One of my favorite films of the new millennium, Kingdom of Heaven is an under-appreciated classic, a treasure of a film that was shunned in many circles at the time of its release because of its incongruity and certain character flaws. It faded quickly into the realms of the forgotten, but I always held a flame aloft for the historical epic. I admitted to most of the flaws, albeit begrudgingly, but I still had a weird attraction to it, and until about a year ago, I couldn’t really explain it. Now, before about a year ago, I would have bowed to conventional wisdom that if I could not put my pro-KoH argument in words, than it obviously was not that good of an argument. But, last April or so, I discovered the reason that the movie seemed so off to me, and the source of a lot of anti-KoH arguments, is that the studio edited almost an HOUR out of the theatrical cut! AN HOUR! That’s a lot of info to leave out! Now, with a lot more backing this time compared to March of last year, I can safely say that Kingdom of Heaven IS a good movie, a great movie even. It’s not a perfect movie, but it skirts very flirtatiously with immortality, something I admire in a work of art.
We’re taken to the 12th century, between the Second and Third Crusades. Balian, a lonely blacksmith in France, grieving over the suicide of his wife, finds no solace in his work or his life doomed to obscurity. As fate would have it, however, a knight traveling through the area pops into his life. He claims to be his father, and offers him a choice; he can stay in the sad, empty husk of France during the Middle Ages and continue his life as if nothing had happened, or he can come with him to Jerusalem, where the knight holds court with King Baldwin IV. At first hesitant, Balian joins the group of Crusaders after hearing that perhaps his wife’s soul can be saved from Hell if he absolves her sins in the Holy Land (people believed that suicides were instant fodder for Hell back then, although some STILL do). Thus begins a journey of the self through the world of the Dark Ages as Balian travels from his tiny, myopic Medieval world all the way to the center of the world’s tumult, Jerusalem, where a new dispute is broiling beneath the surface of the Second Crusade’s short-lived peace. King Baldwin IV is dying painfully from his crippling leprosy, the Knights Templar are restlessly itching for a battle with the Muslims, their sworn enemy, and on the other side of the wall, a new Muslim assault is being only barely kept at bay by the efforts of their sultan, Saladin. The truce will not last much longer, and Balian’s part in this is larger than he yet knows. It will be a long, unforgiving road ahead for him, but with his wife’s eternal soul in the balance, he is willing to do anything to unchain her from the fiery pits below.
Let me start with the big flaw before I start gushing. Before it gets any farther, I have to comment on the fact that Balian is a total Harry Stu. In internet lingo, for those not in on the jive, that means that his character is just a LITTLE too perfect. He just happens to know a lot of things about a lot of things that would be helpful in the Holy Land, including the construction of siege engines, leading large groups of men, and considering he’s played by Orlando Bloom, professional heart-throb, he looks damn good while he does it. It all gets to be a little much sometimes, and by the end, I felt more than a little tinge of disgust for him and his implausible perfection. You know how awesome and perfect Balian is? During a boat trip to Jerusalem, his boat capsizes and sinks in a storm; he wakes up the next morning on the beach with no fellow survivors and a saddled horse ready to give him a lift! How serendipitous!
But when I say that that’s really the only thing I think is wrong with it, I mean it. Director Ridley Scott is so good he can make any subject come alive, and it just so happens that he also found one of my favorite historical periods fascinating. Every detail, with the exception of ultra-perfect Balian, is down to the T. Scott has recreated the Middle Ages with such a realism that they speak to us through the ages in the very subtext of his work. From the weaponry, the architecture, the interactions between people, to even the battle formations and times of day that Muslims and Christians fought during the 12th century, this is all genuine. there are so many stories to be told here, during the reconstruction of Europe from its massive, tragic downfall in the 6th century, I’m so glad someone used this period. And not only that, but I really appreciate the use of the different faiths fighting it out as sort of an allegory for today. It’s the same fight going on with different weapons and words, which Scott cleverly alludes to at one point, making the emotional ties to this ancient era all the more indelible.
The main cast is equally proportionate to the supporting cast here. Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, Michael Sheen, David Thewlis, and other power players make short but memorable appearances that resonate throughout the movie. My favorite of these is Ghassan Massoud, who plays Saladin. While we never see hm that often, his character is similar to Baldwin in that he doesn’t want war, but political and religious pressures are pushing him into a battle that will cost many, many lives. He is excellent, and most importantly he’s a Muslim character that doesn’t give way into stereotypes that so many other films would have. As for the main cast, I’ve said my peace on Balian, but it must be noted that not everyone’s like that. There are some real winners, like Eva Green, who plays Sibylla, Baldwin’s sister. Her scenes suffer the most cutting, and it felt so vindicating to see the Special Director’s Cut edition and piece together what happens to her. She is a force to be reckoned with for me, especially now that the cut has been restored. She is given whole new sets of scenes that add to the emotional complexities, especially the ones involving her son. Without these scenes, her character is very confusing and inconsistent, and it is a definite boon to the film that she not go from one emotional state to the next without any coercing. Jeremy Irons electrifies as Tiberius, the Marshall of Jerusalem and Balian’s moral compass in the Holy Land. His scenes are few, but they are key, and Irons shows his expertise in authoritative but sympathetic words of wisdom as he tries to keep Christian Jerusalem from going into all-out war with the Muslims and Balian from falling off the righteous path. Edward Norton is the emotional heart of the first half of the film as King Baldwin IV. Underneath a silver mask to hide the hideous deformities left by his leprosy, he is trying extremely hard to keep peace in his time by keeping both the Templars at bay and his court satisfied with the truce. But his frail condition has many worried that the Muslims will attack and he will be unable to lead, or, worse, that he is lying down and making too many concessions to their heathen demands. He has so much weight on his slender shoulders, and watching Norton valiantly struggle to keep lives from being lost is heartbreaking and wondrously inspiring.
Sweeping cinematography, an immersive score by Harry-Gregson Williams, an extremely able cast, and a rich realistic tone make Kingdom of Heaven a sweeping film that should be remembered with the ranks of Spartacus and Gladiator in the realm of great historical epics. It’s a whopping three hours for the director’s cut, the only cut there should be, as far as I’m concerned, so there’s a lot going on. Luckily, it’s all great, and with the exception of one or two faults, I would be extremely tempted to call this a perfect film. To get swept away in this historical fervor is a joy and a pleasure that I plan to relish more and more often. Ridley Scott strikes gold again, and the Holy Land is done justice by his beautiful eye and his great cast. I give Kingdom of Heaven 9 1/2 leper kings out of 10. A high recommendation!
Tomorrow’s Sunday, so I don’t know what I’ll watch! It’ll make for a good review, though, I think! Until then!