This huge, clanging epic about the 12th century Crusades is too beautiful to be bad, too clumsy to be good, too long to be comfortable, too uneven to be powerful, and has a leading character too lightweight to be compelling. “Kingdom of Heaven” has the scope but lacks the power and resonance of the same director’s Gladiator. Ridley Scott is shooting for epic but coming up at — or just short of — entertaining.
The central core value — that peace is possible and that war is not the answer — is undermined by the director’s obvious relish for battle.
It has beautifully constructed images that convey the pageant of the fierce struggle between Christians and Muslims for old Jerusalem. But this lush depiction of the sights, sounds and smells of the age is anchored to a weak plot and an often puerile script. The characters share none of the grandeur or complexity of the scenery or the history.
As often happens, the more blood that flows on an on-screen battlefield, the more anemic the script. This may account for the thin and implausible story of an unschooled small town blacksmith who, after a few weeks of training, becomes a world-class swordsman and military tactician able to plan the movement of vast armies and defend the empire against shrewder and more seasoned veterans as well as a scientist-farmer statesman and scientist-farmer who knows how to irrigate the desert and how to create an egalatarian society. He is transformed from a bereaved widower who joins the Crusades to redeem his soul and becomes something of a modern secular humanist who just wants to save as many lives as possible and cultivate his garden. He is surrounded by the obligatory movie-isms, including father-son reconciliation and a romantic relationship with a princess with kohl on her eyes, henna on her hands, and a husband who does not understand her. It’s the one-characteristic-per-actor school of epic story-telling. It is not enough that the bad priest is a wicked and narrow-minded hypocrite, he must also be a leering sadist and, for good measure, a sneak thief in case someone in the audience is so overcome with the carnage that he missed the point.
Sometimes an movie that simplifies a story can serve as a set of training wheels to help introduce younger viewers to more complex historical material. But “Kingdom of Heaven” is not that movie. First, it has too much splattering gore (throats pierced by arrows, limbs severed, heads chopped off) to be targeted at younger and more impressionable audiences. Second, the plot is too murky and hobbled by 21st century political correctness to be compelling.
Despite its emotional immaturity, the story does attempt to depict the Rubik’s cube of treacherous alliances between confusing factions during the Crusades, and it evenhandedly makes extremists on both sides the bad guys rather than pitting the Christians against the Muslims. It also contains a message about religious tolerance in the face of “I know what God wants” zealots from both the Christian and Muslim sides. This is always a timely and important message, although as portrayed here it is heavy-handed and half-hearted. The hero preaches a suspiciously modern form of tolerance and equality while the evil villains screech a simple-minded and almost suicidal position based on “faith.”
Kingdom of Heaven is a gorgeous movie. The costumes, weapons and castles are beautifully constructed, and both the intense individual confrontations and the sweeping panorama of battle are expertly conveyed. Scott has a superb sense of pacing and knows when to show fluttering flags and when to cue the choral music. For many, this will be enough, at least while watching it. But because the plot is so thin and uninvolving, even the 2 1/2 hour running time will leave the audience feeling unsatisfied.
Parents should know that the movie has extreme and very graphic violence with a lot of slashing and burning and a lot of spurting blood. Many characters are killed. There are some grisly images, including men being hanged, heads on pikes, and the face of a dead leper and there are references to suicide. There is a non-explict sexual situation and there are sexual references, including adultery.
Families who see this movie should talk about its relationship to the battles — intellectual and literal — in the world today. Who are the moderates? Who are the extremists? How can moderates engage with extremists? How do you respond to those who claim they know the will of God? Families should also talk about the then-revolutionary concept that “you were not what you were born but what you had it in yourself to be” and the words that inspire Balian, “What man is a man who does not make the world better?”
Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy epics like Ben Hur and Scott’s Gladiator. There are plenty of good texts about the Crusades, including about this fictionalized time between the Second and Third Crusades. The story of King Richard the Lionheart is a fascinating tale from his travails in reaching Jerusalem to his clashes with Saladin. Those who want to find out more might like to look at The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades by Jonathan Riley-Smith and Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf.