Kingdom of Heaven
(SPOILERS) There’s an oft-cited view that Kingdom of Heaven, in its unexpurgated as-Ridley-honest-to-goodness-intended director’s cut – in contrast to some of his other, rather superfluous director’s cuts, in which case – is a goddam masterpiece. It isn’t, I’m afraid. First and foremost, Orlando Bloom is not miraculously transformed into a leading man with any presence, substance or conviction. But there are other problems, more than evident, mostly in the form of the revisionist pose William Monahan’s screenplay adopts and the blundering lack of subtlety with which his director translates it.
As is frequently the case with historical movies, the problem is not that Monahan and Scott choose to reflect the present through the prism of the past, but that they do so to such an extent that it becomes impossible to suspend disbelief in their envisioning. Paul Verhoeven famously planned Crusade with Arnie in the early ‘90s, a picture that floundered on the rocks of a voluminous budget (Carolco opted to go with Cutthroat Island instead, and look what happened there). It’s debatable that would have shown any more fidelity to nuance in its Christians = bad, Muslims = good take, Verhoeven being one for excess in all things, but it at least wouldn’t have come across as ineffectually as Scott’s picture. There’s an element of “Tell us something we don’t know” to this scenario, presenting the atrocities of the Crusades but also of a mealy-mouthed apologia, presenting the Muslim front solely as victims of beastliness. Monahan’s take is a plea for mutual tolerance amid Bush Jr’s War on Terror, but one faces inevitable problems attempting to overlay modern sensibilities on those living a millennium ago, and the screenplay take this tack throughout: the divisions are between good (= moderate) and evil. And the evil are soooooo evil.
Priest: Convert to Islam, renounce later.
Balian: You’ve taught me a lot about religion, your eminence.
Early on in the picture, Godfrey de Ibelin (Liam Neeson) tells his bastard son Balian (Bloom), on repelling a force of men sent by his brother (Robert Pugh) “It was not that they had no right to take you. It was the way they asked”. And so it is with Monahan’s script; it’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it. Or rather, you can show people being good, bad or somewhere in between, but as soon as you start setting out your stall and presume your audience is too stupid to appreciate relative values, you’ve sunk all hope.
Initially at least, the picture isn’t too bad on presenting contradictory statements as they run through religion, law and social meter, but as soon as Michael Sheen’s half-brother priest appears, a living embodiment of hypocrisy, it’s pretty evident this is going to be rocky road to unearth any depth or nuance. Sheen’s really entertaining, a cartoonishly malign performance; his priest is such a monster, he goads Balian into killing him, setting out the standard that follows.
Martin Csokas, amusingly OTT as Dr Kafka in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, takes it to the next level as Guy de Lusignan, who practically has “boo”, “hiss” placards hanging over his head whenever he enters shot. The actual Guy was reputedly arrogant and foolish, some say ineffectual (Reynald de Chatillon considered him pathetic, and pushed him into the Battle of Hattin, depicted in the movie, on the reasoning that it would be cowardice not to confront Saladin), but he at least had a loyal wife (Eva Green’s Sibylla can’t wait to jump in the sack with Balian), one who willing asserted his claim to the throne of Jerusalem and remained married to him until his death. It’s as impossible to take Guy seriously as it is Balian, representing equal and opposite undiluted poles, and as they’re principal antagonist and protagonist, that’s a serious impediment to the picture’s effectiveness right there.
The list of simplifications doesn’t end there, alas. Once the siege of Jerusalem is underway, whispering words of doom and offering garlands of damnation is Jon Finch’s priest, incurring the disdain of King Baldwin (Edward Norton) and receiving the rebuke “I shall confess to God when I see him, not to you. Now leave me” before showing his true cowardly colours – he doesn’t really believe anything at all, and by implication, this must be true of all reputed men of God, unless of course, they follow Islam – when doom looks certain (thus confirming the wisdom of Balian’s scepticism/ cynicism/ agnosticism). You could probably get away with one such caricature, but when they are pocked throughout the narrative like this, the cumulative effect is wearing and patronising.
Saladin: I did not give the cup to you.
The solitary contrast on the evil Christian zealots front is Reynald (Brendan Gleeson), not because he isn’t a caricature, but because he’s an insane caricature, and thus gets away with it through differentiation, dancing about in his cell or running Muslims through with gleeful abandon. It makes for a more effective equation, if it’s a simple equation you want (religious extremism = madness). Even here, though, the picture’s one-size-fits-all approach is in evidence. Reynald (who really was a very bad man) wasn’t actually a Templar, but by personifying them through him, they’re all presented as a baleful force (he was executed personally by Saladin, however, much as depicted).
Balian: There’s your religion. One spark, a creosote bush. There’s your Moses. I did not hear it speak.
Hospitaller: That does not mean there is no God.
