"Kingdom of Heaven" is set in and around Jerusalem, during the Crusades of the 12th Century. It is about the willingness of religious zealots to kill and die for a symbol. It says that peace can only come from tolerance. What history could be more topical or urgent? Too bad the movie is such a blunt instrument.
Balian, Orlando Bloom, is a French blacksmith. On his lintel is carved, "What good is a man who does not try to make the world better?" He is called to adventure by his father, Godfrey (Liam Neeson), who is a knight. Balian’s journey is a mythic one. He will encounter mentors and enemies, receive a special weapon, discover a boon and return with it. The path he must follow is marked by his conscience.
In Jerusalem, Balian finds three religions struggling to live together on land they all call holy. The Christians are in power, and the idealistic king allows Muslims and Jews to worship openly. Other factions want the Muslims routed. King Baldwin is being eaten by leprosy, his face hidden behind a mask. Edward Norton voices him with gentleness and eloquence. Balian loves this king, and swears his allegiance.
King Baldwin has brokered a truce with the Muslim leader Saladin, Ghassan Massoud. As the truce disintegrates and battle looms, Saladin says, "God wills it." The Christians are saying the exact same thing.
The King tells Balian, "A king may move a man. But when you’re moved, your soul is yours. You cannot tell God that you were told to do it." Eventually, Balian comes to a fateful decision. Rather than choosing the lesser of two evils, he chooses conscience — and the movie seems to vindicate him. A few thousand dead soldiers might see things differently. Rigid people are a bore, if you ask me.
The director, Ridley Scott, also made "Gladiator". What "Kingdom of Heaven" has that "Gladiator" didn’t is spiritual maturity. What it doesn’t have is a Russel Crowe. However pumped up Orlando Bloom’s shoulders may be, you can’t rest a whole movie on them. He ain’t got the gravitas.
Director Scott creates a brilliant shot of two armies locked in a yin and yang embrace. But the battles are so up close, choppy, and incoherent, you feel beaten up. I resent that technique at the same time I admire its power. And computer graphic shortcuts are used to the extent that the Middle East often looks like Middle Earth.
Here’s a test: watch any five minutes of "Lawrence of Arabia" on a twenty-inch TV. It blows away "Kingdom of Heaven" on a sixty-foot screen. Maybe a movie like "Lawrence of Arabia" couldn’t be made today. But come on, at least trust us with some subtlety. We rewarded the ham-fisted "Gladiator" with Oscars and big box office, so we get "Troy," "Alexander," and now this. Talk about reaping what you sow.
"Kingdom of Heaven" is playing at Showplace West. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.