Ridley Scott. With the success of 2000's Roman epic "Gladiator," this director not only resurrected his fledging career but also carved a niche for himself in the swords-and-sandals genre (his previous critical and commercial success being 1991's seminal "Thelma & Louise"). So when news broke that he would be bringing the Crusades to the big screen, anticipation naturally got high among both film fans and critics. With his "Kingdom of Heaven" Scott proves once again that he is indeed a real workman of historical epics – this ambitious film is a jaw-dropping achievement in production design and special effects. Does that make it a great film? Nope. Not even a good one.
Orlando Bloom is Balian, a young blacksmith who joins the Crusades at the urging of his noble father (Liam Neeson), and finds himself leading the charge against Christian zealots and then Muslim armies of Saladin (Ghassan Massoud). With a big-budget summer release that deals with politics and religion (two things that can very easily become the death knells of great friendships and, as history itself has proven, great societies) there would always be challenges. Without going into plot details, allow me say that the film can be considered admirable because it inter-cuts contemporary issues of religious prejudices through the filters of fiction and the documented massacres in the Dark Ages. When such a release is packaged for a broad film audience the probability of such adoration can become obscene. In "Kingdom of Heaven" both warring sides, Muslims and Christians, are portrayed as just societies faced with a common enemy – religious intolerance and fundamentalism. I had a problem with the liberalist approach. During the film I was forced to ask myself how much of what is shown could have been borne out of sincere desire to maintain political correctness. Why did Ridley Scott peruse this important chapter in history if the intention was to sidestep controversy? Surely political correctness is more than just a word.
Disregarding my gripe above, there are other major problems with the film's structure. Orlando Bloom's unintentional chocolate hero persona notwithstanding, I write up William Monahan for his melodramatic screenplay. Though there are moments when the characters and performances give it flight, the integrity of the whole film is a compromise. The heavy-handedness of the script is slightly offset by Scott's penchant for delivering high-gloss visuals. The last act of the film makes you reminisce the chaos of Helm's Deep in "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers." A stunningly executed battle sequence which is still not enough to rescue "Kingdom of Heaven" from its proverbial seppuku. But I can find respite in Edward Norton's quietly powerful role as Baldwin, a monarch who, ravaged by leporsy, is tasked with preserving a delicate Christian-Muslim truce. King Baldwin's anguish is embellished through his decaying body; and his humanity through his unblemished spirit. Norton though unseen throughout the film uses but only his voice to leave a lasting emotional resonance for us.
Update, 28 Feb 2006: The long rumored 191-minute director's cut of "Kingdom of Heaven" is finally being released on March 23 on DVD. Ridley Scott has long maintained that the theatrical version is not a representation of his original vision. A misunderstood classic? Can the additional exposition make us reconsider the film? I will be reporting my findings right here. - Adnan Khan