In his blood-spilling epic Kingdom of Heaven, director Ridley Scott does not do for the Crusades what he did for ancient Rome in his blood-spilling epic Gladiator. It’s also safe to say that Kingdom doesn’t do for Orlando Bloom what Gladiator did for Russell Crowe.
Where Gladiator was a gripping drama set inside a history lesson, Kingdom feels more like a history lesson that should have been a gripping drama, sacrificing good storytelling in favor of sociopolitical commentary. Furthermore, while Crowe left Gladiator an action hero, Bloom leaves where he began, boyishly cute but not a leading man. As the hero Balian, Bloom hardly looks as if he could command a scene, let alone lead a group of underdogs against a well-prepared army of invaders.
Scott could not have decided to explore the Crusades without being all too aware of the era’s post-9/11 relevance. In medieval times, Western Christians, fueled by religious fervor and poverty, ran off to invade and occupy Arab lands, killing scores of Jews and Muslims, all in the name of God. Even if you weren’t aware that President Bush has called for a “crusade” against terror, it’d be obvious that Scott wants to remind us of a lesson we should have learned from all those world history classes we slept through.
True to Scott’s fashion, this is a stylized action movie filmed with grand battle scenes aplenty. It’s a gruesome affair, and Scott spares no splattered blood, no piles of severed heads and no opportunities to separate an extra from a limb or two. Plus, there are no less than two rallying-the-troops-in-face-of-certain-death speeches. Where’s Mel Gibson in a kilt when you need him?
However, Kingdom of Heaven fails to personalize this bit of history in a way that’s truly compelling.
The story is based on historical people and events, centering on Balian’s progression from a blacksmith in France to the defender of Jerusalem in the Battle of Hattin in 1187. But writer William Monahan struggles to set up the action and make the characters multidimensional. Balian goes on to protect innocent people from invading Muslims and zealous Christians alike, and Scott and Monahan hammer home their theme of not using religion as a weapon.
Kingdom of Heaven could have been a rich story of the people who joined the Crusades, but instead the movie comes off as a long sermon — albeit a graphically violent one — on whether it’s better to fight a great evil with a smaller evil.
Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].