In “Kingdom of Heaven” Ridley Scott treats the events which led up to the Third Crusade of 1189-1192–specifically, the fall of the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem–with approximately the same degree of historical accuracy that he showed toward the late second-century turmoil within the Roman Empire in “Gladiator” (2000)–that is to say, not much. The film is about as implausible a depiction of circumstances in the Middle East prior to the city’s conquest by the Moslem leader Saladin as one could possibly imagine–not only in terms of the military-political situation, but with respect the whole feudal system of medieval Europe as well. (It certainly doesn’t approach the degree of adherence to fact that Scott demonstrated in dealing with a much more recent event in “Black Hawk Down.”) But momentarily setting aside that whole concern (which, admittedly, is difficult for a historian to do), the question that arises–as it did with “Gladiator”–is whether the final product is sufficiently rousing and intelligently manufactured to offer two hours of good entertainment despite its largely fictional nature.
In this connection things are actually easier with “Kingdom” than they were with “Gladiator,” because here the director needn’t worry about an earlier film that was in many respects a more literate and intelligent treatment of the subject. Anthony Mann’s “The Fall of the Roman Empire” (1964), while also taking some glaring liberties with history, dealt with the reigns of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus more skillfully than “Gladiator” did (and didn’t feel the need to throw in a “Spartacus” subplot to pump the material up). With this subject, the competition is far less fierce. With the exception of Cecil B. DeMille’s hilariously goofy 1935 pseudo-epic, the third crusade hasn’t attracted much attention from filmmakers, except when Richard the Lionhearted returns from it to restore peace to England in the vast array of Robin Hood movies. So in this case Scott at least doesn’t have to confront invidious comparisons.
What he does need to be concerned with, of course, is simple judgment–and that’s where “Kingdom of Heaven” proves a lot less than a cinematic paradise, primarily because it doesn’t have the courage to tell the story without recasting it into a mold that panders to the expectations of the contemporary ultra-mainstream audience. In the scenario fashioned by William Monahan, the hero is Balian (Orlando Bloom), a French peasant blacksmith who learns, just after his wife has killed herself over the death of their son and he in turn kills the spiteful priest who says she’s rotting in hell, that he’s actually the illegitimate son of Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), lord of a fief in the Holy Land, who’s come back to Europe to confess his paternity and adopt the young man as his heir. On the journey east Godfrey is seriously wounded in a fight with soldiers sent to arrest Balian, but before expiring he’s able to bequeath him his title and land, as well as giving the fellow a crash course in fighting ability–which must take with a vengeance, given that by the time he’s shipwrecked on the coast Balian has miraculously morphed into the finest swordsman and most noble knight in Christendom. The new lord of Ibelin, who quickly earns the respect of the Moslem leadership of Damascus under the noble Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) as well as the ordinary folk on his fief, is well received by the King of Jerusalem, the leprous Baldwin (Edward Norton), who hides his ravaged face behind an iron mask, and the ruler’s chief military advisor Tiberias (Jeremy Irons), both of whom seem to have stepped out of an eighteenth-century Enlightenment handbook, believing as they do in a realm where adherents of all faiths will live together harmoniously and intolerance is severely punished. He’s also soon embraced–literally as well as figuratively–by Baldwin’s sister, Princess Sibylla (Eva Green), even though she’s married to intolerant war-monger Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), head of the royal army, who also despises Balian as a false noble and is conspiring with reckless Reynald de Kerak (Brendan Gleeson) to foment a quarrel with the Moslems. When they succeed following Baldwin’s death and Guy’s accession (Balian, the king’s choice, having declined the crown), the result is a battle in which the entire Jerusalem host is wiped out, leaving Balian to lead the defense of Jerusalem against Saladin. A massive siege follows, in which Balian holds the city long enough to persuade Saladin to accept its surrender in return for safe conduct to the coast for all its inhabitants.
