I saw Kingdom of Heaven in theatres, once upon a time, and couldn’t make any sense of the goddamn thing.
But, for the longest time, I couldn’t remember what exactly had failed to work. I remember thinking the Leper King and Saladin to be rather excellent on screen. I remember rolling my eyes when Orlando Bloom, drawing on the superpowers shared by all white men foraying abroad (see also: The Last Samurai), taught his Jerusalemite fiefdom to find water in the desert.
And that’s the extent of it. Turns out it wasn’t a very memorable movie.
I came to learn, over the years, that the real movie was too busy lying around the cutting room floor to hit theatres. Hollywood, in its infinite wisdom, decided that Ridley Scott’s 2005 film, written as a semi-historical epic about religion and culture clash, was dramatically too long and needed to be cut down into something more like an action movie.
In their defense, they were halfway right.
The director’s cut, released some time after the regular DVD release, reinserts about 45 minutes of footage and brings the movie’s running time to an executive-jowl-shaking 3 hours and change. But, according to the internet, the resulting sprawl was a far better movie. And who am I to argue, really? So I sat down, for a long-ass time, and watched it.
Kingdom is a fictionalized account of the life and times of Balian of Ibelin, a French knight best known for defending Jerusalem against the ultimately successful 1187 siege by Saladin, which ended almost a century of Christian control over that city and touched off the third Crusade.
We begin in a standard medieval village (leather caps, soot stains, chickens running about, etc.), where blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom) has lost his wife to suicide after the stillbirth of their child. The Baron of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) rides into town and offers him a chance to erase his wife’s sins by splitting Muslim heads. Theology was perhaps not the Crusaders’ strongest point.
And so, we’re off to Sicily, and then Jerusalem, where Bloom will meet girl (Sibylla of Jerusalem, played by Eva Green), lose girl to pre-existing marriage, get tied up in the kingdom’s politics before and after the death of Baldwins IV and V, and finally face off against Saladin when new king and idiot-about-town Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) hares off to get the whole of Christendom’s army brutally stabberized. It should come as no surprise that this eventually wins back the girl.
As a film, it more or less works. It’s still much too long, and pacing suffers for it. Character motivations hold up better than they did in the I-can’t-remember-how-this-was-supposed-to-fit-together theatre cut. The religious themes of the movie come across clearly (some might say heavy-handedly), and it’s beautifully shot, especially when the cameras decide to treat us to panoramic views of 12th century Jerusalem. All in all, the reinserted scenes do make the movie, with the singular exception of a rather anti-climactic showdown between Balian and Guy towards the end of the film.
Critics have been somewhat less than effusive about Orlando Bloom’s performance, and while it’s true that he’s one of the weaker actors on display, he puts in a shift and has his share of good moments. His young, fresh-faced, innocent thing actually works rather well given that the movie’s Balian is supposed to be something of an iconoclast and political reformist. Other actors – in particular Ghassan Massoud and Edward Norton, who steal scenes as Saladin and Baldwin IV respectively – fare better, but that’s at least in part because they don’t have to carry as much screen time. Bloom may not have been the best choice, but he was far from the worst.
Kingdom’s historical aspects line up a little better than the Gladiator standard. Characters and events are poked and prodded into the shapes required by the script, and while the screenwriters did keep an eye to history, they were inspired more closely by previous dramatizations of the period than fact.
Which is not to say the movie is terribly off. Sure, the real Sibylla didn’t carry on an affair with the real Balian (who didn’t much resemble the character played by Bloom). Yes, Guy de Lusignan was massaged into a clear antagonist role when in reality he was merely as unpleasant as any other Crusading knight. And I do, of course, doubt that the historical Balian managed to teach a town full of people who have lived their entire lives in the desert how to find water, on account of that’s really fucking stupid. But the facts do, for the most part, stack up with historical record.
One of the key complaints historians made was that, altered facts aside, the movie failed to accurately capture the spirit of the times. While I’m not entirely qualified to talk about that, even my amateur historian’s eye caught the occasional dissonance. While the real Balian did knight a number of people before the final defense of Jerusalem, the populist reasoning and scope (i.e. Rise, Sir Anyone-Who-Can-Grab-A-Sword) are very out of place in a feudal context.
Religion is, unsurprisingly, thornier still. A film about the Crusades will inevitably be accused of biases in one direction or another, and Kingdom was. There’s no question that Christendom comes off rather badly throughout the film, but there are perfectly good reasons for that – namely, a) the Crusades were completely awful; and b) this offers the backdrop within which Balian can come to his mildly anachronistic conclusions about faith. The simpering chickenhawks of Jerusalem’s clergy were perhaps a step too far towards caricature, but they’re somewhat balanced out by characters like David Thewlis’s righteous Hospitaler.
The Muslim characters fare a great deal better, perhaps by dint of getting little screen time. It might have been nice to see some division in Saladin’s ranks, but the extent of it is typically advisers asking him to be more merciful.
Spoiler Warning…ish ? (Are they spoilers if they’re historic?)
While it’s true that Saladin was generally a nicer chap than his Christian opponents, the practically unconditional amnesty he grants is a far cry from the actual offered we’ll-let-most-of-you-go-but-enslave-who-can’t-pay surrender terms (which, let’s be clear, are still many steps ahead of the usual boilerplate contract of the age). I understand why this was done, of course – when you’ve spent 3 hours (3 hours!) establishing Balian as an anachronistic we-the-people superman, accepting terms that consign so many of the people he was fighting for to slavery would make him look like a coward. And the general gist of the matter – that Saladin was more respectful of his Christian invaders than they tended to be of him – still comes across clearly.
All that said, Kingdom is still a more accurately historical piece than most of what you’ll see coming out of Hollywood, and in any case, it’s a bit silly to complain too loudly at the fact that historical events have been adapted to fit the structure and tone of a modern film.
Historical buffs will enjoy Kingdom of Heaven both for the bits that are accurate and the fun of examining the bits that aren’t. People looking for a tight, well-composed film may be a little put off by the fact that, yes, it’s too long and too unevenly paced. The scenes added back into the director’s cut were for the most part necessary, but there’s some cruft that could have been cut out elsewhere.
Three and a half battered shields for the laity, four for armchair historians.