Stop me if you’ve heard this one before; Balian (Orlando Bloom) is an everyday blacksmith destined to become the film’s hero. He crosses the sea alongside an armada of ships to participate in a questionable war in a desert environment. Before you know it, he must help defend a city against a siege force numbering in the thousands. Oh, and Godfrey (Liam Neeson) is a disillusioned knight who wants his son, Balian, to take his rightful place by his side. At one point he even says, “I am your father.” Despite such an eerily familiar plot, “Kingdom of Heaven” easily surpasses recent historical epics, such as “Troy” and “Alexander,” due in no small part to Ridley Scott’s uncanny directorial skills.
Taking place between the second and third Crusades, the film wastes little time on exposition before plunging the viewers into a bloodbath reminiscent of the opening battle in “Gladiator.” Balian soon finds himself journeying to the Holy Land, which exists within a fragile peace held together by the Christian King Baldwin (Edward Norton) and Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) of the Saracens. Given such a religious backdrop, the film remains surprisingly secular. Balian’s conflicts focus on his decisions to uphold the chivalrous standards expected from an ideal knight.
The money spent on production shows in the rich settings and extravagant battles. Extensive research on clothing and locales effectively mimics those from the time of the Crusades. Location shots, such as the massive Jerusalem set, seamlessly mesh intricately built props with computer-generated backgrounds. Thousands of extras help convey the massive scale of each battle. The camera shakes when catapult projectiles impact against walls or when gigantic siege towers fall to ground. All these elements help immerse the viewer into the 12th century.
Like many of his other films, Scott has something to say about the decline of Western civilization. In this case, it’s the dangers of religious fanaticism and waging war for all the wrong reasons; excellent topics to address considering the world’s current political climate. Yet the film doesn’t shove Scott’s viewpoints down your throat the way a Michael Moore documentary does. The Christian forces in Jerusalem are divided between Tiberias’ (Jeremy Irons) war weary blue knights and the red-crossed Templar knights, who want to eradicate all Muslim presence. The Templars’ gradual rise to power resembles the way Congress transformed leading up to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. King Baldwin and Saladin are both pressured into war by zealots oblivious to the peaceful coexistence between different cultures within Jerusalem.
The film’s main shortcoming comes from casting Bloom as Balian. He’s just too pretty to take seriously as a battle-hardened soldier, let alone a commander capable of rallying troops on the eve before an unbeatable attack by the Saracens. He lacks the stature Norton, Irons and Massoud exude in their roles as noble leaders of their respective groups. Luckily, he spends more time slitting throats than spouting speeches.
Don’t be put off by the religious context of this movie. Audiences bloodthirsty for action must definitely make the journey to see this movie. God wills it.