A modern master of the historical drama has returned, this time to play with Christians and Muslims. Just what we need. Seriously.
"Kingdom of Heaven," set during the Crusades, opens today. (Twentieth Century Fox)
Sir Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven," which opens nationwide today, tells the story of real-life Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom), who traveled to Jerusalem during the 12th-century Crusades and wound up defending the city's inhabitants against a Muslim onslaught.
The film begins with a text crawl placing the story almost 100 years after the Christians took Jerusalem from Muslim hands during the First Crusade.
We join Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) on his journey home to France, where he finds his long-lost son, the village blacksmith named Balian. Godfrey wants Balian to leave France and return with him to the Holy Land. Balian initially refuses, but after a run-in with a priest, he changes his mind.
Not long into this cinematic crusade, Scott treats the audience to some swordplay—serious swordplay that translates in serious violence. But this is the 12th century à la Ridley, so get used to it. It's just beginning.
Balian is thus on course for the Holy Land, and after some twists and turns, he arrives—to find relative peace among the various religions, which, as one character notes, is ironic to find at the end of a crusade.
Balian's journey, however, is more than physical. It is also spiritual and psychological, as the young man tries to uncover his place in God's kingdom. Bloom wears the role of Balian well and should cement his status as a leading man with this picture.
Laced throughout the film is intrigue within Jerusalem's walls. The current king, Baldwin, is actually a leper who has negotiated a tentative peace with Muslims. Baldwin's efforts, however, are constantly endangered by some of his fellow Christians—namely, his brother-in-law Guy de Lusignan and a Templar Knight named Reynald.
"Kingdom of Heaven" really deals with two types of people—not Christian and Muslim, but people with and without goodwill. Time and again, characters with integrity are thwarted by those without, with religion as the rallying cry for dastardly deeds.
As one Christian pilgrim shouts, "To kill an infidel is not murder. It is the path to heaven." When soldiers ready their weapons in the slaughter, the refrain is, "God wills it!" Religious symbols dot the battlescape.
The movie is more than blood spattering—though there is a lot of that. In addition to Balian's spiritual quest and the court intrigue, there's also a romantic entanglement between Balian and Sibylla (Eva Green), sister to Baldwin and wife to the detestable Guy.
Sibylla embodies an alluring fusion of East and West, and she tests Balian's commitment to honor and integrity in various ways. Depending on your point of view, he passes some tests and fails others.
"There will be a day," Sibylla tells Balian, "when you will wish you had done a little evil to do a greater good." Is she right?
Balian is just one of several interesting characters. There's also the Hospitaler (David Thewlis), an advisor to Godfrey who comes to mentor Balian as well. It's the Hospitaler who tells Balian that "holiness is in right action and courage on behalf of those who cannot defend themselves."
King Baldwin, played entirely in mask by Edward Norton, is noble and commands respect, as does his advisor Tiberias (Jeremy Irons). Godfrey and the Muslim military leader Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) also set a high bar for integrity.
Historians, of course, will debate the accuracy of such portrayals, hypothesizing about Scott's gently revisionist layer of tolerance and conciliation. In this case, however, historical accuracy may be less important than historical relevancy, and there's no doubt about the latter.
Tiberias says at one point he first thought they were fighting for God, but "then I learned we were fighting for wealth and land." The relevance of that statement is certainly good for a discussion or two.
Beyond contemporary applications, however, "Kingdom of Heaven" is a worthy follow-up to Scott's 2000 epic, "Gladiator." The director takes audiences to a Holy Land then rips it apart with human machination.
The destruction stings even more, though, because of the just voices silenced in the process. Those voices seek God's will and actually believe it involves caring for God's children. The fact that Jerusalem—revered by Jews, Muslims and Christians—is at stake only brings out the best and worst in people.
The film might have improved with a bit more flesh on the Balian-Sibylla storyline. Their scenes together pass far too quickly, leaving us wanting more, which the DVD is certain to deliver.
"Kingdom of Heaven" brings in the summer movie-going season not with a bang, but with a Balian from 1,000 years ago. For the fan of historical drama, the kingdom has come.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence and epic warfare. Reviewer's Note: Lots of blood splatters, almost all of it in God's name.
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: William Monahan
Cast: Balian of Ibelin: Orlando Bloom; Sibylla: Eva Green; Godfrey of Ibelin: Liam Neeson; Tiberias: Jeremy Irons; The Hospitaler: David Thewlis; King Baldwin: Edward Norton; Reynald: Brendan Gleeson; Guy de Lusignan: Marton Csokas.
The movie's official Web site is here.