1184. Christian armies have been in control of Jerusalem for 100 years, since seizing it from the Muslims. King Baldwin IV (an uncredited Edward Norton doing Brandoisms behind an iron mask) and his Arab opponent Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) are at peace, but it’s a fragile truce threatened by warmongering elements on both sides.
Meanwhile, back in France, blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom – didn’t he also play a blacksmith in Pirates of the Caribbean?) is mourning the self-imposed death of his wife, which followed the loss of their child. One day, Balian receives an unexpected visit from Crusader Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), the father he never knew. Godfrey ends up bringing Balian back to Jerusalem with him, though not without some hesitation. Orlando Bloom is less Legolas than Aragon here, dark-haired and bearded, brooding, reluctant to follow his destiny, etc. “It seems I’ve lost my religion,” he admits at one point, REM-style.
What Balian is meant to become is a great military leader and strategist. The movie takes a long, long time to get there, yet it never really explains why or how Balian goes from simple blacksmith to the “perfect knight”. The bulk of the story is devoted to political scheming, which can be a bit ponderous. The Marshall of Jerusalem (Jeremy Irons), who punishes severely against those hostile with the Arabs that live among them, but some still encourage strikes against Muslims, notably conniving baron Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) and the bloated bastard that is Reynald of Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson).
Like Gladiator, Ridley Scott’s latest epic is a sweeping production, but it doesn’t have the same intensity. 12th century Jerusalem is stunningly recreated with CGI much more seamless than the one used to do the Coliseum and the action scenes are all brilliantly crafted, but the story and the characters are not as involving. Orlando Bloom holds his own even if he doesn’t have Russell Crowe’s larger than life presence, but none of his antagonists are particularly complex or interesting and Eva Green, while a gorgeous creature, fails to make the underwritten part of princess Sibylla memorable.
About 90 minutes into the film, this exchange takes place:
“Give me a war.”
“That is what I do.”
I’m sorry to say I was glad to hear that. War’s a horrible thing, but cinematically it’s generally more stimulating than agreeing to disagree. The siege sequence where outnumbered Christians fight back countless Arabs is very impressive. Fireballs and arrows fly everywhere, thousands of men cross swords and Scott goes nuts with the shutter speed and color saturation. It’s all meaningless and when it ends nothing is really resolved, but that’s war for you: a well-oiled machine with only the appearance of meaning.
That actually describes “Kingdom of Heaven” as a whole. You could make an argument about how respectful of the Muslim it is and how it doesn’t place valor and honor in any king (or God)’s hands, but in the end it’s all about how many extras in armor you can have going at it at the same time.