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Review: Kingdom of Heaven

Today was a rainy day that made me want to see a big spectacular film, with amazing battle scenes and first-class sword fights. So I went to see Kingdom of Heaven, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Orlando Bloom as Balian, a blacksmith. It provided me with everything I want from this genre: terrific set pieces, luminous cinematography, a small romantic subplot, expert hand-to-hand combat, and the strong presence of religious themes without a sense of taking sides. The characters are honorable or despicable on their own terms.

The film opens in France and quickly moves Balian into position as a bastard son who inherits in the Holy Land. The first combat sequence is as good or better than any in Gladiator, and set in a time period that your average D&D or SCA geek appreciates more: the 12th century. The filmmakers nailed the period in costume, combats, and character, which should make many geeks very happy. Yes, I was delighted to recognize the Templars, the Teutonic Knights, and the Hospitallers by their heraldic insignia, though only the Templars are name-checked in the film.

The real success of the film isn't in the glorious visuals. The real treat is that Scott grapples with a topic like the Crusades and makes us care about the characters involved. The script turns the religious madness of the Crusades into a comprehensible and engaging topic without coming off as either pro-Christian or pro-Muslim. It's quite a trick, done by playing the zealots of both sides for the villains of the piece.

Jeremy Irons offers up a particularly nice performance as Tiberius, a general in service to the Leper King Baldwin of Jerusalem (Ed Norton). Ghassan Massoud's Saladin is also well-played in a small role, and I look forward to seeing more of Eva Green. The strong performances are a credit to both the actors and the script; the dialogue never falters.

As a writer for Al-Qadim and a long-time fan of this period, I was totally ready to nit-pick this at the slightest misstep. The film isn't perfect (I'm told the 140 minute running time was cut down from 4 hours), but parts of it outdo LOTR as sword-and-lance adventure. More than anything else, Kingdom of Heaven is an honest picture about a complicated place, and that earns it my respect.

The narrative arc has some issues in the third act, but some of that is an inescapable consequences of the period (news flash: Jerusalem is no longer a Christian kingdom in the Middle East) and another is just a misguided attempt at making Orlando's character a man-of-the-people by showing him down in the muck with the common people.

The script rises well above "us vs them" attitude of most medieval or pseudo-medieval epics, but it doesn't quite pull off the standard happy ending that one of these blockbusters seems to require. It's a shame that this reduces the audience for the film, but I appreciate the guts it takes to try it. Kurosawa often ended his samurai epics in long panning shots of the dead (Kagemusha and others). It's great storytelling, but America has little taste for tragedy or anything less than total victory. I thought the surrender of Jerusalem was a great moment, a triumph of sanity over bloodbaths and butchery. But it is a bit of an intellectual's triumph to see a battle won through negotiation rather than, say, superior firepower.

I enjoyed this movie, and I suspect most gamers have already seen it. If not, treat yourself to the big-screen spectacle; it deserves to be seen in all its sweeping desert grandeur.

The Kingdom of Heaven: ★★★★


( 5 sutras — Your wisdom )
May. 22nd, 2005 02:38 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the review, I've been wanting to see this movie for weeks now.
May. 23rd, 2005 01:25 am (UTC)
Ok, next time I put up an open call for locals to join the expedition. Though I have no idea what I'll see next, if it isn't a SIFF movie.
May. 22nd, 2005 06:06 pm (UTC)
Ya know Wolfgang its hard to spoil historical events. Anyway, I saw it and thought it was both well acted and amazingly directed.

May. 23rd, 2005 01:24 am (UTC)
Yeah, I admit I'm a bit amused by the idea of historical spoilers. But not everybody loves history.

And yet, people still watch Civil War movies, WW2 movies, and so forth.

"You say the North won the Civil War. Really?"

May. 23rd, 2005 08:57 pm (UTC)
w00t! I can't wait to see it, and I'm posting this without looking at the spoiler-full parts....

( 5 sutras — Your wisdom )

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