After the rousing, Oscar-winning success of Gladiator, it was no surprise that Ridley Scott returned to the historical epic with 2005’s Kingdom of Heaven. However, this time around his efforts were met with gentle indifference. There were no Oscar parties, nor were there any massive box office hauls. In fact, the film barely broke even.
To some degree this is easy to understand. Kingdom of Heaven is a far more nuanced film, with the heroic suffering of Russell Crowe’s Maximus and the delicious cackling of Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus being traded in for Orlando Bloom’s stoic posturing, and a meditation on religious hypocrisy. This more subtle take on a historical period wouldn’t be a bad thing if the film actually adhered to the complex story behind the Second Crusade. Instead Scott’s film takes great liberties, turning the life of Bloom’s Balian de Ibelin into the stuff of wishful fantasy. This is an upsetting, even disturbing reality because there is a story somewhere in Kingdom of Heaven that is quite powerful. However, the film we got buries it beneath bland characterization and battle sequences desperately attempting to emulate LOTR.
As mentioned above, Kingdom of Heaven is mostly about the life of Balian de Ibelin. However, the character, as it is portrayed here by Bloom and written by scribe William Monahan, only shares a name with the historical figure. In this fictionalized take Balian is a simple blacksmith (as opposed to nobility). When the film opens he is deeply morose, grieving over the loss of his child and wife. After an encounter with a regal crusader named Godfry (who claims that he is Balian’s father), the blacksmith gradually finds himself getting caught up in the epic sweep of the Second Crusade. Over the course of his journey he crosses paths with iconic historical figures such as the saintly leper king, Baldwin IV, and Guy of Lusignan – who Scott transforms into a cliched, hateful villain. This eventually culminates in the Battle of Hattin, where Balian is forced to confront the legendary Saladin over the fate of the Kingdom of Heaven.
As in most recent Scott productions, Kingdom of Heaven is blessed with a great cast, with Edward Norton as King Baldwin IV being the film’s standout. His character helps articulate the philosophical tension at the core of Scott’s film, a dynamic revolving around some characters characterizing themselves as vessels of God’s will, while others espousing the need for personal responsibility. Liam Neeson as Godfry is also effective. It’s a difficult role with limited screen time that is also saddled with being the catalyst behind Balian’s journey. Neeson, looking more manly than ever, is able to leave an impression quickly, sprouting off lines that range from the eloquent (“Safeguard the helpless and do no wrong. That is your oath”) to the outrageous (“I once fought two days with an arrow through my testicle.”).
The other major roles in the film feel underwhelming – a shame considered the pedigree of talent involved. Eva Green, who plays the part of Sibylla: Queen of Jerusalem, is needlessly positioned as the love interest for Bloom’s Balian (a move wildly inconsistent with history). Her role is also notable for how dramatically it changes depending on what cut of the film you watch. The character is far superior in Scott’s director’s cut, which makes her actions in the story feel much more understandable. Also featured are Jeremy Irons as the blustery Raymond III, Brendan Glesson as the war-mongering Raynald of Chatillon and David Thewlis as Hospitaller – none of which are given enough time to really resonate with an audience.
This being a Scott film the underdeveloped characters are unsurprising. Much of Kingdom of Heaven is devoted to capturing the pitched, epic spectacle of The Crusades. Despite its alleged geographical inaccuracies, the cinematography of the film is critical to this endeavor, successfully capturing the full scope of the action through powerful aerial photography. The way that Scott shoots the battle scenes is also characteristically great, although they may rely a bit too much on dramatic changes in film speed to communicate the violent chaos. Also, the film becomes somewhat tiresome during the climactic Battle of Hattin. This sequence, defined by CGI soldiers, massive siege towers, and a heavily fortified city, suggests that Scott was suffering from Peter Jackson penis envy. The similarities are so potent you wonder when some of Jackson’s foul Orcs are going to show up in the fray.
With the design of Kingdom of Heaven so robustly realized, one wonders why the story doesn’t seem to connect more strongly on an emotional level. To some degree this is the fault of Scott and writer William Monahan, who cram too many intriguing historical characters into one film. However, some of the blame also seems to be owned by star Orlando Bloom, who embodies Balian’s rugged physicality, but whose work never feels like a fully credible, leading man performance. There is none of soulful, burdened masculinity that Viggo Mortensen exuded so naturally in LOTR, nor is there any of the raging neurosis that defined something like Johnny Depp’s performance in the first Pirates movie. Thus, it’s not that interesting.
Those films had a preternatural ability to balance characterization with spectacle, and knew how to create a successful dynamic between the members of a large cast. Ironically, Bloom was featured heavily in both films, albeit in a supporting role – which is where he more appropriately belongs. Without this strong, commanding lead performance or a positive balance between characters and visuals, Kingdom of Heaven flounders. It can’t seem to compensate for these shortcomings. This is intriguing as Monahan greatly forsakes historical veracity to tell this story, a sacrifice that, unlike Gladiator, doesn’t seem to be worth it.