"By what you decide to do every day, you will be a good man or not."
--David Thewlis, "Kingdom of Heaven"
Things come in waves in Hollywood, where chance borrowings are the norm. The years 2004 and 2005 saw a return to the sword-and-sandals epics of the 1950s and early 60s. Some of these films, like Antoine Fuqua's "King Arthur," were mediocre; some, like Oliver Stone's "Alexander," were downright boring; while others, like Wolfgang Petersen's "Troy" were fun to look at but not too stimulating. Ridley Scott's 2005 tale of the Crusades, "Kingdom of Heaven," falls somewhere in between. It's big, sweeping, sprawling, and grand but still a far cry from "Ben-Hur" or "Spartacus."
I found "Kingdom of Heaven" suffering the same fate as "Alexander" and "Troy" in that none of these films have a star capable of sustaining our interest for longer than a few minutes. "King Arthur," ironically, had the strongest lead in Clive Owen, but he was buried under a mountain of dreary dialogue, dismal skies, dusky castles, and dubious deeds. On the other hand, Colin Farrell as Alexander was simply out of his league and Brad Pitt as Achilles looked ready at any moment to hop on a surfboard.
Which takes us to Orlando Bloom in "Kingdom of Heaven," who suffers a fate in the film worse than any Saracen blade. He's a handsome and likeable young chap who wowed audiences in "The Lord of the Rings" and "Pirates of the Caribbean," where he played supporting roles. Here Bloom is asked to carry virtually the whole picture, and he's not up to the task, not when he's got old pros around him like Liam Nesson, Jeremy Irons, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, and Edward Norton upstaging him at every turn. It's rather like the case of "Troy," where I'd much rather have seen Sean Bean play Achilles than Brad Pitt. In "Kingdom of Heaven," I'd rather have seen Liam Nesson than Bloom as the star of the show. Neeson would have lent the affair more gravitas, more stability, more strength. But Hollywood will have its youth, in this case losing the studio about $80,000,000 in the process. Will Hollywood ever learn? I doubt it; note the DVD's trailer for "Tristan & Isolde."
The other problem with the film is that it's hard to remember anything that's happened about two minutes after watching it, it's so crowded with different actions, characters, locations, and battles. I got the impression watching the movie that a good deal of material had been edited out, probably due to time constraints, even though the finished product is nearly two-and-a-half hours long. Nevertheless, the movie survives its lackluster star and cluttered plot, thanks largely to the talents of director Ridley Scott, who makes most of the goings-on fun while we're sitting through them. Indeed, you may not have a clue what's happening, but much of it seems pretty exciting all the same.
The attention to historical detail helps a lot. Let me rephrase that: The attention to historical costumes, props, and scenery helps a lot. The fact is, the movie is largely a work of fiction, using real historical events like the Crusades and real-life characters like King Baldwin, Sibylla, Saladin, Guy de Lusignan, and Richard the Lionhearted to spice it up and give it a realistic feel. It's a common device in movies and often works well; think of "Titanic" and "Saving Private Ryan." Scott stages the fight scenes compellingly, too, further adding to the film's verisimilitude, although I preferred the clearer-eyed views of war provided by Wolfgang Petersen in "Troy."
"Kingdom of Heaven" opens in 1184 A.D., almost 100 years after the Christian armies of Europe had seized control of Jerusalem, a city sacred to both Christians and Moslems. People of Europe are heading to the Holy Land seeking fame, fortune, or, in a few instances, salvation.
One knight, the baron Sir Godfrey (Liam Nesson), has just returned from Jerusalem long enough to seek the son, Balian (Orlando Bloom), he deserted many years before. He finds Balian working as a blacksmith in a tiny village. Balian is reluctant to follow in his father's footsteps, but after coincidentally killing a man about this time, he figures it might be a good idea to get out of town in a hurry. Such coincidences and clichés pop up more often than seem credible in order for the director to hasten the story's action. Balian decides to go to Jerusalem with his father to "erase his sins."
Along the way, Godfrey teaches his son to fight with a broadsword. Godfrey is not a particularly gentle or sympathetic fellow and doesn't care that his son has a hurt hand. "I once fought two days with an arrow through my testicle," he declares. But the father also imparts some good advice to Balian. In discussing Jerusalem with him, he explains, "There, at the end of the world, you are not what you were born but what you have it in yourself to be."
Unfortunately, Neeson's character doesn't last long in the film, leaving poor Bloom to handle most of the road alone. Along the way, Balian meets the evil Sir Guy (Marton Csokas), a powerful and villainous knight who takes an immediate dislike to the young man; and the even more-evil Sir Reynald (Brendan Gleeson), a titled Templar knight who wants all of the Holy Land for himself and isn't above provoking the local Moslem population into war to accomplish it.
When Godfrey dies, he makes Balian a knight, leaves him his title as baron, and bequeaths to him his castle, his lands, and his men. Not bad for a chap who just recently was a humble blacksmith. From there, Balian rises in power and respect and in due course must defend all of Jerusalem against the surrounding forces of the mighty Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), the king of the Saracens, a fearless and worthy opponent, brilliant and chivalrous. Saladin was a great tactician and the most famous of Moslem heroes.
Balian also meets Princess Sibylla (Eva Green), who is Sir Guy's wife, the King of Jerusalem's sister, and our hero's eventual romantic interest; the King of Jerusalem, Baldwin (Edward Norton), a dying leper and dedicated keeper of the peace; Lord Tiberias (Jeremy Irons), the Marshall of Jerusalem, who is also trying to keep an uneasy truce in the land; and a trusted Hospitaler (David Thewlis), a member of the order of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem and the only character in the story worthy of a motion picture of his own.
