Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Kingdom Of Heaven (2005)

The Best Crusades Epic Yet - In 'Director's Cut' Form

- Ridley Scott's 2005 Crusade epic Kingdom Of Heaven is a tragic case. Scott wanted a three-hour Crusades epic that would be both action-packed and substance-filled. Well.... Scott may get this Crusades epic one day but, in Kingdom Of Heaven, he only got action-packed – the studio would not give him the second half. Fearing that nobody would go see a three-hour epic (even though the entire world had just finished paying something in the neighborhood of three billion dollars to see the three-hour epic Lord Of The Rings films) the studio made Scott edit down his three-hour Crusades epic into a two hour and twenty minute action/adventure film. Scott's "Director's Cut" on DVD is a much better film than the cut that made it to theatres (and bombed miserably) but even the theatrical cut of Kingdom Of Heaven is the best, albeit flawed, Crusades epic yet. The cast is great, the action is cool, everything looks good and the music is powerful but Kingdom Of Heaven is also rushed resulting in underdeveloped characters (in theatrical cut form), themes get lost in action scenes, political correctness shows its ugly face and history is not told correctly.

Kingdom Of Heaven tells the story of Balian of Ibelin (played by Orlando Bloom) during the fall of Jerusalem, occurring just before the Third Crusade.  In the film, Balian is a blacksmith living in France whose wife committed suicide after the death of their child (even though the real Balian was a middle-aged nobleman by the time the Latins lost Jerusalem). During this critical time in Balian's life, his father Godfrey (Liam Neeson) returns to France to take him along to the Holy Land. Balian is questioning his faith because of his wife's death and initially wants nothing to do with his father and the Holy Land but, after becoming a wanted man after committing a criminal act, he is forced to join his father and go to the Holy Land. Balian is destined for big things in the Levant: ruling Ibelin, screwing around with the King's sister and becoming very much involved with the faction loyal to the leaper King Baldwin IV (Edward Norton). As he searches for answers and absolution for his and his wife's sins, Balian becomes a major player in the events leading up to the Siege of Jerusalem in 1187 by the Muslim armies under the command of Saladin (Ghassan Massoud).

Kingdom Of Heaven is not a completely historically accurate film but it is much closer to history than other films about the crusades. By setting the fictionalized story of Balian into the true setting of the fall of Jerusalem in 1187, Kingdom Of Heaven does well to capture the look and essence of the era while perhaps not presenting all the characters equal to history. Plus, unlike other crusades films, Kingdom Of Heaven sets out to do more than just entertain.

Since Kingdom Of Heaven was made after the 9-11-2001 attacks, it portrays the crusades along with the times and tries to be fair in its depiction of Muslims. One of the themes in Kingdom Of Heaven that rings true to a post-9-11 world is peace above disagreement. For example, because Balian is merciful to his opponents, his opponents return the favor, despite their disagreements over religion. Jerusalem itself is portrayed as a place where Christians, Jews and Muslims co-exist in peace. One scene sees Godfrey telling Balian how he values Jerusalem as a "new world" because people can live amongst others who are different from them (whether it be religious or national differences) in peace. Kingdom Of Heaven does deliver a fairly accurate portrait of the 12th Century Jerusalem, only with a heightened sense of tolerance.

But in this process of trying to portray the Muslims fairly, the Christians wind up with an unfair portrayal. One gets an impression of how the film regards the Crusaders right away as the film begins with words on top of a black background accusing them of, as well as looking for salvation, being in "search of fortune." I guess that we are meant to forget that many Crusaders sold off their possessions back home in Europe to fight in the Holy Land? The film continues on from its very opening generally depicting the Crusaders as vicious bloody thirsty killers. Kingdom Of Heaven features many composed, knowledgeable Muslim characters but a whole host of slobbering, screaming, war-crazed Christian soldiers.

Guy of Lusignan (Marton Csokas), particularly, is relegated to a bloodthirsty villain caricature in the film. Guy is presented in the film as a war-lusting maniac, a Darth Vader of the Crusades. The complexity of the real man of history is absent from the film – his good intentions but failures are nowhere to be found. There exists no reason for doing this to the Guy character other than to try to paint the Crusaders as blood-thirsty nutcases and to give the film a shallow villain for our hero to defeat. This hollow and one-sided depiction of the Christian Crusaders lends no weight to the film at all; rather, it teaches an extremely poor history lesson and makes the overall story feel incomplete.

The character of Saladin is also a victim of the political correctness of Kingdom Of Heaven. Saladin does not receive the complexity that history proscribes in the film either. The film makes no reference to the Muslim holy war, jihad, but makes plenty of reference to the Christians fighting on behalf of God. Saladin was instrumental in promoting the jihad to unite the Muslim world and to rid the Levant of the Christians and Kingdom Of Heaven makes no reference to it. The film even goes as far as insinuating that Saladin attacked Jerusalem only out of retaliation for a previous Christian-lead attack on Muslims, as if Saladin was not laying in wait for any excuse to take Jerusalem! When the religious and ruthless nature of Saladin is taken out, not only is the character less interesting but he also becomes a vague cutout of the real historical figure. So while Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud's subtle supporting performance is a treat to watch on screen, Saladin is relegated to a historically inaccurate caricature of the formidable and merciful opponent.

Although bogged down by political correctness and not being 100% historically accurate, Kingdom Of Heaven is the best film about the Crusades because it is a very well made film in just about every other way. The studio-enforced editing of the picture took its toll on the finished product. Because nearly one-fourth of the film had to be cut out, many characters feel
underdeveloped and some scenes feel rushed. However, Ridley Scott made the most of the situation and delivered a generally interesting and exciting Crusades epic. Scott's eye for visuals is put to great use in Kingdom Of Heaven through the many thrilling action sequences and terrific cinematography. Pretty pictures can only go so far - but, luckily, the performances are also impressive. Orlando Bloom, although often criticized for his performances, does an excellent job portraying the confused and good-natured warrior. In addition to the previously mentioned Ghassan Massoud, good performances from David Thewlis, Alexander Siddig, Edward Norton, Ghassan Massoud, Eva Green, Jeremy Irons and a scene-stealing Liam Neeson make the film plenty worthwhile all by themselves.

Since Hollywood seems unwilling to be intellectually honest about the Crusades, Kingdom Of Heaven, despite being far from a perfect snapshot of the era, is probably the closest thing we will get to a historically accurate film about the Crusades. Suffering from some poor historical characterizations and the studio-imposed editing, Kingdom Of Heaven is still a worthwhile and entertaining Ridley Scott action/adventure film. However, do yourself a favor and track down a copy of the Director's Cut version of the film.

CBC Rating: 7/10

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