KINGDOM OF HEAVEN is a triumphant entry in the bulging cache of intelligent, artistic, spectacular entertainments conjured from the vision, talents and skills of one of cinema’s masters of design and atmosphere, Ridley Scott.
The fortuitous arrival of fate, in the guise of noble lineage, links with a spasm of justified revenge to release a grieving young blacksmith from servitude in his hillside French village. The year is 1184. Status and station find cause and purpose in a three-year journey that takes the fledgling knight first to Italy, then across the Mediterranean to the ever-disputed Holy Land. Love and war, loss and valor, triumph and destiny sweep Balian, son of Baron Godfrey of Ibelin, into a place in history during the desperate Siege of Jerusalem.
As raw and unyielding faiths battle for dominance and the right to say who to pray to and where you can do it, their variously devout or fanatical adherents wrestle with less-exalted human quests for glory, riches and power. Balian (Orlando Bloom) learns some of the ropes from his father (Liam Neeson) as he deals with the loyal and the gallant, trapped in their positions by duty, honor and devotion, and the craven, opportunistic plunderers, slaves to their greed, avarice and rapine.
The intricately woven script by William Monahan covers a host of characters, real and fictional, with fully fleshed out traits for each. Like any self-respecting historical epic, for the sake of brevity, clarity and dramatic license it naturally re-arranges and simplifies some events and relationships, but the structure holds and interest doesn’t flag through the many episodes and long but satisfying running time. Eschew the theatrical release of 144 minutes, which Scott disowned; instead sally forth and be enveloped in the magisterial 194-minute director’s cut.
Instead of trying to squish the vast epoch of The Crusades (nine between 1095 and 1291) into an unholy jumble, Scott and Monahan wisely hone in on one signal event and use it as a narrative and thematic bridge to summon the period and place, the types and creeds, the famous, infamous and the forgotten (those guys on fire falling off a wall).
As in Braveheart, but on a broader scale, the sense of being there is palpable; you immediately and repeatedly think “this is what it must have looked like.”
From the superstitious isolation of the village to the teeming port of Messina in Sicily, through a gale-swept sea crossing to the parched desert, into skirmishes, raids, doomed charges and massed battles, Scott and his gifted team work visual wonders showing the sundering of a fragile peace that brings fresh havoc to the Holy Land. $130,000,000 went into play, with 30-odd assistant or 2nd-unit directors managing the mob, a mass of extras, hundreds of horses, 86 stunt people and a host of accoutrements. Scott’s go-to garment genie Janty Yates oversaw 64 assistants with the 14,000 costumes. There was a horde of medieval weapons, the rigging up of some full-scale siege towers and catapults and designing 650 flags and pennants to snap in the ceaseless Moroccan breeze (filming was done there and in Spain). Some 1,500 effects shots complement the surging human tableaux. Harry Gregson Williams music score is akin to plaintive echoes from the distant past; John Matthieson’s masterful cinematography is simply remarkable. The action scenes are tremendous. Does anybody hurl flaming projectiles better than Ridley Scott?
Bloom, 27, fresh from the rigors of Troy, put twenty pounds of meat on his lean frame. He’s good, maybe a tad less commanding with those siege-speeches than the part fully requires, but not enough to hurt the film. Everyone else fit their roles like gloves (make that gauntlets). Neeson’s aging warrior Godfrey exemplifies authority, assurance and acceptance. In the hero’s corner, Eva Green’s exotic Princess Sibylla is deep, sensual, practical, and agonized; her brother, the “leper king”, Baldwin IV, his ravaged face hidden behind a mask, is a challenge well met by Edward Norton, whose voice conveys the pain and exhaustion of a just leader; Jeremy Irons is steady and forthright as ‘Tiberias’ and David Thewlis’ calm ‘Hospitaller’ may actually represent an angel in earthly form.
Contesting these decent Christians are those who give the whole cross idea a bad name, ala the arrogant and devious Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas, raw and wolfish) and the joyfully brutal Reynald of Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson, like a crazed bear). Their Saracen Muslim opponent, the legendary Saladin, is done with great respect by Syria’s Ghassan Massoud, his imposing bearing and fierce eyes at ease with the sultan’s calm wisdom, sense of justice and steel resolve. *
Naturally enough, in a modern mood fraught with fear, mis & dis-information, Scott’s fair-minded look at the twisted and tangled historical roots of an ongoing cross-cultural maelstrom earned scorn from fixed (Fox’d?) idealogues. Whatever you do, don’t spread blame evenly, foster understanding or ask the righteous to think. Public response in America, likely a mix of ignorance with impatience, was a disappointing $47,400,000. The worldwide gross took it up to $230,700,000.
All this lovingly crafted effort and detail failed to draw a single nod from the 2005 Oscar lineup. Should have been a no-brainer on the list for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction, Music Score, Costume Design, and Makeup.
Scott’s smart and thoughtful, vibrant and visceral spectacle joins ranks with El Cid and Braveheart as the best of the cinema sagas set in those wild and passionate times. With Michael Sheen (getting just deserts), Velibor Topic, Alexander Siddig, Jon Finch.
“Be without fear in the face of your enemies. Speak the truth always, even if it leads to your death. Safeguard the helpless and do no wrong. That is your oath…”
* Massoud on the man he played: “Everything in Saladin’s own life is also my philosophy. My culture is that of Saladin. My religion is the same religion and I speak the same language, have the same geography and the same history. It is in my nature to understand Saladin more than anyone in the West. He has been a role-model for us since our youth. From the philosophy of the people, Saladin was an example for the Muslim hero who returned to Arabs and Muslims their pride and their dignity.”