It is the time of the Crusades during the Middle Ages - the world shaping 200-year collision between Europe and the East. A blacksmith named Balian has lost his family and nearly his faith. The religious wars raging in the far-off Holy Land seem remote to him, yet he is pulled into that immense drama. Amid the pageantry and intrigues of medieval Jerusalem he falls in love, grows into a leader, and ultimately uses all his courage and skill to defend the city against staggering odds. Destiny comes seeking Balian in the form of a great knight, Godfrey of Ibelin, a Crusader briefly home to France from fighting in the East. Revealing himself as Balian's father, Godfrey shows him the true meaning of knighthood and takes him on a journey across continents to the fabled Holy City. In Jerusalem at that moment--between the Second and Third Crusades--a fragile peace prevails, through the efforts of its enlightened Christian king, Baldwin IV, aided by his advisor Tiberias, and the military ... Written by
Sujit R. Varma
"Why was the Crusader braver then the pirate? Because he fought, not for himself, but for the Cross. What force was it that met him with a valor as reckless as his own? The force of men who fought, not for themselves, but for Islam. They took Spain from us, though we were fighting for our very hearths and homes; but when we, too, fought for that mighty idea, a Catholic Church, we swept them back to Africa."
Clearly, director Ridley Scott does not agree with the above somewhat simplified philosophy expressed by Shaw through his character Don Juan. In "Kingdom of Heaven", wars and battles are fuelled by an assortment of motivations including land, money, political consideration, natural desire for violence, lust for fame, love of the common people, among others. Even more importantly, this "idea" thing does not prevent leaders from practicing tolerance, reaching compromises and even recognizing equality with alien faiths, as the movie tries to show us.
Recognizing that this movie is a mix of historical fact and dramatized fiction, let me focus on one rather unusual aspect of the hero Balian (Orlando Bloom), a blacksmith inheriting knighthood and an estate from a father appearing out of the blues. As Balian takes over the barren desert estate after the untimely death of the recently-discovered father, he does something that the father apparently has failed to do in all these years dig into the earth to find a reliable source of water and proceed to make the estate productive. Later, the resilient defence of Jerusalem owes just as much to Balian's knowledge of practical laws of mechanics as to his military skills. In the end, he turns away from the inherited knighthood and goes back to be a blacksmith, taking with him a queen. Triumph of the working class, as my summary line suggests.
Depiction of the arch adversary Saladin follows very much the line taken in the novels of Sir Walter Scott (another Scott here!), particularly "The Talisman", as someone mysterious (to the extent of being almost omnipresent - in the novel) but wise and benevolent, a breed of political leader that is sadly in short supply today. The hero Balian, as mentioned, has little interest in divinity and every interest in the welfare of the people. These two leaders, put in today's context, could qualify "Kingdom of Heaven" for a fairy tale.
It's difficult to refrain from comparing the attack of Jerusalem with the attack of Minas Tirith, and this very comparison can be construed as an unreserved compliment on Kingdom of Heaven. Another comparison that can be made is the depiction of a mighty army, done so unimaginatively in two similar movies last year. In Kingdom of Heaven, we see first a solitary figure on horseback at a distant mountain gap. "Saladin's army of 200 thousand is here" says Balian. "There's only one person", comes the reply from a follower. "No, they're all here" Balian quietly responses, at which point the angle of the camera starts to rise, first revealing the patch behind the mountain gap, filled with soldiers. Then, as the horizon of our vision continues to extend, layers of mountains and vales continue to appear, together with Saladin's mighty army deployed in an apparently haphazard, but ultimately strategic fashion. This must be seen to appreciate.
Of the cast, I must first mention Edward Norton. As the leper king of Jerusalem, he appears all the time behind a mask which covers his entire face, showing only his eyes with disfigured corners. But it's the voice that is so mesmerizing. Ever since Fight Club, Norton's voice has such a timbre that soft as he sounds, there are lurking behind tantalizing hints of subtlety, intrigue, compassion, power, and twenty other different and conflicting emotions all at once.
Bloom grows into his role, starting rather expressionless (which may not be totally unreasonable considering that the character has just lost a wife and a child) but gradually gaining in confidence. Liam Neeson and Jeremy Irons, playing father and mentor respectively, do not exactly have the most challenging parts in their careers. Eva Green retains the girlish defiance in The Dreamer, but adds to it the maturity and allure required for the role of Sibylla (as portrayed by the script, but not necessarily as recorded in history). And there is good old Brendan Gleeson, in the customary role of big bully fighter which he has perfected in Gangs of New York and Troy.
Kingdom of Heaven is one cut above Troy and Alexander last year.
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