The Grace of Spectacle: On Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven” (2005)

A screenshot of the protagonist from Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven"

Straight out of the gate: Ridley Scott’s 2005 epic Kingdom of Heaven is not a great film. It’s not near-great. It’s not even that good. It is seriously flawed and oftentimes disappointing. However, I argue that despite its flaws, Kingdom of Heaven is not garbage, nor even very bad. My judgment: Kingdom of Heaven is a so-so film with a weak screenplay, subpar acting from its male lead, and some glimmers of what could have been a great film. I also argue that although many rightfully skewer the film for its historical inaccuracies, historical in/accuracy is not the end-all-be-all criteria for evaluating historical films. In addition, I argue that the film’s saving grace is its look, and Ridley Scott offers the viewer enough of a spectacle that Kingdom of Heaven rises just above the murk, however stained.

THE NARRATIVE

It is 1184. The film opens in a gloomy, miserable France, where we are introduced to Balian (Orlando Bloom), the protagonist. He is the resident blacksmith, ex-soldier, as well as a widower (his wife having committed suicide after the death of their infant) and wears an “expression” of bleak, handsome indifference which may or may not alter in minute degrees during this three-hour-long epic. He has a half-brother (Michael Sheen), a sniveling, greedy priest, who wants Balian’s property for himself. He half-asses the burial of Balian’s wife, which will later prove his undoing.

The events of Kingdom of Heaven are kicked off by the arrival of a crusader named Baron Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) with a cohort of other warriors, including a Hospitaler (David Thewlis). Godfrey reveals himself to be Balian’s father, and asks him to join their journey back to the Holy Land. Balian refuses, and the crusaders leave. Miffed by Balian’s stolidity, his brother admits to beheading the corpse of his wife, the “true” punishment for a suicide, in an effort to enrage Balian into leaving. Of course, it backfires, and Balian murders him via impalement and burning.

Balian flees, and joins up with Godfrey and co. They take him in, but are pursued by the town authorities, who are after Balian. Godfrey does not let them take him, and the ensuing battle kills all but Balian, the Hospitaler, and Godfrey, who is fatally injured. They travel to Messina, on the road to the Holy Land, where Godfrey describes Jerusalem as a “kingdom of conscience, a kingdom of Heaven,” where all faiths and people intermingle in peace, and where Balian will become the Baron of Ibelin. Godfrey succumbs from his wound, but not before knighting Balian, and charging him to serve Jerusalem’s king and protect the helpless.

Balian sails the Mediterranean, but a storm wrecks his ship on the Holy Land’s coast. He travels on foot through the desert and encounters a Muslim cavalier and his servant in an oasis. Balian has been in pursuit of a horse that survived the wreckage, and the cavalier wants the horse, challenging Balian in a fight to the death. Balian disposes of him easily (despite having survived a shipwreck, and extreme thirst) and spares the servant (Alexander Siddig), who takes him to Jerusalem. It is a spectacular city brimming with exotic culture, life, and money. Balian lets the servant keep the horse, and sends him away.

He meets the Marshal of Jerusalem, Tiberius (Jeremy Irons) and announces himself as Godfrey’s successor. The viewers are also introduced to court politics, as much of the film’s conflict centers on a power struggle between King Baldwin IV (Edward Norton), or “The Leper King,” his allies, and the Knights Templar, headed by two bigoted, power-hungry noblemen, Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) and Reynald de Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson). They plan to wage war on the Saracens after Baldwin’s death, as he maintains uneasy peace with Tiberius’s help.

Balian is shepherded into luxury, attended to by kind servants of all creeds and young maidens who titter at his beauty. Soon, he meets Sibylla (Eva Green), the sister of Baldwin, arranged to marry Guy de Lusignan, whom she despises. There is immediate attraction. He is introduced to King Baldwin IV, who is a young, sickly, but highly educated, kind-hearted man who takes a liking to Balian. He then arrives at Ibelin, a dusty region which he kicks into industriousness, building wells and warming up to the locals. Sibylla comes to him for a “friendly visit” but their lust for each other culminates in love-making. Sibylla opens up to Balian about her past and misgivings concerning Jerusalem, and her son from her previous marriage, next in line to the throne when Baldwin dies of his leprosy. Balian’s morals begin to alter. Guy de Lusignan recognizes this shift, and resents Balian, Sibylla, and himself for it.