In Kingdom of Heaven, those who are doubtful of the divine are inherently honourable, the rest are mad, bad or dangerous, pretty much. There are a couple of exceptions, although one couldn’t really call either the Hospitaller knight (David Thewlis) or Imad (Alexander Siddig) religious. What they both have, which makes them an agreeable exception in an achingly (as in painfully so) sincere movie, is a sense of humour. Hospitaller is a believer who has no truck with religion, which makes it unlikely that he’d be crusading in the first place, but one might at least accept as plausible that he’d adopt (heretical) views. As with all the characters, he’s given to over-telegraphing his every position – “I’ve seen too much religion in the eyes of too many murderers”; “So they are dying, for what the Pope commanded them to do?” asks an on-the-nose Balian, “Yes, but not Christ, I think. Nor this king” comes the equally unpolished response – but by sheer dint of being the unlikeliest knight ever, Thewlis has a knack of making his swine feed sound like pearls, and occasionally there’s an actual gem in there (“You go to certain death”; “All death is certain”). Apparently, Scott and Monahan envisaged the character as a spirt from God, something that entirely didn’t occur to me given every other aspect of the movie is thuddingly literal.
Balian: You have taken it very well that I have killed your master.
Imad: It was the end of his time. All is as God wills it.
Siddig, in contrast, who has cornered the market as Hollywood’s go-to Arab, peppers Imad’s dialogue with ironic stoicism and a lightness whereby it’s hard to tell if he believes anything and just likes platitudes (“This horse is not a very good horse. I will not keep it”; “And if God does not love you, how could you do all the things you have done?”) Both characters come more from the sword-and-sandals romp end of the idiosyncratic chain, so aren’t quite in line with the picture’s intentions, but they’re much more successful than the constant drip-drip-drip of unfiltered polemic masquerading as thoughtful examination.
Tiberius: But Saladin and the king, between them would make a better world.
The moderate stances are embodied by King Baldwin IV and Saladin (Ghassan Massoud, with whom Scott has worked twice since), and the actors are so good in their roles that their entirely anachronistic perspectives don’t feel nearly as off-putting as they should, at least until mulling the picture afterwards. Norton is outstanding as Baldwin, so it’s ironic he opted not to be credited (since he remains behind a mask). It’s a sensitive, pained performance, one you can feel the deleterious effects of the King’s condition (leprosy) in his movements, manner and cadence. Inevitably, since he’s reasonable, he has no truck with religion and wants only peaceful terms (Baldwin did indeed defeat Saladin at sixteen and maintain a truce while he presided over Jerusalem, but this was borne of pragmatism rather than a genuine vision of equality and fraternity).
Saladin: If I do not deliver war, I have no peace.
Imad: The King of Jerusalem will die soon. When he is dead, the boy will become king of a kingdom he cannot control. The Christians will make the war you need.
Likewise Saladin, whose popularity today is based more on the romanticised depiction of nineteenth-century authors, than the stock contemporary Muslims held him in (he was a Kurd). He’s envisaged as cajoled reluctantly into conflict, when he was really quite capable of ruthlessness (rather than unconditional safe passage granted from Jerusalem as depicted in the film, he declared a ransom must be paid, resulting in thousands of Christians who couldn’t meet it entering slavery). Likewise, he had no respect for the Christian faith, ordering the True Cross to be dragged the through the streets of Jerusalem. But the modernisation of these two characters is forgivable to the extent that this advance their thematic positions, more or less reflecting the situations they presided over; there were indeed significantly more extreme manifestations of both their religions surrounding them. Mostly, though, they’re effective because whenever Norton or Massoud are never less than commanding, adding shade and resonance to Monahan’s dialogue by dint of perceived intellect.
Tiberius: I pray Jerusalem and the world can accommodate such a rarity as a perfect knight.
The contrast with Bloom’s Balian couldn’t be starker. He’s introduced as a lowly blacksmith, a lowly blacksmith with a great facility for designing battle equipment yet who has inscribed on a beam over his smithy, “What man is a man who does not make the world better?” Oh, how noble is Balian. Poor Balian, subjected to mechanical flashbacks to happier times with his beloved. The actual Balian of Ibelin did defend Jerusalem and surrender it to Saladin in 1187, but he didn’t hail from France, was not illegitimate, and was an older man who didn’t have an affair with Sybelin but married the widow of Baldwin’s father (which by all accounts was a loving marriage). He was a believing Christian who favoured peace with the Muslims yet didn’t hold such sway over those in Jerusalem that the Christians weren’t going to massacre all their Muslim prisoners and destroy their holy places.
