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Friday, May 6, 2005

Kingdom of Heaven (***)


I'm no historian or theologian but I have some working knowledge of the Crusades. Kingdom of Heaven did a fine job of hitting the high points of the events that lead to the Third Crusade: Reynald of Chatillon kidnapping Saladin's sister, King Baldwin IV dying of leprosy, Guy of Lusignan becoming King of Jerusalem and royally fucking up, leading his army to a slaughter and losing the Battle of Hattin and the True Cross to Saladin, and Saladin retaking Jerusalem for the Muslims.

A Crusader knight named Balian, the character played by Orlando Bloom, did defend Jerusalem and surrendered it to Saladin, though he didn't run off to France with Queen Sibylla (Eva Green, heavenly). But even then, Kingdom of Heaven displayed an admirable amount of verisimilitude, certainly far more than Gladiator, Sir Ridley Scott's last foray into the historical epic.

The movie felt authentic enough. Short of a real Doc Brown actually inventing the flux capacitor and putting it in a DeLorean, we'll never know exactly what the Crusades of a thousand years ago looked like, but Kingdom of Heaven seems to be a believable depiction of that time period. It's not retarded like Troy, boring like King Arthur, or as flaming as Alexander, that's for sure.

Orlando Bloom wasn't the ideal leading man for this sort of picture but he worked hard and didn't embarrass himself. He didn't have the presence perhaps his character could have benefited from, but the movie compensated - as the son of Liam Neeson's character, Godfrey of Ibelin, everywhere Orlando went, he met someone who knew his father. "You're Liam Neeson's son? He was a good man. I guess you're all right." "I loved your father. I will love you as well." Good thing for Orlando his father wasn't an asshole. Rarely has a young man benefited more from being his father's son. Luke Skywalker is as green as his lightsaber with envy.

The first act or so felt a little like an Xbox role playing game. Orlando kept meeting people who gave him a little speech about virtue or religion or evil and offering him choices. It was like Knights of the Old Republic or Fable - Choose your path! Orlando was pretty set on playing the game as a good guy though; he never strayed from his promise to his father that he'd be a good knight, a man of conscience.

Late in the picture, Orlando gives what would generously be called a controversial speech for a Crusader Knight in defense of Jerusalem when he announced to his army that the Christians have no more righteous claim to the Holy Land than the Muslims do. That's some positively progressive thinking for a Crusader, but the movie was steadfastly in the corner of personal responsibility and honor over blind devotion to religion and the violence and sadism done in God's name. Which is a lot of what the Crusades were largely about on both sides.

Kingdom of Heaven's depiction of Saladin may have been its most admirable quality. Saladin by historical accounts was a fair and just king, as much as a king could be in that time and place. He was known for his generosity and character, although he was vicious when crossed. The way the movie depicted the surrender of Jerusalem, Orlando Bloom got a pretty good deal from Saladin. In actual history, Saladin did allow all the Christians to leave the city without getting slaughtered, although there was taxation and payment involved for their lives.

I wish the movie did more to depict just how monumental a moment it was for Saladin and the Muslims when they reclaimed Jerusalem after a century of Crusader control. It was one of the greatest triumphs and moments of Saladin's life - one of the greatest victories ever for Muslimanity over the Infidels of Christ. In the movie, Saladin acted like he'd just gotten a sweet deal on a house that was a fixer upper. But even then, it's good that movie audiences get some idea of who Saladin was.

Saladin also had the benefit of Alexander Siddig as his right hand man. With the genetically engineered Dr. Bashir from Deep Space Nine at his side, how could Saladin lose?

Though Gladiator-esque sword and horse battles are what the studio hopes will sell tickets, I was a lot more interested in the depiction of history and the progression of the story than in the requisite action sequences. We've seen enough sword and horse battles in this last year alone to last our generation of moviegoers for several years, although the strategy involved in the key battle for Jerusalem was communicated effectively and intriguingly.

I didn't particularly care for Orlando Bloom or most of the characters, save Saladin and the special guest star (initials E.N.) who portrayed King Baldwin. I certainly wasn't moved emotionally by anything like I was for Russell Crowe's anguish at the murder of his family and his spiritual reunion with them when he died in Gladiator. Still, I find myself rather fond of Kingdom of Heaven.

They should do a prequel: Kingdom of Heaven: The First Crusade, where the movie ends with the Christians slaughtering every Muslim and Jew in Jerusalem, wading waist deep in blood while singing praises to God. I think audiences are ready for it.