(Now refers to Director's Cut)
In theatrical and director's cut alike, 'Kingdom of Heaven' is a botched opportunity. It has spectacular cinematography, and is highly atmospheric, but would have been better if Scott and Monahan had used more of the real story. It suffers from problems common to historical films and novels: the fictionalised hero's travails are irritating, and the sympathetic characters' anachronistic attitudes break suspension of disbelief. All the heroes express open-minded religious/moral values of a post-Enlightenment, near-Unitarian nature, which would have got them burnt in the 12C; more plausibly mediæval mind-sets belong to the villains. Monahan's interpretation of characters and incidents are based on now-outdated historiography, e.g. the depiction of Patriarch Eraclius, in reality a competent figure. The attempts to make the story an anti-imperialist parable for contemporary Middle-Eastern conflicts fail, too, because they are built on misunderstandings of the 12C situation and modern cultural guilt-tripping. The history is interesting in itself; why strain after 'contemporary relevance'? My chief reason for rating it above DeMille's 'The Crusades' is that at least it leaves my favourite Crusades character off-screen and unscathed!
The battles aspire to the standard of Peter Jackson's Tolkien films: Jerusalem is Helm's Deep and Minas Tirith without the unusual wildlife. (I kept expecting Orlando to skate downstairs on his shield while firing arrows...) His charge at Kerak is Faramir's suicide mission crossed with the ride of the Rohirrim. There is a superfluous shipwreck, yet the dramatic - and vital - battle of Hattin, in which the real Balian and Raymond fought, happens off-screen. The importance of the military orders in the Kingdom's defence is diminished. The personal conflict between Raymond and Templar Grand Master Gerard de Ridefort is replaced by depicting all Templars as 'baddies', in the Walter Scott tradition.
Orlando Bloom's 'Balian' strains credulity. Only his defence of Jerusalem and negotiation of its surrender connect him with the real Balian d'Ibelin. Balian was in his 40s, an Outremer-born baron of Italian descent: not illegitimate, not French, never a village wright and smith. He married King Amaury I's Byzantine widow Maria, and did not have an affair with Sibylla (Amaury's daughter by his first wife). So far, so 'Braveheart', in gratuitous inaccuracy...
Sibylla (played by Eva Green) is equally misrepresented. She was devoted to Guy, refusing to divorce him when pressed to: hardly a casual adulteress. ***SPOILER*** She was not regent for her son, Baldwin of Montferrat - Raymond of Tripoli was. The child was not a leper (leprosy is not hereditary or easy to catch), and she did not kill him: he simply died young. The tacked-on 'happy ending' is absurd. She died in the siege of Acre in 1190. And I'm sure she'd *rather* have died than go to live in a village with a blacksmith. In the feudal 1180s, you didn't 'downshift'.
Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) is portrayed as a scheming villain, dressed as a Templar. 'Scheming' suggests a degree of intelligence few writers associate with Guy: not evil, but over-enthusiastically chivalrous, easily led, and simply unlucky. After Sibylla's death, his claim to the throne crumbled, and by then nobody wanted him apart from Richard Oc-e-Non (a cameo-role from Iain Glen) - because he was one of his Poitevin vassals. (Richard also figures in a script gaffe: Sibylla, teaching her son geography, says he is King of England, having succeeded Henry II: in fact, Henry (her cousin) outlived her son by about 3 years!)
Four characters are vaguely recognisable: Baldwin IV (Ed Norton) is the true hero of the film: a gifted, noble and courageous 24-year-old, dying of leprosy. Even finally seeing the ghastly disfigurement behind his serene silver mask does not erase the viewer's perception of his real beauty: his character. The true extent of his disability is played down, however: in his last years, he was blind and crippled, but still went on campaign in a litter, tended by his mother. Also, he is portrayed as essentially peace-loving; in fact, he was a hard-fighting Angevin warrior-king, Henry II's first cousin. And he would not have spurned the sacrament from the Patriarch.
Jeremy Irons plays Count Raymond of Tripoli - but the film (to avoid confusion with Tripoli in Libya) changes his title to Tiberias (in reality, held by his wife). He looks very much the wise, wily, battle-scarred Raymond I've loved. However, the film strikes a wrong note in claiming he withdraws in self-imposed exile to Cyprus. He fought at Hattin, and died of pleurisy - and a broken heart - in Tripoli, aged 47, during the siege of Jerusalem.
Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) also lives up to expectations: brave, tough, charismatic, and shrewd. It is good to see him played by a Middle-Eastern actor, not - as in previous Crusade films - a Western actor in brown make-up, but his ruthlessness is played down. He would have invaded with or without provocation. Reynaud de Châtillon (Brendan Gleeson) is portrayed as opportunistic and violent as he was, but is dressed as a Templar, which he wasn't. Nor did he kill, or even abduct, Saladin's sister. However, his execution by Saladin is a high point of the film: one of the few scenes taken faithfully from contemporary sources.
There are moments when the film takes wing into magnificence: Baldwin's meeting with Saladin in front of their armies, the True Cross flashing in the sun; Saladin praying over his slain soldiers. (I could have done with more in-period music accompanying these images, too.) But Balian's tedious Bildungsroman and anachronistic moralising drag it back to earth. If the real story is to be changed and fictionalised so heavily, why not change the names and set it in a fantasy universe? Why pretend to verisimilitude? I *might just* forgive Ridley Scott if he makes an *accurate* sequel that opens with a ship from Constantinople pulling into the beleaguered port of Tyre, and a dashing, 42-ish blond Italian coming ashore and taking command of the defences...