One has to commend the film for not taking sides, although the Christians tend to come out looking the worse for the sheer amount of villainy they produce. The twelfth century was a violent and superstitious period, with good and bad people among both the Christians and the Moslems. The two factions believed they had God on their side, and there is nothing worse than a religious war with "God wills it" as the battle cry from both camps.
As I mentioned before, the clichés help move the action along, but this doesn't always make them any easier to swallow. Balian needs to vacate town exactly when his father shows up; he spares a Moslem man's life in the desert, who later returns the favor in a big way; he falls in love with the most impossibly beautiful and unattainable woman in the land; he becomes a superhero fighting machine almost overnight; he dubs the servants and peasants of Jerusalem knights, and they instantly become better warriors for it; and so on.
Yet it is the scenes of combat that carry the day, bloody and brutal and faithful as they are, well deserving their R rating but keeping our attention. Then, too, the city of Jerusalem is beautifully rendered in the minutest detail, using scale models, CGI, and full-sized sets. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent. The music, while not exactly inspiring, is never overpowering, either. And the climactic battle for Jerusalem, which takes up almost the final quarter of the film, is well worth the wait.
In the end, Balian learns that the "Kingdom of Heaven" is not in any given place but within a person's heart and mind. He fights not for the bricks and mortar of Jerusalem but for its people and their safety. Moreover, as we might expect, the director does everything he can to draw parallels between what happened a thousand years ago and what's happening in the Middle East today. Every little bit we can take away from the film helps.
I shouldn't have been too disappointed in the DVD's video, having seen the movie in a theater, where I found the image fairly dark throughout. I suppose this is a Ridley Scott trademark ("Alien," "Blade Runner," "Gladiator," "Black Hawk Down," "Hannibal"), and he discovered his ideal time setting at the end of the Dark Ages. This darkness is obviously what comes across on disc as well, although Fox's not providing the transfer with a very high bit rate doesn't help much, either.
On disc the picture comes close to its theatrical-release ratio, measuring about 2.13:1 across my television, and it is anamorphic, enhanced for 16x9 televisions. Definition is OK in close-ups but not as sharp in medium and long shots. The dark tone makes it hard to discern much inner detail in shadowy areas of a scene, a circumstance that crops up in almost every sequence. The brightest outdoor shots look best, but even then there isn't as rich a tapestry of colors as I would have thought, probably an intentional choice on the director's part to convey an oppressive mood.
The audio is available in Dolby Digital or DTS 5.1. I listened in DD 5.1 and found the sound mostly impressive. There are excellent directional effects in the surrounds adding to the realism of the visual presentation, things like massed voices, flaming arrows, crashing waves, creaking boards, and the clash of iron on iron, plus a smooth musical ambiance throughout the listening area. There is also a strong, deep dynamic impact and a pleasingly warm tonal balance. However, I say "mostly impressive" because there are many instances where the sonic effects overwhelm the dialogue; turn up the sound to comfortably hear what people are saying, and you'll soon find the bass and surrounds are too high for comfort. It's a small price to pay, though, for the rest of the aural delights.
Disc one of this two-disc set contains the feature presentation, along with something Fox calls "The Pilgrim's Guide," a text commentary that provides historical information on the real characters and events of the story, viewed in a large box at the bottom of the screen as you watch the film. The first disc also includes an "Inside Look" at the movie version of "Tristan & Isolde"; fullscreen trailers for "Cast Away" and "Man on Fire" at start-up; forty-six scene selections, with a chapter insert; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and English and Spanish subtitles.
The first thing up on disc two is an "Interactive Production Grid," which lets you control a behind-the-scenes documentary experience from the point of view of the director, the cast, or the crew. You can also choose among "Pre-Production," "Production," or "Post-Production" perspectives. What all this fancy footwork means is that you can watch the eighty-three-minute documentary in any number of ways, or you can just press "Play All," as I did, and catch the whole affair at once. Anyway, you'll find practically everyone involved with the film interviewed and everything about the filmmaking explained; but, frankly, I began to find it all a little tedious after the first half hour.
Next up are a pair of A&E documentaries, "Movie Real: Kingdom of Heaven," forty-four minutes, and "History vs. Hollywood: Kingdom of Heaven," forty-three minutes. Of the two, I preferred the "History vs. Hollywood" segment, although both documentaries provide a wealth of historical detail. It's just that the first one seemed to me too much like a typical movie promo.
Lastly, there are four brief featurettes, a bit over two minutes each: "Ridley Scott: Creating Worlds," "Orlando Bloom: The Adventure of a Lifetime," "Production Design: Bringing an Old City to Life," and "Costume Design: Creating Character Through Wardrobe"; plus a widescreen (1.78:1) theatrical trailer.
"Kingdom of Heaven" is far from a perfect movie, but I didn't find it anywhere as bad as some other viewers have indicated. No, it is hardly the intellectual tour de force or inspirational epic I would have liked; nor is Orlando Bloom as strong a lead as his more seasoned acting partners; nor does everything in the film fit neatly into place as well as they could. Still and all, I found the battle sequences first rate, the attention to detail convincing, and the general excitement and passion of the story quite satisfactory. More important, having seen the movie first in a theater, I was pleased to find that I enjoyed it the second time through just as much, always a good sign.
"What is Jerusalem worth?" asks Balian. "Nothing," answers Saladin, walking away, hesitating, turning, and then adding, "Everything."
The movie may not be worth everything, but it's worth at least a viewing.