Kingdom of Heaven directed by Ridley Scott, with Orlando Bloom, Liam Neeson, Eva Green and Jeremy Irons. 145 minutes. A 20th Century Fox release. Opens Friday (May 6). For venues and times, see Movies, page 92. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Somewhere in the first half of Ridley Scott's epic depiction of the Crusades, Balian (Orlando Bloom), the humble French blacksmith-turned-knight, inherits his long-lost father's (Liam Neeson) estate in Jerusalem: 1,000 arid acres employing 100 dusty peasants.
"We need water," he observes upon his arrival. Wasting no time, he digs six feet down into the desert soil -- and hits the water table! The peasants, who've apparently never heard of a well, are overjoyed. Waterwheels and toy sailboats spring up everywhere. Problem solved!
It would be impossible -- worse, pointless -- to make a movie about the Crusades right now without some kind of political agenda. Kingdom Of Heaven has one, and drives it home again and again, like a battering ram against the walls of Jerusalem: USA out of the Middle East!
As the above sequence suggests, the agenda's good-hearted, but the execution is hopelessly dumb.
Balian is a reluctant Crusader, noble and comfortingly areligious. He's in Jerusalem to escape a personal tragedy, not out of any bloody-minded conviction. Fortunately for him, he's joined a pacifist Crusade that espouses a decidedly non-medieval style of gentle, humanistic Christianity.
These Crusaders don't want to kill or plunder. They've come to Jerusalem to show the locals how to farm, develop their sense of personal responsibility and "protect the villagers." Unfortunately, there are a few bad apples, recognizable by their tatty beards and sloppy posture, who are agitating for a war on Muslims.
Not to give too much away, but they get their way. This is bad news for Crusaders and Saracens alike, but good news for moviegoers, because it means war, and war's what these big historical epics are really all about: good-looking, righteous war that gets your blood up even as you disapprove.
Scott covers all the bases. In addition to the truly awesome display of medieval war machines in action, we've got the forest battle scene from Gladiator, the flaming arrows from Troy and the sweeping vistas of ancient cities from Alexander.
Which makes you wonder: why is Hollywood cranking out so many identical historical epics? Are they all Russell Crowe's bastard offspring? Or are big, dumb, beautiful allegories just the easiest way for a filmmaker to sell a pacifist polemic right now?