Touted as a “movie about the Crusades,” Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven is actually set between the second and third Crusades, that is, 1184-1187 AD. As history, it is mightily revisionist — a blacksmith named Balian (pretty and charisma-less Orlando Bloom) turns inadvertent defender of Jerusalem, devoted to the notion that Muslims and Christians can get along, if only they agree that no one has a singular “claim” on the holy site. As gloss on current global conditions, it is perversely but also seductively actionated, gesturing toward peace but glorying in any number of barbarities, including sword-fighting, head-chopping, limbs-lopping, impaling, fiery catapults firing, buildings and bodies burning, and blood spurting.
Kingdom of Heaven opens on a tragedy: Balian’s young wife has just killed herself, following the death of her infant. As she (deemed a sinner) is being laid to rest without proper ritual (indeed, the priest himself is so tainted that he steals the pretty little cross from her neck), the new widower is pounding away at his forge, as to beat the pain out of his brain. But, no rest for this weary boy: at just this moment, his heretofore unseen father shows up (“A blacksmith is the man I seek”), introducing himself as a Crusader between campaigns, namely, Baron Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson). And oh yes, Godfrey admits, his relationship with Balian’s mother wasn’t exactly blissful; in fact, well, he raped her (or, more euphemistically, “I knew your mother… To be courteous, I should say that it was against her objections”). Not thrilled with the way his day is going, Balian ends up killing the priest and joining up with his father, who hints that his destination, Jerusalem, is a good place to get pardons for sins, whether homicide or suicide.
Balian’s journey is only beginning, and increasingly arduous, it appears, by the minute, involving a shipwreck and a desert encounter with a couple of turf-conscious Muslims. One ends up dead (Balian is a skilled killer for a blacksmith) while the other, Nasir (Alexander Siddig), ends up impressed enough by the kid’s athleticism and generosity (he gives up a horse) to pledge his lifelong friendship. That, and, Balian’s reputation will spread far and wide — he’s to be known as the lapsed Christian who doesn’t discriminate against Muslims, quite the rarity in these parts.
Once in Jerusalem, Balian earns further favor, from his (now deceased) dad’s advisor, the Marshall of Jerusalem Tiberias (Jeremy Irons), and a spiritual counselor and military aide called the Hospitaler (David Thewlis). Both serve the leper, King Baldwin IV (Edward Norton in a silver mask), while also trying to appease the brilliant, rather broad-minded Muslim leader Saladin (Ghassan Masoud). While Balian appreciates their counsel, he also has a certain fierce dedication to a promise he made to his rapist father, to protect the helpless.
In this case, and not for lack of other options, these will be denizens of Jerusalem, endangered by the ambitious, warmongering king to be, Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), and his vile ally Reynald de Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson). It happens in this fictionalized history that Guy’s young and freckled wife Sibylla (Eva Green) falls in love or lust with Balian, supposedly because he seems so moral compared to Guy (“My wife does not lament my absences,” he sneers), but really because Balian needs a sex scene in his epic, brief as it may be (passionate kiss, body parts close ups, fade to black — at times like these, you’re feeling nostalgic for Angelina Jolie’s vamping with child and snakes).
“A woman in my pace,” Sibylla instructs her boy toy, “has two faces, one for the world and one she wears only in private. With you, I shall be only Sibylla.” If only this “only” were more compelling. But alas Sibylla’s unable to do manage much more than this brief visitation and then a few reaction shots from the city walls as she watches Balian go forth into dusty battle. Serving primarily as property for Guy and distraction for Balian, she’s rather boringly similar to Helen of Troy in Troy (she even resembles Diane Kruger), a point of contention so the men can get on with their manly stuff.
As Balian and the rest of the fellows represent various civilian or military factions and religious beliefs, Kingdom of Heaven lobs an anachronous “message” in the direction of contemporary U.S. war-making. Balian especially likes to assert the point that Christians and Muslims can live together and none has a singular claim on Jerusalem. And oh yes, he will fight to the death anyone who wants to displace the good folks — the helpless good folks — now under his watchful, wary eye. (“Historically” speaking, it’s the Muslims turn to massacre, as the last round of fighting over Jerusalem left thousands dead and survivors with 100 or so years yearning for revenge).
Just so, the film, scripted by William Monahan, must lead to the 1187 siege of Jerusalem (here brought on by Baldwin’s death and Guy’s ascendance to the throne, upon which he immediately picks a fight with the Muslims). Balian now has his destiny to fulfill — whether he believes in god or not — and so he is valiant as well as morally sound. The battle scenes throughout the film are huge and orchestrated — the camera starting from a broad birds-eye view, then reeling in for tight, abrupt, harsh bits of violence: bloody, edgy, difficult, even at times recalling the battle shots in Scott’s Black Hawk Down, the last movie he made that pit Christians against Muslims.
Like that film, Kingdom of Heaven wants to enhance and even reframe events, to filter what happened through memory and desire, to elaborate history, to make it educational and immediate. This means that multiple narratives are circulating, spinning, sometimes overlapping or contradicting. Though the onetime blacksmith tells his own fighters that the history of the place is not their fault (“None of us took this city from the Muslims!”), he also leads the gory fight to keep the Muslims out. Though he doesn’t especially want the “stones,” he does want to protect the folks who live among them. “What is Jerusalem worth?” asks Balian. “Nothing,” says Saladin. “Everything.” Right.