There is a period of bliss, with Balian learning about the ambiguity of faith in this land from some experiences and instruction by the Hospitaler. It is interrupted by the Templars’ rash slaughter of Saracen caravans in a bid for holy war. The sultan, Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), learns of this and brings a massive army to Reynald’s castle, Kerak, to deal with this injustice. There is a brief skirmish near Ibelin involving Balian, his men, and Saracen cavalry, resulting in their capture by the enemy. However, the “servant” he spared in the oasis turns out to be Saladin’s chancellor, Imad ad-Din, and because of Balian’s prior mercy he is set free.

Baldwin rides out to meet Saladin. They are old enemies and clearly have respect for one another. They negotiate, and the Muslims retreat, with Saladin lending Baldwin his physicians to treat the leprosy. Baldwin beats and imprisons Reynald as punishment for the caravan slaughter. However, Baldwin’s health worsens, and he nears death. He asks Balian to marry Sibylla, as he is a virtuous man, and will maintain the peace, but Balian refuses, knowing that his acceptance will warrant Guy’s death. Balian dies soon after, and his nephew, Sibylla’s son, Baldwin V, becomes King of Jerusalem. His reign is short-lived, since it is discovered that he has leprosy as well, and Sibylla poisons him, to spare him from the agony his uncle suffered. Sibylla becomes queen, and her husband, Guy de Lusignan, becomes king.

His first action as king is to let loose Reynald to initiate war. He goes off to slaughter more Muslims, including Saladin’s sister. Saladin hears of this and marches on Jerusalem, sending messengers to negotiate reasonable terms. Guy kills a messenger, and, despite Tiberius’s warning, marches with most of Jerusalem’s forces to meet Saladin in battle. They have no water, however, and are tired by the march, resulting in a massacre. Guy is taken prisoner, and Reynald beheaded by Saladin. The Hospitaler also dies in the battle. Despairing, Tiberius flees elsewhere, leaving Balian and a diminished army to defend Jerusalem from the Saracen horde. He speechifies, and knights all men who are capable of bearing arms (a rare historical accuracy in Ridley Scott’s film) and garners dreamy looks from a grieving Sibylla.

The siege begins. Balian and his men are able to fend off the enemy, but numbers overwhelm. After a wall is destroyed, and men tear each other apart in pitched combat, Balian meets Saladin to negotiate terms. If he surrenders Jerusalem to the Saracens, he and every man, woman and child in the city who wish to leave are free to. Balian agrees, and the Saracens regain control of Jerusalem, and Balian (after disgracing an already-disgraced Guy in a swordfight) returns to his town in France, with Sibylla at his side. His crusading days are over (he refuses to name himself to English crusaders, led by a Richard the Lionheart cameo) and light descends upon the once-morbid European landscape.

“NOTHING…”

Now, all of that you just read, up there? Most of it didn’t happen. And not even in the way that all historical films bend truth to satisfy the demands of cinema – the extreme historical inaccuracy is obvious, unashamed and run amok in Kingdom of Heaven. Here is a good primer (although one detects just a hint of bias) on the historical inaccuracy of the film. A quick Internet search will offer more critiques of this sort from trusted sources. This dismissal of history is one of Kingdom of Heaven’s biggest flaws, and warps potentially interesting storylines and character arcs that history has already provided to fit an inferior screenplay, which is another big flaw. I won’t get into the historical side of things, since I’m not a historian and others have plowed that field better than I can. I will say that it’s possible to make a good historical film with huge historical inaccuracies – something like a “historical fantasy,” perhaps, which many view Kingdom of Heaven as. Yet, even if one were to grant the film that moniker, it fails on that count as well, for its narrative is still weak, and it works too hard to be realistic for a full “fantastical” approach.

