Let me be absolutely clear about something right from the beginning. My most recent viewing was of the Director’s Cut. The glorious, three-hour-long Director’s Cut. Did this make a difference? No clue, I watched the original cut way back when it came out and I wasn’t about to rewatch the same movie just to find out what parts they cut out. I’m not that masochistic. I have a job. And other shit to write. Moving on.
Directed by Ridley Scott and released all the way back in 2005, Kingdom of Heaven stars Orlando Bloom as Balian (later de Ibelin), the blacksmith for a Lord in France who finds out he’s the bastard son of a well-regarded Crusader recently back from the Holy Land, Godfrey de Ibelin played by Liam Neeson, shortly after his child dies and his wife tops herself out of grief. At first seemingly angry that Liam Neeson is his father (God knows why), Balian soon decides to join dad in the family business of killing the enemies of the leper King of Jerusalem (voiced by Edward Norton). Him killing his half-brother priest may or may not have helped in the decision making. Dad doesn’t make it past Italy, unfortunately, but makes sure to make Balian his heir and a knight before carking it. Balian gets to the Holy Land, hijinks ensue. These included Balian bedding the King’s married sister Sibylla (played by Eva Green), sparing and impressing a Saracen Cavalier (played by Alexander Siddig), killing a decent number of Christians and Muslims, building a few wells and, of course, taking command of the defence of Jerusalem against Saladin’s overwhelming forces after the new King of Jerusalem (spoiler, Edward Norton dies) starts a war then promptly loses it, all while learning the true meaning of knighthood. Good times.
This is a good movie, but it’s far from a perfect one. Orlando Bloom plays the role surprisingly well. There were one or two moments where I felt he was channeling Legolas or Will Turner, but I’d blame some awkward and clumsy moments in the script more than anything (a moment before the final battle when he’s giving everyone a pep-talk stands out). His character was a little too perfect though. It was lampshaded at the beginning of the film that he’d fought for lords before joining his dad on horseback and in the engineers, had participated in the building of powerful siege weapons, but we see him the movie as one of the best fighters, a skilled tactician and an expert in irrigating deserts. I mean, is there anything this guy isn’t good at? Similarly the villains are cartoonishly bad. Or specifically Guy de Lusignan played by Marton Csokas, the man who would be king and fuck everything up. Don’t get me wrong, Csokas plays the role well enough, but he’s just such a fucking stereotype with no motivation beyond “I’m gonna start a war and kill me some Saracens.” This worked with Brendan Gleeson’s character, Reynald de Chatillon, the insane commander of the Knights Templar, but he’s played as the mad attack dog whose entire purpose is cutting down people who don’t deserve it for his twisted faith. Guy is supposed to be the one who stands to gain the most and lose the most, but we see no reason for him to be such an arsehole. He doesn’t seem to want to conquer, doesn’t seem to give any shits about the faith or crusades beyond providing him with support or troops. There’s some vague hope for winning glory on the battlefield, I guess, but it just seems shallow. Maybe I’m not reading enough into the character, but it seemed like he was acting the arsehole simply for the sake of being an arsehole who we can blame him when the Kingdom of Heaven all goes to hell, and the audience can say, “See? Should have listened to Balian.”
The direction is mostly good, Ridley Scott knows how to cut together an epic and visceral battle, the combat is clear, bloody and wider shots are used to great effect. Smaller skirmishes meanwhile are lonelier, more intimate affairs, but their setups (long shot of a single knight at an oasis) reminded me of showdowns in old westerns. There were a few moments where the editing made me cringe. One in particular, where Balian first meets the king of Jerusalem seemed badly and unnecessarily cut together. They start out talking over a chessboard then are suddenly looking at plans for a fort, which Balian gives his advice on, then awkwardly shifts to the king with him. It’s meant to feel like a long conversation but instead just feels like they decided to skip half a sentence. It’s weird and unnecessary. But not common. As for the music, well, the only time I really noticed it was during the big battles when I realised it was the same theme from The Mummy. Take that as you will.
Regardless, the cast is stellar. And I mean, really fantastic, putting excellent actors in even minor roles. Liam Neeson has a major role but doesn’t make it through a third of the film, Kevin McKidd has about three minutes of screentime before being killed off and is billed only as “English Sergeant” and Michael Sheen plays the priest I mentioned above. The one who gets stabbed by Balian not even ten minutes in. A special mention should go to The Hospitaller, played by David Thewlis. While remaining nameless, The Hospitaller actually manages to survive most of the film and plays a sort of mentor and father to Balian. He’s a man of faith if not religion, and acts as conscience for Balian in his harder moments with good humour and sincere kindness.
But the characters I really wanted to see more of were the Muslims. I remember when I first watched this not long after it came out for the first time on DVD feeling that the Muslims were treated unfairly, and they may have been. But rewatching it, I felt like this was one of the best possible portrayals of an Arab conquering Christians that we could’ve gotten out of 2005. The Christian folk who want peace always remark that it requires both the King of Jerusalem and Saladin to maintain the peace. Firuz, his retainer spared by Balian in the beginning of the film, is a good man and remarks that it was because Saladin was his teacher. Saladin, played excellently by Ghassan Massoud, does a solid job as the stoic general, who doesn’t really want to go through the trouble of taking Jerusalem but has his own fanatics to deal with. He shows disappointment when he meets a captured Guy, and good humour after treating with a worthy opponent. Not a perfect portrayal, but two years into the Iraq War and four years after 9/11 from an American director? Not bad. Not bad at all, and I wish we saw more of it.
Strange to think that this was directed by the same guy who’s now in so much trouble over fucking Exodus: Gods and Kings. What happened Ridley? You used to be cool.