Karen Would Rather Laugh with the Sinners than Cry with the Saints in The Kingdom of Heaven

by Karen Gsteiger

Spoilers below, as usual.

When news of Ridley Scott's new film The Kingdom of Heaven first started to trickle out, I asked myself, "Why, in all the dark periods of our troubled history, why make a big-budget movie about the Crusades now?" The president uses the word "crusade," and it's practically an international incident. "Why, why, why," I wondered, "would Hollywood make a movie about the Crusades from the point of view of the crusaders? And how did sweet, young Orlando Bloom get himself involved in this?" I braced myself for what I thought would be the inevitable fallout in America and perhaps around the world.

However, as noted by David Germain, not only is the film not drawing a lot of protest, it's even being praised by Muslim groups in the U.S. for its fair portrayal of Saladin and the Muslim army.

I think, though, that the real reason that this film has escaped controversy is because...


In fact, Saladin, as portrayed by Ghassan Massoud, is easily the best and most charismatic character in the entire film. Would that Kingdom of Heaven were about him!

But alas, the film begins in France in, as I recall, 1145. Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), a knight based in Jerusalem, comes looking for his illegitimate son, Balian (Orlando Bloom). Balian is a simple blacksmith, mourning his wife and child. You can tell the depths of Balian's sorrow by the way Orlando glowers sexily in these early scenes. He initially has no desire to join up with his father to do crusading sorts of things, but he is much more keen on the idea after he kills a crooked priest who is unwise enough to taunt Balian about his wife's suicide while Balian is working with red-hot swords and other implements. (And why is Orlando Bloom being cast as a blacksmith again?)

After a skirmish with law enforcement types, Balian finds himself in Jerusalem fatherless but the heir to his father's title and some dusty, arid land. (No one will be admitted into the theater during the gripping "digging for water scene!") He learns that the religiously tolerant King of Jerusalem is a leper (portrayed by Edward Norton behind a silver mask) and who is hanging on to this mortal coil by a thread. Once he dies, all hell threatens to break loose as there are a lot of powerful crusading knights who are just itching to kill every Muslim they see, a habit that is bound to displease the wise and mighty Saladin, whose 200,000-strong army is more than capable of showing the Christians what it truly means to go medieval on one's ass. Meanwhile, the king has a hottie sister (Eva Green) with freckles and lots of eyeliner who, like any red-blooded woman, would like to make a dessert out of Orlando Bloom. She's married, but does anyone give a shit? No.

So blah, blah, blah, talking, talking, talking, sermonizing, proselytizing, talking, and Balian finds himself defending Jerusalem from a siege led by Saladin. Lots of epic battle scenes (where gross things happen, but you can't really process what's going on--a la Gladiator) and, unfortunately, more talking.

Some of the reasons that this film didn't work:

As much as I dearly love Orlando, I've got to call a spade a spade. He cannot carry this picture as a leading man. It is debatable whether anyone can. It would take a scene-chewer of Russell Crowe's caliber to make Balian at all inspiring. As Sam, my filmgoing companion, pointed out, when Balian is not making dull speeches, he is simply standing there and staring. (Same goes with a lot of characters in this film.) Why bother to have everything revolve around Orlando's character and give him so little to do and say? Orlando seems a little bit lost, especially in the battle scenes, as though he's looking for Aragorn to pick things up a bit. (Balian is even given a most Legolas-sounding line while standing on the ramparts before the big battle, which made me laugh out loud.)

The movie clearly shows that the Christians provoked the war that led to their army's ruin and the loss of Jerusalem, and it is careful to distinguish between the bloodthirsty knights and our humanist heroes. One certainly can't blame Ridley Scott for his attempts at cultural sensitivity when making a film about this most painful of historical periods, but, as David Edelstein pointed out in his Slate review, something about the whole enlightened atmosphere feels a bit forced. The good guys are a bit too open-minded and tolerant for their day and age. It's like a skit about the Crusades as performed by the Model U.N.

On the other hand, in the big siege scene, which I swear has parts that are lifted directly from The Two Towers, the Muslims are basically playing the role of the Orc army, and everyone knows that not many tears are shed for the fallen Orcs. Stephanie Zacharek has described this weird atmosphere in her Kingdom of Heaven review for Salon: "[Scott] pretends to ask the anguished question 'Why must mankind fight?' even as he's really just rushing to the convenient answer 'I dunno, but gosh, doesn't it look cool?'"

The costuming is nothing short of distracting, as many of the knights are dressed like the Knights of the Round Table in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. So many bloodthirsty Knights Templar are dressed exactly like Sir Galahad that I was waiting for the "oral sex! The oral sex!" Granted, there's only so much you can do with a famous insignia, but it was just laughable when Balian escapes some murderous thugs who have a wardrobe that is strikingly similar to that of the Black Knight. I mean, there's got to be a way around that. The Pythons probably had all of $100 to spend on their costuming in 1975...

But the film's most devastating failure is the heavy, wooden, flat dialogue. Jesus, I don't think that they could have written the dialogue in a more excruciating manner. And no occasion in the film is too traumatic or too dire that the characters cannot make some sort of long and boring speech. That the filmmakers obviously intend these words to be inspiring is just really sad.

Oh, readers, as I watched this film, the minutes felt like hours, and the hours felt like years. I grew old and gray by the time the credits rolled. Orlando Bloom is undeniably gorgeous throughout the proceedings, and his faithful fans are rewarded with a topless scene and a brief love scene--pretty much the only bone we're thrown during the whole film. But the price of admission can simply not be justified. At the end of the film, if you don't mind me spoiling just a tad, Balian begs off further crusading in favor of his normal, hardworking life. I suggest you avoid the pain and torment that I suffered and do the same.