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Cinema Signal:

The New Concise History of the Crusades
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Crusades
On DVD

. "Kingdom of Heaven"

Ridley Scott is a director who knows that history is not best served in a mainstream film by faithfully clinging to every factual detail. In his powerful and gripping "Gladiator," he created a hero to fit into the Roman empire by making him a battlefield victor, a born leader, and a natural successor to Caesar. This also made him an enemy of the emperor's next in line, and therein lay the foundations of the drama. The lesson is that a fictional character allowed Scott to do more to spotlight ancient Rome than any textbook.

His device for "Kingdom of Heaven" is similar. Here, he and screenwriter William Monahan take an actual commander of the European forces in Jerusalem, Lord Balian, and turn him into a commoner with whom we'd be more prone to identify.

The fictionalized account begins during the Christian rule of the city in the late 12th century when a centuries-long truce with the Saracen armies of Damascus, led by the diplomatic warrior Saladin, aka, Salah al-Dine (Ghassan Massoud), was coming to an end. Crusader Knights are marching into the city in order to serve the gentle, leprous King Baldwin IV (masked Edward Norton). In a village enroute to the great city, Balian, a modest (but great looking) blacksmith, mourning the recent loss of his son and wife, works hard pounding steel.

Enter Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) who, leading his band of knights, stops for some horse re-shoeing. Just as Balian might have been comtemplating how the stream of warriors past his shop is good for business, Godfrey, in his consummately manful way, lays it on Balian that he's his son, the product of a rape he regretfully imposed on his mother. The revelation is coupled with the invitation for Balian to join his team on their trek to Jerusalem.

At first he declines, but a bad sort-out with a local corrupt priest changes the artisan's mind, and he's soon desporting with Godfrey and his hearty swordsmen with combat lessons in the forest. A quick annointment to knighthood follows. When armed horsemen show up to claim Balian as a murderer, the ensuing fight leaves few survivors. Godfrey is mortally wounded and his sturdy Hospitaler (David Thewlis), a warrior monk, gets him on a litter for a now desperate ride in search of medical attention.

Before expiring, Godfrey bequeaths his land and position to his son. Balian takes over as head of Ibelin where his first order of business is finding a source of water and where his first visitor is King Baldwin's sister, Princess Sibylla (Eva Green). We can understand her attraction to the guy, but her husband Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) is a problem in more ways than one. He's a renegade crusader baron in league with bloodthirsty Reynald of Chatillon (fiery-bearded Brendan Gleeson). They're attacking Arab caravans in order to start unraveling the peaceful coexistence the Christians have enjoyed with the Arab "pagans." "God wills it!" is their mantra. There's always some extremist around who finds his identity within acts of malice.

War is the object of the exercise, and Ridley Scott digs deep into his quiver of carnage for another exemplary portfolio of ancient combat. The visual effects are uniformly spectacular and Balian's expressions of modesty, chivalry, and the absurdity of mutual destruction are in earnest, but the problem arises that our attention is not as commanded as our admiration. The epic grandeur and the faithfulness of the reenactments are a given. The problem is the guy at the center of the action.

I, for one, will never forget the dashing archer Legolas on the parapets of Rohan in the "Lord of the Ring" trilogy. With his hair swept back and bow in hand, Orlando Bloom had all the magic and potential of Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. wrapped up in one dashing package. But, that was a supporting role.

What he has here is a movie on his back... in a part that calls for the macho dynamism and magnetic presence of Russell Crowe, Viggo Mortensen and, yes, Liam Neeson. His Balian is reflective, smart, handsome and of incorruptible character, but when he's surrounded by his men of brawn and battle experience, does he have the look or heft of the guy they follow? Is he the man to ignite passions? Some will think so, but disappointing boxoffice results could possibly be laid to what's missing here. Shades of Colin Farrell ("Alexander")!

In his first moments alone in the endangered city of Jerusalem, this modest man of great destiny seeks redemption and a word from God. He is Hamlet, at cross purposes with his destiny. But, of course, for the sake of the drama, his destiny not only catches up to him, but transforms him virtually overnight as a seer of battlefield strategy and a planner with an uncanny ability to see the big picture.

The illicit and indecisive affair between Balian and Sybilla doesn't help. While skirting around the issue of whether his grief for his wife is still part of his emotional psyche, this sub-plot seems an obligatory invention to complete our understanding of Balian as a man. But, as the off-bounds relationship can't be allowed onto center stage of the grand epic lest we get side-tracked into a romance, the flirtation results in poor Sybilla becoming little more than an observer of the action in a series of close-up reaction shots.

Sybilla actually existed, as did Guy de Lusignan, though we see them here as imagined players in the drama. The real Lord Balian did actually organize the defense of Jerusalem in the late 12th century against an attack by invading Saracens and negotiated the terms of its surrender with Saladin. We can see where the filmmakers altered some of the facts, but I ride to defend the liberties of a fictional account of a hero set within a time whose faithful depiction rests on the needs of the dramatic narrative and its bracing action.

Himself a knight, Sir Ridley, in collaboration with cinematographer John Mathieson, creates a color palette that evokes Gladiator, with forrested scenes of cold, sunless blue; shadowed, rim-lighted portraiture; and mists of smoke, hoof-beat sand and gushing blood. The picture has the look and production value of a grand success and a moving depiction of the Crusades (literally, "wars of the cross") as a bloodbath in the name of piety.

In the development of their screenplay, Scott and Monahan take great care to step on no religious toes. But, the minute you tackle "holy war" as a subject, controversy is as inevitable as the ocean tides. The filmmakers depict Saladin as a strategic thinker whose main concern is getting his property back, and cast a fine Syrian actor for the role. 20th Century Fox claims positive reactions to the script from Christian and Muslim scholars, but dissenting and critical voices are being heard.

There may be some difficulty in accepting an even-handed presentation of the time as a true reflection of history or the agony of its horrors, but you can't blame Scott for trying. Wary of the pitfalls of controversy, he does make the point that religious zealotry -- a kissin' cousin to the political variety -- has historically resulted in mass slaughter. Does that lesson resonate in these times, or what?

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  



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Comments from readers:
Well written - Insightful
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Site rating: 9

I agree with most of what is said. I question the portion in regards to would these men follow him into battle etc. I think they would! Balian is a hero that does what he knows is right. The others follow him because of that.

                                                   ~~ Stacy
[Note: It's no surprise that Bloom fans would speak against my analysis that he is probably the reason the film has had such disappointing results. In this, I'm hardly alone. The L.A. Times recently referred to his "doggone bloominess." Daily Variety said, "... a bigger personality than Bloom's would have helped." Rarely have critics been so universally agreed on the point. But, remember Stacy (and others), it's just taste and opinion and you're as entitled to yours as anyone else. ~~ Ed.]




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Leading the Knights of Jerusalem

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