The history is rather different. There was a Balian, but he was born in Ibelin and succeeded normally to the lordship; by 1187 he had married a Byzantine princess and had several children by her. There was also a King Baldwin (IV) who was a leper, and there was dissension between him and his brother-in-law Guy, the husband of Sybil (who supported her spouse unequivocally and never had any romantic involvement with Balian). But the problems were dynastic rather than ideological, and there certainly was no “Enlightenment-style” party among the Christians favoring some sort of religious syncretism. In any event, by the time of Saladin’s advent after Reynald’s provocations, Baldwin IV had died and been succeeded by his young nephew Baldwin V. Guy did lead the Jerusalem knights to their destruction against Saladin, but Balian was part of the rear guard in the battle, and escaped to Tyre. He then requested of Saladin permission to enter Jerusalem and remove his family, which Saladin granted on condition that he remain in the city no more than one night. Once there, however, Balian was persuaded to stay and defend the city, being freed of his oath to Saladin by the patriarch on grounds that any pledge to a Moslem wasn’t binding; his wife and children did leave, however. The siege that followed was much more modest than that depicted in the film, and the portrayal of “blacksmith” Balian concocting elaborate defensive schemes against it is pure invention. As the first walls tumbled, Balian threatened to slaughter the Moslems inside Jerusalem and destroy the mosques there unless Saladin agreed to allow the Christian inhabitants to be ransomed. Saladin agreed, though several thousand inhabitants remained to be enslaved because of insufficient funds. For this Balian was blamed rather than feted.
One may well argue which of the stories–Monahan’s or history’s–is the more dramatic, though probably Scott thought that his movie needed some overarching idea of religious tolerance to work in the present political climate and a romance to draw in a female audience. But whatever the case, the sad fact is that he hasn’t succeeded in fashioning the tale he’s chosen to tell into the sort of grandiose, exotic and exciting piece he was aiming for; even on its own “Braveheart”-inspired level, “Kingdom of Heaven” fails to soar. A good deal of the problem comes from the fact that, in its present form at least, the movies bumps along from episode to episode, ignoring necessary transitions in favor of “moments.” The abrupt transformation of Balian from simple blacksmith to top-notch swordsman is only the most glaring example of this. Yet each of the sequences that are included lags badly in tempo; and while it may be that some of the narrative choppiness is lessened in Scott’s supposedly preferred 220-minute cut, the sluggish pace of what remains in this 145-minute edit makes one reluctant to express a hope to see it. Nor are the characters given any depth. Csokas and Gleeson make cardboard villains, especially since Scott encourages both actors to camp it up disgracefully, and both Irons as the gruff Tiberias and David Thewlis as a Knight Templar with an outlook so modern he might be described as a twelfth-century Voltaire do little more than replay isolated traits over and over again; and while Massoud cuts a noble figure as Saladin (and certainly a more authentic Moslem leader than, say, Laurence Olivier gave us in “Khartoum”), it has to be admitted that some of his English lines sound garbled. Green just smiles, pouts and seduces like a prima donna, and though Norton and Neeson give their small parts some underlying heft, they’re both too minor to rescue things. By far the biggest casting miscalculation is Bloom, who certainly doesn’t fulfill the promise of his surname. He comes across, despite bulking up, as about two sizes too small for the part, as well as remaining throughout a blandly uninteresting presence; there’s simply no charisma in his Balian–the morale-boosting pre-battle speeches to his men fall especially flat (not that they’re particularly well-written)–and that’s what’s desperately needed if the hero is to bring the movie to life. And while John Mathieson’s cinematography is certainly expert, Scott’s penchant for shooting as many images as he can with some sort of particles dancing in the frame–be they snowflakes, smoke from candles or vast swaths of dust thrown up from the desert by horses–gives a good deal of his work a phonily artsy cast. One does have to congratulate the CGI craftsmen on conjuring up impressive vistas of Jerusalem surrounded by attacking hordes, even if some shots–as the ones of collapsing siege engines–aren’t entirely convincing. Harry Gregson-Williams’ score is too heavy on the choral contributions.
There’s so much potentially great material in medieval history for filmmakers to investigate that it’s a pity when a picture like this flubs the opportunity by dumbing things down and imposing modern perspectives on a far different time, in the process turning what might have been fascinatingly different into something ordinary and dull. Both narratively rushed and lethargically paced, this would-be crusading epic aims to be lion-hearted but instead comes off lily-livered.