However, to get it out of the way, the most glaring negative aspect of Kingdom of Heaven is, regrettably, the one part of the film we’re supposed to adhere to the quickest – Balian, a.k.a. The Protagonist. He is a cardboard cut-out. Yes, we get details of his past, and brief asides to his motivations, but while a skilled actor can pull this off (even with such deficient material – a very skilled actor, then…) Orlando Bloom is hardly a safe choice. His stuff in The Lord of the Rings worked, to an extent, because the fact that he was an otherworldly Elf excused some of the stiffness and monotone, and he was just a walking action-set-piece, but his work on the Pirates franchise and The Three Musketeers shows how limited an actor he is. Alas, that he cannot be removed from the screen – and our eyes – every time as quickly as he was in Black Hawk Down! But I digress. And I repeat: Orlando Bloom acts terribly in this film. This just makes Balian less relatable, as he commits stupid acts (killing his half-brother, the priest) and follows dully-expressed spiritual convictions without an ounce of real life that the best acting conveys. How anyone could feel inspired during his final speech to Jerusalem’s defenders is mystifying. Moreover, his lack of charisma cheapens his romance with Sibylla, rendering the attraction base, for Eva Green is the better actor, and one wonders how the vivacious Sibylla would fall for Balian beyond mere looks. Yes, I understand that the ingredients are there: Balian is principled and intelligent, like her brother, Baldwin, but my point is that these details are moored to the actor’s skill-level. If a better actor had played Balian, perhaps better chemistry would have sparked, thus adding to the probability that the viewer will – oh, I don’t know – give a crap about the relationship, or its male part!

And, I know – his wife and child died, so he’s grim and stuff, but there are ways to convey this grief without dull acting. It’s hard to explain, but it’s like a writer writing a boring scene in a novel to portray boredom. Not a necessarily bad move, depending on the circumstances, but a lazy one, when there are engaging ways to portray boredom, to hold the reader’s attention. Anyway, Bloom’s acting is the most noticeable negative aspect of Kingdom of Heaven, and the only reason we care for him is because he’s young and pretty. That’s pretty much it. If they had cast for Balian, among British actors, say, a young Charlie Cox (whose charming performance in Stardust came just two years later), or even Michael Fassbender (in fighting shape for 2006’s 300, to boot), their abilities would’ve given Balian much-needed soul. However, they weren’t big names at the time, and Bloom was just coming off his The Lord of the Rings and Pirates fame-boost, despite an obvious lack of talent. Oh, well.

Ridley Scott, director of "Kingdom of Heaven", in a Berlin hotel roomYet, even if Bloom’s acting is subpar, it is really the screenplay (by a disappointing William Monahan) that rips Ridley Scott’s film down from potential quality into the realm of so-so. It’s just so typical, and hews too close to the Politically Correct-line to stand on its own terms. Considering the time it was made, its views are all too apparent, and rushes to make the “Look, Muslims aren’t all that bad!” caveats awkwardly and inappropriately. The linked video a few paragraphs back makes the point that the scenes in Europe are shot with gloomy cinematography, and disease and corruption are everywhere, while the Middle East is a sunny, exotic realm of opportunity where men experience spiritual awakenings, and fairness rules – or, that would be true had those darn greedy Christian noblemen not ruin everything with their Western worldviews! History, as proven, was far more complicated, and the Crusades may have been spurred by religious zealotry, but the goings-on of the following conflicts were not as simplified as Scott and Monahan would have it to make the modern parallels with United States interference in the Middle East. The romance is unnecessary (as well as incorrect, historically) and stilted (as explained in the Bloom portion), and so Kingdom of Heaven just ticks off too many boxes in the This is Your Average Swords-and-Sandals Epic category. The beats, the war scenes, exhilarating as they can be. The bloat of it all, especially concerning background characters who serve little purpose in the main narrative. There’s just so many pointless scenes in a 3-hour-long film – that I find more to recommend in the extended version than in the shorter theatrical cut is baffling, but such was the editing process. Balian is even less relatable in that cut, believe it or not. Our main character wandering around the desert in a delusory state adds little to the tale, and the courtly intrigue is not intriguing enough to make us care, since the machinations are so obvious by stereotypically evil characters. The end speech is trite, and the very end, while doing a good job of displaying the persistence of these silly, violent affairs in the name of this or that cause, serves its purpose but rings cheaply. The score, I might add, is generally effective, but a bit too manipulative.

