U.S. Release Date: May 6, 2005
Distributor: Fox
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: William Monahan
Producer: Ridley Scott
Composer: Harry Gregson-Williams
Cast: Orlando Bloom, Eva Green, Jeremy Irons, Liam Neeson, Michael Sheen, Brendan Gleeson, Edward Norton
Running Time: 2 hours and 25 minutes
MPAA Rating: R (strong violence and epic warfare)

Crusades Epic Short on Drama
by Scott Holleran

Kingdom of Heaven strives for high ideals, sidesteps the history of Christianity's Crusades and stumbles in telling a knight's tale. Like most of today's mindless epics, director Ridley Scott's (Gladiator) latest marathon is bloody, furious and largely bereft of drama.

Draped in all the backgrounds technology can be used to create, the movie begins as nobleman Godfrey (Liam Neeson), on leave from the Crusades, rides on horseback to meet and measure his bastard son Balian (sleepy Orlando Bloom), a lowly blacksmith whose wife and child have died. Forlorn Balian soon joins his father's campaign.

Balian seeks forgiveness for his sins in a mythical place called Jerusalem, which is romanticized here as the citadel of a religion stripped of hate, pain and suffering. After an ambush, the sword is passed to Balian, who is left with the closest Kingdom of Heaven has to a theme, a mixed moral code about not living in fear, telling the truth even if it means death and helping the helpless.

After a miraculous shipwreck, which establishes that he is touched by God's hand, Balian is bestowed the honor of protecting the holy city Jerusalem, where his father was admired by the fey, masked leper king (Edward Norton in the movie's best performance), the king's sister (Eva Green) and a military chief (Jeremy Irons). But a pair of dastardly Christians (over the top Marton Csokas and Brendan Gleeson, playing Templar Knights, the heroic knights in National Treasure) makes matters worse, taunting Islam to invade. One of them (Csokas) is married to the king's sister, who desires Balian, and this forms the romantic subplot, which is pasted into the center of what it is already a long, hollow saga.

The emptiness is personified in the inconsistent character Balian. He is humble, then idealistic, then, suddenly, he springs into action as a military genius—based solely on a lesson from long gone Liam Neeson—delivering a rousing cry for life here and now. Balian's ingenious strategy in action is the picture's highlight, stunting the massive Moslem armies' siege with clever tactics, but soon it is back to the bland. Kingdom of Heaven grants Moslems a saintly, essentially peaceful status, particularly Islamic warrior Saladin (an excellent performance by Ghassan Massoud).

Lengthy stretches pass without anything interesting, certainly not the romance between Balian and his royal squeeze, which is pure posturing. Despite thoughtful expressions of religion as a personal code, Kingdom of Heaven does not show what is at stake in war, why it matters and what to do about it. It leaves loose ends, unanswered questions and half histories.

At its worst, Kingdom of Heaven, like Mr. Scott's Alien, camouflages plot deficiency with influences of horror—blood spurts, decapitations, incoherent battle scenes—and this is nothing new. Hollywood favors these dull blast-a-thons like Alexander, Master and Commander and Mr. Scott's Gladiator. Kingdom of Heaven is not any worse than the others, though flashes of intelligence make one yearn for his toast to the New World, 1492: Conquest of Paradise.

Right now, the world could use some light on the subject of religious war—what with the world's most religious dictatorship threatening to turn the West into nuclear Hell—and dramatizing the Crusades is an ambitious undertaking. But Kingdom of Heaven, while it tries harder than most, neither enlightens nor entertains.

Buy on DVD
DVD Notes
Ridley Scott's Director's Cut version of Kingdom of Heaven is beautifully packaged by Fox in an expansive four-disc DVD that's almost as huge as the movie. While the Director's Cut is undeniably better than the original theatrical release, it is not essentially different.

Still, diehards will find a feast on four discs. Besides a concise, pointed introduction from Mr. Scott, the edition contains his commentary track—the nearly four-hour movie alone takes up two discs—and an endless crusade of extras.

Features are arranged according to development, pre-production, production, post-production and release. Virtually every conceivable aspect of the movie is addressed in typical, short-attention span style, with tales ranging from mundane to fascinating. From early draft screenplay to press junket walk-through, this material is, like the movie, abundant. Several deleted scenes are included, though it's hard to believe anything was actually cut from this extended epic.

The production log includes tales of set fires raging out of control, problems with the British press and the challenge of shooting in a Moslem country, Morocco. The magnitude of the whole operation is staggering. As production designer Arthur Max writes in the program guide, "We made a dozen different forges, not to mention the flags, the armor, the thousands and thousands of weapons."

The added scenes do add clarity to the Balian and Sibylla characters—she had a child who would be king—and the overall effect is an improvement. But it is hard to imagine wanting to sit through it more than once.

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