Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Kingdom of Heaven

Posted by CinemaPsycho on May 13, 2005

Directed by Ridley Scott/written by William Monahan/starring Orlando Bloom, Eva Green, Jeremy Irons, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Liam Neeson/20th Century Fox – Scott Free Productions

A medieval blacksmith takes a journey to Jerusalem and gets mixed up in a battle between Christians and Muslims.

I think it may be time for Hollywood to take a break with these historical epics. At least for a few years. Of course, if they actually make a good one, I’ll be happy to change my tune about that. But after Troy (thought it was OK), King Arthur (terribly dull), Alexander (outrageously awful) and now this mediocre pseudo-blockbuster, I really don’t want to sit through another one of these for about five years or so. It seems like general audiences feel pretty much the same way. The cycle is wearing itself out.

My expectations were a little higher for Kingdom of Heaven because of Ridley Scott, who should be canonized in my book just for having made Alien and Blade Runner. Plus he basically restarted this whole genre with Gladiator, a film I really loved. Of course, he also brought us 1492: Conquest of Paradise, and you don’t see that mentioned anywhere on the posters for this. I’m just saying, nobody’s perfect.

This movie, as I vaguely remember it after taking a nice long nap afterwards, is about Balian (Bloom), an 11th-century blacksmith whose wife committed suicide after falling victim to a plague. When Balian’s illegitimate father (Neeson) shows up and offers to take him along to Jerusalem, he basically tells the guy to go screw himself. But after he kills a priest for insisting that his dead wife is suffering in Hell, suddenly going on a trip doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

Along the way, Balian gets involved with the ongoing war between the Christians and the Muslims, falls in love with a married queen (Green) and winds up leading the defense of Jerusalem against the Muslims after the Christian army gets slaughtered. And all without messing up his hair.

To be sure, Kingdom of Heaven is a pretty boring movie. No question. But it’s not boring because it’s long and slow-moving. It’s relatively short for this kind of epic (2:25), and quite a lot happens in it. The reason the movie is boring is because it never makes us care.

While most of the reviews I’ve read have noted how it stacks up to Gladiator, the Scott movie it reminded me of most was his overrated Black Hawk Down. Both are war movies with technically impressive battle scenes, and not much else. Whereas in the previous film, the soldiers didn’t seem to particularly give a shit about the cause they were there fighting for (so why should we?), in this movie the soldiers are fighting a brutal, bloody war for no particular reason. They’re merely trying to gain land and slaughter the Muslims because “God told them to”.

Of course, this is the whole point of the film, that a war based on religious differences is completely stupid and futile. I understand that. But that doesn’t make the characters any more sympathetic or the situation seem any less ridiculous. When the Christians go into battle against an army that completely outnumbers them, are better fighters and are determined to keep their land, it doesn’t come off like a tragedy when they get their collective asses kicked. It’s more like, “well, what did you expect, dumbass?”

It’s been speculated that the movie is meant to mirror the current situation in Iraq. Scott has denied this vehemently, and frankly, I honestly believe him. I don’t think this film actually has that much on its mind. It’s quite simply a film about a war that took place centuries ago and has no relevance to today. That’s exactly what keeps it from actually being interesting.

Because there is no real valid justification for this war (at least to anyone with any semblance of common sense), we have no particular reason to care about its outcome. We’re not personally invested in it, and it just seems like a big waste of time and effort for all involved. Whereas Gladiator was a personal story about one man’s journey against a specific historical backdrop, here Balian’s story fades into the background among all the arguments between Jerusalem’s political and religious leaders. It’s kind of like watching a medieval version of C-SPAN, and it’s even less fascinating than that sounds.

The whole thing seems like the wrong story told from the wrong point of view. After arriving in Jerusalem, Balian is mostly on the sidelines until the end of the film. What’s left seems like merely an excuse for Scott to stage “kick ass” battle scenes, despite the script’s insistence that it’s all pointless. Like Black Hawk Down, it’s the combat-cinema equivalent of gonzo porn. It’s war only for the sake of war, “sport killing”. If bloodshed turns you on, you’ll find plenty to wank off to here. The rest of us are stripped of any reason to give a shit. I can only imagine how this film’s contradictions would be articulated by its makers.

Monahan: “Isn’t war tragic and terrible?”

Scott: “Yeah, but it sure looks fuckin’ cool, doesn’t it?”