The acting, outside of Bloom, is hit-and-miss. Neeson as Godfrey is OK, but monotone as always, and the various knights we meet and forget about range from serviceable to forgettable. Sheen as the priest does what he can with a stereotypical role, and Thewlis is good as the droll, wise Hospitaler. Csokas is hammy as the corrupt Guy, and Gleeson, a skilled actor, makes the absurd Reynald fun to watch, in the few scenes he’s in. Norton does a fantastic job as the Leper King, for so much young, agonized emotion is exuded from behind a metal mask – but he has a small role. The ethereal Green is good as Sibylla, but over-emotes, at times. Irons is good, as well, but like Norton, his role is too small for real merit. The Saracens are all serviceable, and Massoud is convincing as the great Saladin.

“…EVERYTHING.”

For all the bad acting and writing, is there really anything left to recommend? After all, we’ve already lost most empathy with the protagonist, which is a death blow to a film, in most cases. Add to that badly-handled romances and PC-manipulations, it’s not looking good.

However, I do believe that Kingdom of Heaven is worth a watch, because of some nice, realistic touches to immerse the viewer in its pseudo-history, and its gorgeous design, from the cinematography to the spectacular sets, and the spare CGI additions that look fresh even in 2017. It works, I claim, as a good foundation for a future artist to build upon. No, it doesn’t employ the same techniques of immersion that someone like Werner Herzog pulls off in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, but Ridley Scott and/or Monahan is no Herzog, not by a long shot, and they are different movies with different aims. However, if someone with the talent of Herzog could lead a project with as much scale and “firepower” as Kingdom of Heaven had, the results could be truly special.

As it stands, we are left with a disappointing 3 hours, but there are moments: the action is well-choreographed throughout; the arrival into Jerusalem is simply breathtaking – again, this film is gorgeous to look at; some children float a toy ship down a makeshift aqueduct during Balian’s rehabilitation of Ibelin, a nice little immersive, realistic touch, and one of a few noteworthy moments that go nowhere, regrettably; good acting by reliable actors, at times; the sheer scale of the film, with excellent set designers and make-up and wardrobe crew, is impressive; and, lastly, the humanist take by Ridley Scott on the Crusades is admirable, if not entirely successful, and despite the mishandling there are glimmers of a profound, insightful approach to one of the bloodiest but significant culture-convergences in history in a dialogue exchange here, or interesting, poetic shot there. These, however, are few and far between.

In fact, everything but the most essential aspects of story-telling point to a fantastic, important film about the unmasking of the human spirit in times of carnage, the consequences of religious clashes and fakery, and the duplicitousness of devotion that drives us from one extreme to the other. A good film exists, somewhere, hidden under all the pomp and un-originality. You even get fluid, compellingly staged fight scenes like Balian’s final clash with Guy de Lusignan ruined by the utter cliché of its situation. This is indicative of the tension, here, that keeps Kingdom of Heaven from the top-tier of films, or even Ridley Scott’s best work (easily Alien, a skillful take on horror in the darkness, with strokes of realism despite its genre accoutrements – one he had surprisingly little to add to…hmmm…). What you end up with is a film that’s probably about the things I mentioned, but one that accomplishes them ham-handedly, and without much creativity.

CONCLUSION

I’ll give Kingdom of Heaven a solid C, or anywhere from the upper 60s to the 70s. If I’m being generous, a C+, for the aspects I mentioned above. Not a good mark, but it’s passing, and worth a watch, even if to merely marvel at how good this film could have been, and to curse Ridley Scott for his dearth of creative daring. I dream of what a wiser, more talented artist could do with the same historical source material, but unfortunately, what Scott helmed is what we got. I don’t fault him for his ambition, mind you. Just the results. Hey, what’s that Browning quote? “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heav—…?” Oh, fuck it!

* * *

Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005). Scott Free Productions/20th Century Fox.

Recent work by Ezekiel Yu: John Sayles’s “Lone Star”: Racial Drama, Greek Tragedy, Western

If you enjoyed this piece, check out the automachination YouTube channel and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include a dissection of Steven Pinker’s pollyanna philosophy, an in-depth look at Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Cat’s Cradle’, and a broad discussion of aesthetics between painter Ethan Pinch and writer Alex Sheremet.