Cautionary tale: Kingdom of Heaven

Ridley Scott likes his movies big. In 2005, he made one of them — an old school sword-and-sandals epic called Kingdom of Heaven that despite its action scenes and moments of brutal violence, is overall a surprisingly quiet, thoughtful cautionary tale about the hazards of extremes.

Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

Directed by Ridley Scott

I first saw Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven when it originally came out on DVD. I did not like it at all. It seemed confusing and boring.

It was an action movie where it was difficult to discern a story that would make sense of the action. Then another edition came out: a four disc set containing the “Director’s Cut” over two discs plus two discs of bonus material.

I had a very different response to the Director’s Cut.

It added roughly 50 minutes to the movie, making it quite long at 194 minutes, but what it added was not just longer scenes for padding but everything the theatrical version had dropped — the story. (Scott talks briefly about this in an introduction to the movie and states that for him this is his movie.)

Balian (Orlando Bloom) and Sir Godfrey (Liam Neeson).

Kingdom of Heaven is the story of Balian (Orlando Bloom), a young man who loses his family and the life he thought he had, causing him to also lose his faith, yet goes on to become a leader and hero during the time of the Crusades. (The story begins in 1194.)

It is a standard hero story — the hero’s journey.

The movie is also about religious zealotry during the bloody period of the Crusades and the struggle between Christians and Muslims at that time.

The movie doesn’t take sides though with the focus being on Balian and thus the Europeans, the Christians do not come off well. The movie does struggle for balance, however.

Balian and Hospitaler (David Thewlis).

Ultimately, the movie is a cautionary tale about fanaticism. It strives to have no position as far as Christians and Muslims are concerned, but it does have a point of view that David Thewlis as Hospitaler states:

I put no stock in religion. By the word religion I have seen the lunacy of fanatics of every denomination be called the will of god. I have seen too much religion in the eyes of too many murderers.

“Holiness is in right action, and courage on behalf of those who cannot defend themselves, and goodness … [By] what you decide to do every day, you will be a good man – or not.

The movie is inevitably large and sprawling. That’s what happens when you combine something as broad as “a hero’s journey” with history. When they combine, as they do here, that is where character emerges — and not just the hero’s. The risk is getting lost down the many paths you may go down, thus losing the core of the story.

Charging into battle.

That doesn’t happen in Kingdom of Heaven. The various threads weave around one another to make a coherent whole and one that holds us for over three hours with no sense of “it’s too long.”

It looks magnificent too. Ridley Scott is a master at creating huge set pieces and the imagery he finds in them is stunning.

Orlando Bloom is good as the central character, Balian, despite some reviews saying he can’t carry a film as the lead. For one thing, Balian should be young and Bloom brings a youthful look to the role. And although he is the main character, there are so many other characters and threads in the story, “carrying the movie” doesn’t involve quite the weight of a movie that is strictly a character study, like Raging Bull. If something or someone carries the movie, it might be the city of Jerusalem.

Eva Green as Sybilla.

The movie is also filled with many supporting roles with great performances. There is Liam Neeson as Sir Godfrey, as well as a masked Ed Norton as King Baldwin and Eva Green as his sister, Sybilla. There is also Jeremy Irons as Tiberias.

We also get two very unpleasant characters, Brendan Gleeson as Reynald de Chatillon and Marton Csokas as Guy de Lusignan.

The character I enjoyed most, however, and one I wished we could have had more of is Ghassan Massoud as Saladin, leader of the Muslims focused on taking back Jerusalem. For me, he was the most interesting, perhaps because we don’t get much of him.

Ghassan Massoud as Saladin.

All these supporting characters, and Orlando Bloom’s Balian, are important because while there is action in the movie, this isn’t an action epic. It’s an epic about characters and stories. In a way, the action is obligatory, spectacular as it is.

Kingdom of Heaven, at least in its extended director’s cut version, is really an old school swords-and-sandals epic made with a contemporary cinematic sensibility. If I have any complaint about it, it would be the bloodiness of some scenes — primarily the battles.

While accurate, and necessary to a degree because they illustrate the barbaric nature of these wars, I found them a bit tedious. I’ve seen it done before; I don’t need to see it again.

But that’s just a small quibble. Overall, I found Kingdom of Heaven very compelling, very visually arresting and just a plain good epic story. At least, I find it that way in the director’s cut version.

(As an aside, my favourite quote from the movie: “This is not heaven. It’s the world. And there’s troubles in it.”)


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