Balian as depicted here is simply too good to be true, both in terms of his lack of belief, and also our attempting to swallow Bloom as that character. He never seems remotely convincing as a great strategist, fighter, moral philosopher or skilled orator. He’d likely be an offensively dull character even if Bloom wasn’t playing him, but the actor only adds to the offence. When he comes on trading wisdom and others listen, it’s tantamount to Luke boasting about bull’s-eyeing womp rats in his T-16 back home. There’s no reason for anyone to be rapt and in awe of him because Bloom has no presence. The material here is much more interesting than John Logan’s in Gladiator, but the difference Crowe absolutely delivered there, and Bloom absolutely flails to do so here (this and the same year’s Elizabethtown would effectively be the start and end of his bid for leading man status; the public wanted none of it).
King Baldwin IV: If you continue like this, God will have to find a use for you. If God can spare you, that is.
Balian: God does not know me.
King Baldwin IV: Yes, but I do.
You can’t boast an effective epic without a screenplay that’s erudite in its themes, and you can’t voice those themes if you don’t have an actor of sufficient substance. Bloom makes the whole thing seem fake, even where the basis is factual; Balian’s threat to burn Jerusalem to the ground was pretty much accurate, give or take, but falls as ashes from Bloom’s lips. The character’s constant protestations of God being a stranger are tiresomely off beam, particularly when married to his specific morality. He’s happy to embark on an affair with Guy’s wife, but baulks at the offer to oust Guy and marry Sybelin (“I cannot be the cause of that”), proclaiming unaccountably of Jerusalem, “No, it is a kingdom of conscience or nothing”. His rousing rallying speech finds him encouraging his men with “We fight over an offence we did not give”, again characterising everyone here who has any valid belief as scorning religious conviction (which simply doesn’t wash). It’s a phony sermon reeking of tractability, so clumsily aligned with modern mores it makes you want to throw up your hands and ask what kind of historical epic they thought they were making. Astronauts might as well have landed halfway through.
Other excruciating zingers traipsing from his lips include “Sounds like our prayers” when he hears Muslims bowing to Mecca (of course, because all religions are the same; if only we could all just get on), and his pronouncement to Imad that “I have been a slave, or very near to one. I will never keep one or suffer any to be kept” (ironic considering the real Balian’s actions suffered exactly that). And visually, there’s the daft sight of his genius toppling a succession of attack towers like dominoes, as if Scott has suddenly got his Peter Jackson mojo bubbling under.
Scott’s work, purely visually, is as technically effective as one would expect. His propensity for inserting aesthetically incontinent, choppy slow motion during action sequences hasn’t aged well, and his desire to include gravity-free, prettified snow marbling scenes recalls nothing so much as Legend, but there’s the occasional flash of greatness (a soldier, picking up a striking blue flower, is rudely killed with an arrow through his face). He’s as cack-handed with his choice of music as he was in Black Hawk Down– perhaps he was conscious on some level of how racist that picture was, and chose to over-compensate; of course, he’d go back the other way with his casting of Exodus: Gods and Kings– relentlessly ethereal choirs dousing everything.
Tiberius: I have given Jerusalem everything. At first, I thought I was fighting for God. Then I realised we were fighting for wealth and land. I was ashamed.
Even at three-hours-plus, there’s a slew of actors who get short shrift. Iain Glen bags the Sean Connery Richard the Lionheart cameo as Russell Crowe was unavailable. You wonder why Kevin Kidd suddenly disappears, or what Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is doing in about two scenes (the early passages seem to set up a later confrontation with Waldau and Godfrey’s brother that never comes, particularly since Balian returns to France; maybe Ridley shot it but deemed it an ending too far). Eva Green is luminous but ill served with a character that goes from sympathetic to ruthless, to mercy-killing her kid, and back to sympathetic again. Jeremy Irons as Tiberius (based on Raymond of Tripoli) never entirely convinces, and one can only assume the actor couldn’t be arsed (he has been known to phone it in, and I’m just not feeling it here). He also gets possibly the crappiest, most over-stated speech in the picture, which is saying something.
So where does Kingdom of Heaven arrange itself in the Ridley pantheon? As a director, he has only ever floundered when entering the realm of politicised material, repeatedly so (Black Hawk Down, Exodus, Body of Lies), and one doubts he’ll learn his lesson at this point. To have made a great movie out of the Kingdom of Heaven material would have required understanding and contextualising the mindset of those living during that period, which wouldn’t simply have involved throwing brickbats at Crusaders and venerating Muslims. But would you expect that kind of movie from Sir Ridders? Would you be entertained by such a movie? For all that it flopped stateside, Kingdom of Heaven did surprisingly brisk business internationally; it just cost far too much to justify the outlay ($211m gross on a $130m budget), when Fox clearly hoped for Gladiator numbers (bean counters doubtless looked at Bloom’s supporting roles in two of the biggest franchises going at the time and made five from the result). The consequence? He chose to retrench, scale down, and try something he hadn’t tried before, and (wisely) hasn’t attempted again since: a comedy.
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