatic liberties are taken), whereas other groups, like many Muslim ones, have lambasted the film as promoting the image of Arabs as brutes that are killing Christians and spitting on the cross. Some British scholars have lamented on how brutal the Crusaders were presented.
Okay, time out. Both sides are presented in less-than favourable lights…so that can’t fundamentally be a bad thing. I think that what is lost here is how Scott has achieved a sort of moral middle ground between the two. Yes, both the Muslims and the Christians are presented as “thugs” that are willing to step over one another and slaughter thousands to get what they both think God has entitled them to. In that sense, Scott’s film, amazingly, is neither pro or anti Christian or Muslim, but rather preaches, ever-so-subtly, tolerance and the highest of mutual respect. In an age where tolerance was not one of the highest of virtues, HEAVEN paints a picture of two warring factions that fought in bloody massacres that cost lives, but underneath it all you gain a sense of the intense respect that they have for one another. This is especially apparent when one crucial and horrific battle leads to countless atrocities and the two opposing leaders are still able to shake hands afterwards. They both respect one another and respect each other’s love and belief in God, it’s just that pesky city of Jerusalem that’s getting in the way.
As for the film itself, it starts off in 1184 and introduces us to Balian (a beefed up and much more grisly Orlando Bloom) who is in a state of morning over the recent death of his family. Baron Godfrey of Ibelin (played by one of the all-time commanding screen presences – Liam Neeson) enters into his life and decides to let Balian in on the fact that he is his son. Balian eventually decides to accompany his father to the holy city of Jerusalem to atone for his wife’s sins (who committed suicide, and by certain religious rules, that’s an automatic do not pass go, do not collect $200, and go straight to hell).
Through a series of bloody events early on in the film that leaves Godfrey mortally wounded and near death, he decides to knight his son and gives him the title of Baron of Iblein. Eventually, the new young Baron arrives in Jerusalem and soon becomes the ally of King Baldwin IV, who suffers from being a leper and is forever hidden behind an expressionless mask (he’s played in a hidden performance by Edward Norton). In the King’s inner circle is Guy de Lusignan (Morton Csokas) who provides Balian with an instant antagonist, maybe because he becomes very transfixed with his new wife Sibylla, the Princess of Jerusalem (the hauntingly beautiful Eva Green, who was so seductive in last year’s THE DREAMERS). Balian eventually has an affair with the Princess and while this is happening an Arab leader Saladin (in a quietly commanding performance by Ghassan Massoud) masses an army of a quarter of a million men to take back Jerusalem from the Christians who have occupied it for a century. All 12TH Century hell then breaks lose.
KINGDOM OF HEAVEN careens head on into its story and emerges as one of the best of the recent big-budget historical epics. Aside from the provocative and absorbing aspects of the film’s religious psychology that has already been touched on, HEAVEN is a tour de force of gory mayhem, and behind all of those scenes is the masterful Scott orchestrating all of them. Several battle scenes are virtuoso set pieces that are worth the price of admission alone. One of the early sieges involving Saladin’s forces berating Jerusalem with massive fireballs and yet another, near the film’s end, are as well realized as any recent sustained action sequence that I have seen. The film’s gigantic battles are also punctuated by some brilliant and seamless visual effects (the opening shots of the entry to Jerusalem are a majestic example of the real and artificial) as well as some beautiful cinematography. Some early moments, through the lens of cinematographer John Mathieson, paints the screen with a sheen of ethereal snowflakes, which gives certain moments an almost dreamlike and surreal glow. The technical achievements here are Oscar calibre, and Scott can lay claim to being the current champion of epic film directors.
KINGDOM OF HEAVEN is, nevertheless, a flawed masterpiece. The individual performances are fairly spot on and charming, especially by Liam Neeson (who leaves the film too early) and by Orlando Bloom, who finally casts himself out of a pretty boy façade and gets to sink his teeth into grittier terrain. I also like the work of Massoud as Saladin who creates a man of strong virtue, moral cunning, and stubborn, yet respectful, persistence. The film’s largest failing is in the character of Sibylla, who feels woefully underdeveloped. Eva Green had such sexual charisma in THE DREAMERS, but here she is more or less regulated to obligatorical romantic interest. Her romance with Balian, in the midst of the other more fundamentally involving subtexts that this film deals with, feels manufactured and contrived.
Yet, Scott’s KINGDOM OF HEAVEN is still one of the more rousing and entertaining epics of the year. When compared to previous historical efforts, like ALEXANDER (flawed, but not bad) and TROY (visually stunning, but bankrupt in terms of characters), HEAVEN stands confidently on a higher echelon. The film is a powerful religious and political allegory, to be sure, but it also highlights what a pervasive visualist like Scott can achieve when he is allowed to do what he does best. Not only do we have the grand spectacle, but Scott also manages to make a war film that does not take sides (rare for this genre) and makes a statement that is sort of congruous with modern events. In these ways, HEAVEN is much more thoughtful and intelligent than many would have otherwise given it credit for. Crusaders baring arms against Muslims who are both in a moral and theological battle to attain their rightful place in the world and who use God as a springboard to infuse their cause with purpose…really, what else is new?