Orlando Bloom plays Balian, a 12th century blacksmith who has recently lost his wife. Because Balian's wife committed suicide, the local priest declares her corpse unfit for heaven. As prescribed by the Church's doctrine the priest thus decapitates the corpse and, less piously, steals her necklace.
Balian spots this stolen necklace and, in a hilariously inappropriate bit of rage, kills the priest (who is also Balian's brother!). This encapsulates director Ridley Scott's philosophy throughout the rest of the film: the only good priest is a dead one and all Christians are scheming villains.
"I have done murder," Balian mournfully tells a passing knight, who just happens to be his long-lost father, Baron Godfrey of Ibelin. "Haven't we all?" Godfrey replies. Godfrey is played by Liam Neeson, an actor who has made a career playing the "Bearded Mentor Who Dies". He's done this in "Batman Begins", "Gangs of New York" and "Phantom Menance", and does it again here, training Balian in the ways of the broadsword before taking an arrow to the chest and promptly dying.
After the fastest training course and the least convincing shipwreck in the history of cinema, Balian is miraculously transformed from a grumpy loser to a knightly superhero who's a master of combat, irrigation, diplomacy and siege tactics. He also becomes irresistible to women.
Seeking forgiveness for the murder of his brother, Balian travels to Jerusalem. He wants to "repent" and "find God", but instead finds only cartoons. Here the bad guys are either Catholic priests (dishonest, racist and cowardly) or the bearded and bloodthirsty Knights Templar (dishonest, racist and brave). The good guys, in our politically correct times, are of course the Muslims. They're led by the wise Saladin, who looks like Osama bin Laden but comes across as a saintlier version of the Pope.
Scott knows that contemporary Christians have thick skin, and that most are turning atheist anyway, and so he doesn't expel as much energy romanticising them as he does the film's Muslim cast. Nevertheless, Scott does try to convince us that the film's evil Christians are actually "not true Christians at all" whilst men like Balian are "true Christians" who "understand the real teachings of Christ". Thus, when Balian later defends Jerusalem from Saladin's invading army, he does so not because of religious, political or financial reasons, but because, like a good Christian Samaritan, he just wants to protect the poor women and children huddled behind Jerusalem's walls.
Scott's political correctness therefore completely destroys this film. Every character is too "21st century", possessing a "modern insight" or "historical perspective" that no character alive at the times would have possessed. Everyone in this film, for example, views Christianity and the Crusades as a sham, a violent business scheme, when in reality they would have laid down their lives to defend its very tenets. A smarter director would "show" and not "tell". Scott, however, has Kings, knights and princes strutting about, enraged by the racism and religious intolerance around them. With all these enlightened characters present, why was there such widespread unrest? Likewise, the real King Saladin was not the moderate, peace-lover that Scott paints here, nor did King Baldwin try to create a peaceful environment in which all religions could co-exist. Released the same year as "Munich", at a time when the West was (and still is) itself knee deep in a Middle Eastern "Crusade" of its own, this is thus another slice of 21st century wish-fulfilment, a "let's all get along with the Arabs" cartoon fantasy which is completely useless because it has absolutely no basis in either our past history or our current reality.
But of course people only go to these films to enjoy the battle sequences anyway. Guys like Eisenstein, Griffith and DeMille were the first to invent the "grammar" or "cinematic language" of these combat sequences. Films like "The Fall of the Roman Empire", "El Cid", "55 Days in Peking" and "Ben Hur" then followed, all of which relied heavily on DeMille and the Russian masters' work in the 30s. Kubrick then came along and borrowed from Eisenstein, but from "Paths of Glory" to "Spartacus" to "Barry Lyndon", his battle sequences began to stress a certain cosmic perspective, a certain sublime distance. This detached approach was later taken up by Jancso and Kurosawa in films like "Ran" and "The Red and White", but abandoned by everyone else, who preferred to use 3 defining films of the mid 60s as their template. These were Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia", Welles' "Chimes at Midnight" and Cy Endfield's "Zulu", all of which added subtle codes to cinema's vocabulary. Concurrently came the influence of the Vietnam war, documentary cinema and cinema verite, gore levels increasing and shaky-cam codified in films like "The Battle of Algiers". With "Braveheart" all these various techniques were pulled together, before the "Lord of the Rings" movies came along and added one final tool: virtual armies, virtual camera swoops and matte paintings replaced with CGI. Scott's twin epics, "Gladiator" (filmed the same year as "The Fellowship of the Rings, but released one year earlier) and "Kingdom of Heaven", came next, but their battle sequences added nothing new, lending the latter film an "action climax" which is strangely unspectacular.
7.5/10 – Scott tries to make up for the racism of "Black Hawk Down", but despite his visual strengths can't match the intelligence of the epics he drooled over as a child ("Gladiator" was an inferior rip-off of "The Fall of the Roman Empire", "Spartacus" and "Ben Hur", whilst "Kingdom of Heaven" is a rip off of three admittedly equally stupid films: "El Cid", "The Crusades" and "The Last Castillian").
Because Scott's script is so terrible, it's the film's silent moments which have impact. Balian irrigating his land, wordless romances, Edward Norton's masked face, shots of glittering crosses on the horizon
these scenes work precisely because they are somewhat detached from the film's verbal narrative.
Worth two viewings.