In real life, the Crusades involved Christians killing Muslims and taking over their land. (I am simplifying.) That such methodology was misguided and not at all what Christ taught is not in question. The Crusades are one of those embarrassing moments that all religions, political parties and families have somewhere in their past.
To make a movie about the Crusades, then, is a fool’s errand. If you tell it like it was, you’ll be accused of fueling anti-Muslim sentiment. If you tell it like it was but from the Muslim victims’ point of view, people will say you’re anti-Christian for dragging the skeletons out of the Catholic church’s historical closet. And if you whitewash the Crusades, make the Muslim-slaying the actions of a few evil Christians and make your film’s hero an enlightened, politically correct man who advocates peace between the sects, then you’ll be guilty of making “Kingdom of Heaven.”
Beginning in “Braveheart” territory and eventually wandering into some “Lord of the Rings” outtakes, “Kingdom of Heaven” is a 12th-century epic that is long and wide but not very deep. Our hero is Balian (Orlando Bloom, once again wearing a tunic and slinging arrows), a small-town blacksmith whose wife and child have recently died, leaving him with nothing but heartache. His wife committed suicide, too, which means, according to current religious dogma, that she is in hell. (“How can you be in hell when you’re in my heart?” he says to his dead wife, apparently competing with Anakin Skywalker for the 2005 Worst Dialogue Award.)
Along comes Godfrey (Liam Neeson), Balian’s long-lost father and an ardent Crusader. He persuades Balian to join him in his journey to Jerusalem, a city said to have powers of forgiveness and redemption for sinners. After being taunted into committing murder in his village and thus becoming a fugitive anyway, Balian agrees to the trek.
Jerusalem, it turns out, is governed by a weird, leprous king who wears a silver mask over his deformed visage and who utters profound things when he is not busy dying. (William Monahan’s screenplay is full of people making profound speeches about profound things.) The king’s sister Sibylla (Eva Green), Balian’s obligatory love interest, becomes queen after her brother’s death — a bad sign for the city’s future, given that her husband (Martin Csokas) is a highly zealous Crusader (i.e., Muslim-stabber) who wants a war.
It ultimately befalls Balian to defend the city against the advancing Muslim hordes. But first he delivers a highly P.C. speech about how neither group has a true claim on the city, and can’t we all be brothers, and that sort of thing. Balian, it must be said, is awfully enlightened for the Dark Ages.
And that is the film’s major problem: It can’t decide whose side it’s on. It can’t advocate the wholesale slaughter of Muslims, obviously, but that’s what Christians were DOING in 1184. And so it rides the fence for two hours, giving us a few thrilling battles (director Ridley Scott, of “Gladiator” and “Black Hawk Down,” knows how to slap those together) before finally collapsing into a grandly disappointing climax.
The warriors can’t be heroes because it wouldn’t be proper to make a movie in which people who wantonly kill Muslims are heroes. You could have them do it grudgingly and against their will, I suppose, but people who are pushed around by their leaders don’t make good heroes, either. Or you could have them rise up and refuse to kill the Muslims, but then you’ve forsaken historical accuracy. Long story short, DON’T MAKE A MOVIE ABOUT THE CRUSADES. If we learn nothing else from history, let us learn that.
C+ (2 hrs., 25 min.; )