Kingdom of Heaven
"Kingdom of Heaven" is the first film I can recall in which a leader of the Crusades turns out to be a secular humanist. I don't know how historically accurate that is - not at all, I'd guess - but I do know that the two hundred years of the Crusades represent the most rapacious flowering of evil in the history of Christianity. In the course of it the crusaders wreaked more havoc, murdered more people and accomplished less toward their goal of controlling the land where Jesus lived than even the sickest fantasist could imagine in his most nightmarish dreams. It's a fitting irony that they failed.
However, in the movies anything is possible, so in Ridley Scott's new epic we find Orlando Bloom, as Balian the blacksmith, on his way to Jerusalem to make his fortune. "A man who in France has not a house is in the holy land the master of a city," says Godfrey, Balian's father (Liam Neeson), in encouraging his son to come with him. Balian has another reason: his baby died at birth before the movie started, and his wife was so upset that she killed herself. Now by going to Jerusalem he will rescue her from hell, where suicides are put, and ultimately meet her in heaven. I'm not sure that isn't a heresy but I'm not a theologian.
The film, directed by Ridley Scott and written by William Monahan, gives us a Balian who for the first hour anyway, is almost mute. Monosyllables are the rule, which almost destroys any interest we might take in following his progress, or even getting a sense of the character. At any rate poor Godfrey dies before they even leave France, but knights his son first. Balian suffers a shipwreck on his way from Messina to the coast of the Holy Land, proves his moral prowess to a rescuing Muslim -- which will pay off in spades later, as you might imagine -- and gets to Jerusalem where he finds himself in a wasp's nest of intrigue around the young king (Edward Norton), a leper who wears a silver mask over his face. Should Balian take up with the king's sister Sybilla (Eva Green), married to an evil Christian general who only wants to make war on Saladin (Ghassan Massoud)? Once again Balian takes the moral high ground. And on another front he argues for peace until - well, until Saladin, having had enough of the Christian attacks, decides to take Jerusalem. And who's in charge of defending the city? If you said 'A blacksmith shall lead them' you wouldn't be far wrong.
Fireballs are slung, siege towers are rolled, burning oil is poured from the ramparts - in other words, we get a Ridley Scott battle. But medieval battles are getting just a bit shopworn these days, and it's just as well that at the moment when Saladin's troops breach the city walls a truce is called, Saladin offers Balian and everyone inside safe passage to Christian lands, and everybody goes home happy. The end.
The film seems to try so hard to be politically correct - fanatics on both sides are mocked, right and wrong exist equally in all of us, tolerance is the virtue and hatred is to be punished - that it ends up with no point of view at all. And because we never get a sense of who Balian is we have little to identify with; we know Saladin better than we know our supposed hero. Just imagine if a leader of the Crusades had actually been a secular humanist. What would the world be like today?