Don’t get me wrong – I understand that war is sometimes a necessary thing (though not always, George W.) It’s just not necessary in this case. There’s no reason, no purpose, no motivation, no point. So why are we watching this? What are we supposed to learn from it, other than that the Crusades were an idiotic and foolish endeavor? Any 10th-grade history student can tell you that. It’s not like the movie takes any kind of satirical point of view towards its subject. If anything, Scott seems convinced that this is a story worth telling. He just doesn’t seem to know why, and if he does have a reason he fails to communicate it to the rest of us. It’s as if he always dreamed about making a movie about this time period, but somehow neglected to have anything worthwhile to say about it.

Then what absolutely killed me (spoilers here) was how the film ends! My god, what the hell were they thinking? Once the Muslims attack Jerusalem, Balian comes back into focus and rallies what’s left of the city to defend it. Then, after a long, drawn-out battle in which there are countless casualties on both sides, Balian negotiates surrender, and the remaining Christians evacuate the city! Well, Jesus Christ man, what the fucking hell was all that bloodletting for? If they were just going to surrender, why didn’t they do that in the first place, BEFORE all those lives were lost? What exactly was achieved by this huge massacre? What was the point to it all?

It doesn’t help that Scott can’t seem to decide what was more heroic, continuing to fight and die for stupid reasons, or surrendering and rendering the whole thing moot. Talk about mixed messages! I guess we’re supposed to respect Balian for rejecting the whole religious motivation for the Crusade and making the lives of the citizens of Jerusalem his priority. I can see that. But then, why wait so long to surrender? And frankly, it’s yet another example of Hollywood applying modern thinking to a time period in which such ideas would be roundly dismissed as “heresy”. It doesn’t ring true that Balian would be considered a hero for going against the prevailing wisdom of the time. In fact, they probably would have beheaded him and continued fighting down to the last Christian. War was just something people did back then, like going to work. If anybody actually questioned it, they most likely kept it to themselves.

I suppose the movie is to be admired, in a perverse way, for its evenhanded portrayals of both sides of the war. There are good and bad Christians here, and good and bad Muslims as well. Neither side is completely vilified. That may be considered a positive thing, but it doesn’t make for a satisfying war movie. It doesn’t give us anyone to root for or against. I’m not saying the Muslims had to be in the wrong – the Christians could’ve been the bad guys, and Balian could’ve joined their side, like a Dances with Wolves scenario. But God forbid (literally) either Christians or Muslims be portrayed as villains, right? Does anyone really think this movie would’ve been made in this political climate if the filmmakers had taken a side? If both sides are equally wrong and equally right, then we don’t particularly care which side wins. It may be politically correct, but it feels emotionally unbalanced.

On the other hand, some of the extreme fanatics on both sides are still going to feel like they’re being portrayed as the heroes, and some of them will still feel demonized. You can’t please everybody. So why bother trying? (Never mind that this all took place 10 centuries ago…that would require a rational perspective on history.)

But even beyond its muddled messages, Kingdom of Heaven still feels like a letdown. Yes, it looks fantastic, but all the striking visuals in the world can’t make up for a weak storyline and so-so performances. Once Neeson exits the film relatively early (the man’s got some serious gravitas) the air seems to have been let out of the movie, like a slow leak that just won’t stop. I don’t think Bloom’s a terrible actor, but his character is written so vaguely, and changes so often with the needs of the script, that we never get a strong bead on exactly what kind of guy Balian’s supposed to be. Bloom’s just not a powerful enough presence to compensate for that. Somehow the makeup department has made the gorgeous Eva Green look like a three-dollar Tin Pan Alley hooker (check her out in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers – possibly the most underrated film of last year – but make sure you see the NC-17 version. Yeow). I did enjoy seeing veterans like Irons and Thewlis in rare good-guy roles for awhile, but their efforts are wasted when you just don’t care about what’s happening on screen. The ubiquitous Gleeson and Marton Csokas chew the scenery enough to help keep you awake. Strangely enough, the best performance comes from an uncredited Edward Norton, who seems to be channeling Brando as a leper King whose face is never shown. Good thing for him that most people don’t even know he’s in the movie.

I’m not saying Kingdom of Heaven is a complete disaster. It’s not a terrible film, just a misguided and uninteresting one. I didn’t outright loathe it, but I can’t say it was very good either. It’s pretty sad when you go to a film by a director you (mostly) really admire, and you almost wish you had gone to the Paris Hilton movie instead. Almost. If that information doesn’t properly express my disappointment, I don’t know what possibly could.

**   5/13/05

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