Who else but a pope could come up with an idea as bloody delicious as the Crusades? In this case, it was Pope Urban II, who began his reign by outlawing fighting from Sundays to Wednesdays (the "Truce of God"), and who launched the First Crusade in 1096 as a way to reclaim the Holy Land from the Moslem infidels who had recently conquered it.
Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven takes place nearly a century later, in 1184, during the Second Crusade. By this time, the Christians own Jerusalem again, having slaughtered every Moslem in the city when they got there. But that's not good enough for Reynald (Brendan Gleeson), a French Crusader who desperately wants a war with the Moslem King Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), apparently just so Christians can rid the world of Moslems altogether.
Enter our comely hero, Balian (Orlando Bloom, the boy prince of costume epics), a blacksmith in a nowhere town who's visited one day by Godfrey (Liam Neeson), the father he's never met. Balian is in a dark place when Dad arrives: His infant child has died, his wife committed suicide in grief, and the townsfolk all want him gone because of his wife's unforgivable sin. So he joins his dad on the road to Jerusalem, and when Godfrey dies in battle, Balian inherits his title and his reputation, not to mention his ability to be really, really good with a sword.
In Jerusalem, he meets the noble young King (Edward Norton, in voice only), who wears a silver mask to hide his leprosy-scarred face. The King's sister, Sibylla (Eva Green, the love interest), is married to Reynald's arrogant sidekick. But Balian nails her anyway, and then there's a scuffle or two between Reynald and Saladin, and then Balian has no choice but to defend Jerusalem in a war that someone else started.
It all ends, as history says it must, with the Moslems taking back Jerusalem, and with Richard the Lionhearted on the road to wage the Third Crusade. In other words, it ends where Monty Python and the Holy Grail begins.
And yet, Scott's movie isn't nearly as funny. In fact, it isn't quite anything. Historic drama, action picture, character piece, theological debate: Kingdom of Heaven sputters along through all of this with no particular focus or resolve. I'm not even sure it's boring. It's just there, for almost two and a half hours, and its characters, if you can call them that, don't speak a single word -- truly, I mean not one single word -- that doesn't sound like a speech. Apparently the art of conversation hasn't yet reached the civilized 12th-century world of Scott (Gladiator), who photographs the movie in his usual haze of smoke-and-shadows.
At the heart of this movie is the winnowing notion that Jerusalem means a lot to many religions, so why can't we all just, uh, get along? Balian expresses this sentiment several times, and Saladin seems to agree with him, although he still wants Jerusalem all to himself (he agrees to let Balian's people go). And speaking of Biblical allusions: The Jews are nowhere to be found in Kingdom of Heaven. They barely even get a reference, except in the last sentence that appears on screen, when the movie reminds us that nearly a thousand years later, peace in Jerusalem "remains elusive."
There's an understatement. In fact, it's the principle of understatement that deadens Kingdom of Heaven. I've been kind enough here to organize its plot, but Scott mostly just lets it drip out. I'd call this subtle storytelling, except that Scott doesn't really seem to care what's happening. He tells the wrong story anyway, for Kingdom of Heaven should have been equal parts Christian and Moslem. How did each culture live? What did each believe? That might have lent some credence to its feigned ecumenism. We're lucky enough to see some of their inventive siege weapons -- ballistas, mangonels, trebuchets, etc. etc. -- but that's about it in terms of cultural history.
William Monahan's Christian-centered screenplay boils it all down to a rather generic continuum of faith on which the characters place themselves, not unlike our current politicians, left and right: Reynald preaches an Old Testament wrath; Balian wants "a kingdom of conscience or nothing"; the gentle Hospitaler (David Thewlis) embraces an atheistic humanism of "right action" over hollow words; the croaky old warrior Tiberius (Jeremy Irons, surly and robust) realizes too late that the Crusades are about land and money.
The one belief they consistently share is the banal "God wills it" when things go right or wrong. Or as a weary Balian says in the end: "If this is the Kingdom of Heaven, let God do with it as he wills." This is toothless anti-religion heresy, and hardly much of a tonic against today's fanaticism (East and West).
All of the main characters in Kingdom of Heaven are authentic historic people. And yet, by the end, you have no real sense of the often-orgiastic dogma that fueled the Crusades. That, of course, would offend modern Christendom. Many of the knights who fought in these unholy wars genuinely believed that the eternity of their souls depended upon how many heretics they slaughtered in battle. But all Scott allows us to see is a bunch of self-important leaders who pontificate themselves right into the dust of history.