Kingdom of Heaven

In Kingdom of Heaven Ridley Scott tries to do for the Middle Ages what he did for ancient times in Gladiator. Now, I need to confess that I was one of the few that didn’t think Gladiator was a great film. Oh it looks nice, and there are some great moments, but the script is deeply flawed. And, I’m afraid that Kingdom of Heaven, with it’s similar attributes and flaws isn’t even that good.

Let’s be positive first. Ridley Scott is one of the most visually dynamic directors around. He reliably delivers a stunning look with well composed visuals in every frame. Kingdom of Heaven is no different. The colors are vibrant, the images striking and the sets are fantastic. Just the image of King Baldwin, a leper who wears a silver mask to cover his disfigurment is fascinating. You hear his voice; you see the muscles in his jaw and neck working, but the mask is still. It’s an eerie effect, all the more so because this is one of the good guys. And kudos to Edward Norton for playing such a thankless role. I’d have never known it was him if it weren’t for the Internet Movie Database.

There’s a surprising number of good guys in Kingdom of Heaven. In fact, there’s a large number of liberal humanists in what was a brutal and spiritual age. Is this unrealistic? Probably. But that’s not what bothers me about the film. The purpose of historical fiction is not to say something about past ages but about our own. There is a lot in this film that informs the current situation in Jerusalem.

What did bother me was the fimmaker’s almost complete inability to emotinally involve us. You don’t care about any of these characters, except maybe Balian, Orlando Bloom’s role. One case in point is the role played by David Thewlis, listed as merely hospitaler in IMDB. They don’t even give him a name. He is supposed to be a trusted advisor to Balian, inherited from his father. We are told there is great trust and affection in this bond, but we never see it, and when Balian finds hospitaler dead on a battlefield, we cannot emphasize with him.

Also, I was drawn out of the movie by Balian’s supernatural skill at soldiering. Early on, it is established that he is talented but has much to learn. On the road to Jerusalem, he gets one lesson from Godfrey, his father, played by Liam Neeson, before the old man is killed. It must have been a heck of a lesson because Balian becomes a killing machine after that. And where did he learn all that stuff about defending fortresses? Not from blacksmithing and not from his father’s noble friends-at least not that we saw. Depicting these processes seems to be a lost art in Hollywood where the emphasis is on the next money shot or awesome stunt. It’s a pity, because those moments provide valuable opportunities for characterization.

What I’m most afraid of, I guess, is the inevitable copycats that will be produced should Kingdom of Heaven be successful. After all, Gladiator spawned Troy, Alexander, and King Arthur, all projects with interesting facets but which failed to live up to their inspiration, which, as I said wasn’t all that great to begin with. And while I’m all in favor of Medieval epics, I’d hate to see this one used as the guide.


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May 2005
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