Kingdom of Heaven (6/10)

by Tony Medley

Director Ridley Scott’s latest violent incarnation contains some of the funniest lines since Laurel & Hardy died. Here are a few:

The Saracens, led by Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), are attacking Jerusalem, defended by Balian (Orlando Bloom, still as pretty as a picture). The Saracens are throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the Christians defending the Holy City. One of the seemingly omniscient Saladin’s aides sidles up to him and says, very concerned, “Why don’t they attack.” Reaching into his years of experience, Saladin solemnly responds, “They wait.”

 Before that, though, Balian gets to show he’s just as wise as Saladin. Just before the battle, one of his aides approaches him and asks, seriously, “When will they come?” Replies the all-wise, all-knowing Balian, “Soon.”

Wow! These guys are SMART!

As if those examples of the devastating repartee throughout the movie aren’t enough, here’s another. When the Saracens are not blowing through the line like they thought they would, Saladin says to one of the Saracens who defeated Balian in battle, but spared his life, “This is the one you let live? Perhaps you should not have.” Replies the quick-witted aide, “Perhaps I should have had a different teacher!” Who could go to sleep in the presence of such a script?

But you ain’t heard nothin’ until you hear the speech Balian gives just before the Saracens attack Jerusalem near the end of the film. If you want to understand the meaning of the word “puerile,” this speech is a good start.

These are just samples of a script (William Monahan) that instantly converts Balian from a blacksmith running away from the law into a Charlton Hestonish El Cid, a charismatic leader who simply cannot be vanquished in battle, no matter how huge the odds against him. At one point he defeats four fully armed knights trying to kill him when he’s barehanded without a weapon. I guess Orlando learned something when his brother got killed by Achilles (Brad Pitt) in last year’s “Troy.” He’s so perfect and pure I was expecting him to break out in a chorus of Lancelot’s “C’est Moi!” any second.

That said, I do applaud Scott and Monahan for creating a character with high moral values. Balian refuses to commit adultery with Sibylla (Eva Green), the King’s sister, even though she throws herself at him and is married to the hateful Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), who wants to kill him. Hollywood needs more characters with values like this in its movies.

As to Saladin, I was hoping finally to get to see a good interpretation. In “King Richard and the Crusaders” (1954), Rex Harrison was a great actor, but, let’s face it, he’s no Arab, no Muslim, no Saladin. But Massoud, Arab and Muslim though he may be, isn’t much better. He’s still a Van Dyked, cliché-spouting caricature.

Scott pictures all the Christians, save Beautiful Balian and his mentor, Tiberias (Jeremy Irons), and his King Baldwin (Edward Norton, but you wouldn’t know it because he wears a mask throughout the movie to hide his leprosy), as venal monsters. I saw two priests in the film and both were bad guys. One stole Balian’s dead wife’s cross that she wore around her neck, for which he gets brutally murdered. The other is a Cardinal in Jerusalem who is as far from a holy man as one can get, as well as being a blithering coward, willing to sacrifice his people to save his own skin. I guess Ridley wanted to keep his Hollywood credentials, so he took his cheap, unnecessary shots at the Church. Consistent therewith, Scott also downplays the religious basis of the Christian-Muslim battles over the Holy Land. All the good guys decry any religious interest in the geography. Hollywood demeans itself by its secular crusade, and jilts history in the process.

This has big battle scenes with people getting massacred all over the place. The aerial shots of the large armies maneuvering are impressive. The cinematography (John Mathieson) is very good, as are the staged battles, if you’re into that sort of thing. Although the film is interesting and entertaining, good actors like Irons and Liam Neeson, who plays Godfrey, Balian’s father in the first part of the movie, are wasted by Bloom's one dimensional effort and a laughably hackneyed script in what turns out to be a secular retelling with an anti-Christian bias of a religious war.

May 3, 2005