In Kingdom of Heaven, Ridley Scott’s handsome but curiously remote Crusades epic, the bloody holy war between Christians and Muslims surges forth with the boiling logistical fury we’ve come to expect from films that feature a cast of digital thousands. Men in chain-mail armor, their white shields marked by a blood-red cross, raise their broadswords and hack away in righteous wrath. A shower of arrows fills the sky like horizontal rain, and catapults hurl flaming rocks over the walls of Jerusalem, as men, one by one, attempt to scale those walls, only to be drenched by buckets of gloppy thick oil. Giant wooden towers fall, the same spectacular way they did in The Lord of the Rings, and you can just about see every soldier inside. It’s all very teeming and hordelike and impressive.
When you hire Ridley Scott to direct an oversize medieval war movie, there’s one thing you needn’t worry about: The money will be there on screen. Yet as I watched Kingdom of Heaven, a thought — a question — opened up in front of me like a dramatic-existential abyss: Who, or what, exactly was I rooting for? In 1184, Balian (Orlando Bloom), a young French blacksmith with a noble wisp of beard, is drawn into the orbit of his father (Liam Neeson), a righteous Crusader who leads him to Jerusalem, the city of hallowed ground and sacred stones that the Christians took from the Muslims a hundred years before. The movie views both sides as equal in their idealism, with one or two bad apples on each team spoiling things for everybody.
The Muslims, led by the fierce and honorable desert warrior Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), have ample motive for their aggression: A band of Christian soldiers struck them first. (Okay, they want Jerusalem back as well.) So God be with the Muslims! You must understand, however, that the Christians didn’t really mean it — at least, not the devout mass led by Balian, the valiant knight whose dream is to preserve the city as a ”kingdom of Heaven,” a multiculti paradise where Christians, Muslims, and Jews can all live and worship together. The temples and the shrines mean nothing to him, at least compared to the innocent civilians inside. So God be with the Christians, too!
Watching Kingdom of Heaven, I could feel my liberal empathy overflowing, to the point that I realized I was rooting for everyone on screen to rise up and defeat everyone else. That’s not a feeling I would equate with excitement, but then, it’s not every war movie that can turn the most gruesome sustained rampage in the history of mankind into a misunderstanding between rival peaceniks. Kingdom of Heaven is obviously meant to be an allegory of our current global religious clashes, but Scott, working from a script by William Monahan, is so busy balancing our sympathies, making sure no one gets offended, that he has made a pageant of war that would have gotten a thumbs-up from Eleanor Roosevelt.
At the center of Gladiator, Scott’s previous ancient action spectacle, was Russell Crowe, the thinking man’s bruiser, slashing all comers in the Colosseum, dominating the world with his molten contempt. It would be an understatement, though, to say that Orlando Bloom doesn’t look like he has combat (or much of anything else) on his mind. Bloom has fine soft features, a liltingly ”literate” accent, and the passive, neutral demeanor of a page boy impersonating a warrior. Just about everybody who lays eyes on him recognizes Balian as his father’s son, yet how can they tell? Liam Neeson is full of dark fire, but Bloom is like invisible ink on screen. The closest thing to religious fervor that he has ever inspired is the passion of magazine editors in search of a hunkalicious new movie-star-of-the-month.
Shot for shot, Kingdom of Heaven is infused with Scott’s lyric technological grandeur, yet it lacks the entertaining vigor of political gamesmanship. When Balian arrives in Jerusalem, it’s like the Land of Actors With Speaking Parts, except that none of them are developed. Jeremy Irons as the noble Tiberias, Marton Csokas as the treacherous baron Guy de Lusignan, Eva Green as his sexy, suffering wife, who strays to be with Balian — what should have been a tasty soap opera of power never quite comes to life. Scott does achieve something indelible in his portrait of the Christian king Baldwin IV, a tender-souled leper who never removes his mask. His mournful, faintly disembodied voice — an uncredited Edward Norton — is spookier than anything in the recent Phantom of the Opera. He’s the soul of the movie, all right: a gentleman trying to halt a turf war. What’s missing from Kingdom of Heaven is the unholy madness of the Crusades — the violence of men who, in their zealous desire to smite sin, were only too willing to turn themselves into apostles of blood.