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Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

“You are not what you were born, but what you have it in yourself to be.”

Many qualities recommend this movie to an individualist viewer. The quote from the film I have included above hints at one of my favored reasons. This movie's makers, cast and crew, received many nominations and awards for their efforts on it, but none of the big awards in America. The historical subject matter provides a viewpoint on a conflict that resonates strongly with events prominent in today's news. I suspect the relevance implied by that resonance, along with the non-mainstream but historically well-informed viewpoint of the story, underlies the lack of the best known American award nominations. Nevertheless, this film achieves both technical and artistic heights, as well as providing deep insight into problems still facing the world today. Producer/director Ridley Scott has taken the brilliant screenplay written by William Monahan and created a masterpiece that should grow in popularity as more people come to appreciate its significance.

Without meaning to provide too much information which might spoil a viewer's enjoyment, what follows gives a summary of the first part of the story. That story centers on Balian (Orlando Bloom), a young blacksmith of medieval Europe, who has recently lost his wife and infant son to the grim reaper. On the heels of Balian's personal disaster, Godfrey (Liam Neeson) – the Baron of Ibelin, a Crusader from the Kingdom of Jerusalem – brings horses that need new shoes to Balian the blacksmith. While at Balian's smithy, Godfrey identifies himself as Balian's sire. Godfrey wants to make up for his prior absence from Balian's life by becoming more of a real father through providing for his further development. Godfrey offers Balian the prospect of becoming heir to lands and title in the Crusader lands of Palestine. At first Balian turns Godfrey down. However, after Balian commits a rash and violent act which promises to have extremely negative consequences, he changes his mind and seeks out Godfrey on the road back to the Holy Land.

Balian tells Godfrey of the wrongs he has done and asks him about gaining forgiveness for his sins in Jerusalem. Godfrey replies that they will discover together whether that can be done. However, before they leave the area a group of armed men dispatched by local authorities come to take Balian back for the offenses he recently committed. Godfrey and his company refuse to surrender Balian. In the ensuing bloody battle, the locals kill several of Godfrey's party, Godfrey suffers severe wounds, but the Crusaders defeat the locals and Balian stays with Godfrey's company.

Later in the Sicilian seaport of Messina, on the way to Palestine, Balian meets Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas). Guy and Godfrey belong to opposing factions in Jerusalem. Guy has married the King of Jerusalem's sister: Princess Sibylla (Eva Green), putting him in line for succession to the throne. In Messina, Godfrey's wounds prove mortal. However, before he dies, helped by a Hospitaler companion (David Thewlis), he knights Balian and passes his legacy to him in the presence of witnesses. Leaving Messina, Balian sails with one other member of the company to Jerusalem, but a terrible storm swamps the ship which carries them.

Only Balian and a black horse survive. The storm washes them ashore in a desert where Balian meets a pair of Saracens. One claims the horse. Although Balian does not wish to fight, the Saracen making the claim leaves him no choice other than to relinquish the horse, which may provide his only chance for survival in leaving the desert. After defeating and killing the belligerent Saracen, but sparing the other man, Balian has the other man: Nasir (Alexander Siddig) guide him to Jerusalem. When they reach Jerusalem Balian gives Nasir the horse. Balian's mercy and fairness impress Nasir, who plays a key role in the story's later events.

In Jerusalem Balian soon finds that the court of King Baldwin has conflicts other than those with Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) who leads the Saracens. Tiberias (Jeremy Irons), a friend of Godfrey who leads King Baldwin's knights, with King Baldwin (Edward Norton), both work for peace with the Saracens. Opposing them Reynald of Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson) and Guy, with support from the Templars, foment war. As a leper, King Baldwin's fragile health presages his imminent death which will bring the internal conflicts to a crisis when Guy assumes the throne. Balian grows to meet the challenges of his new situation in the “center of the world.”

Some have found fault with the choice of Orlando Bloom as Balian. However, I can think of no actor who might have made a better performance in this difficult role. For his efforts Orlando Bloom won the Audience Award for Best Actor of the European Film Awards.  Bloom's increasingly calm and rational portrayal of Balian in the face of strange situations with powerful and bellicose people provides a great example of moral action. It contrasts sharply with the abhorrent actions of Guy and Reynald, which derived from non-rational sources; as well as the hypocritical counsels given by the Bishop / Patriarch of Jerusalem, which don't speak well of the Christian clergy of the time.

The general history surrounding the events in the movie accurately portrays the conditions in Jerusalem at the time. Many of the movie's characters (e.g. Balian, Guy, Reynald, Sibylla, King Baldwin) were based on actual historical figures and their attributes. However, not all aspects of movie fit the historical record, e.g. the relationship between Balian and Sibylla. The DVD provides background on the history involved.

Beside Balian and Godfrey with his friends, the story provides a selection of admirable characters from many segments of the movie's depiction of life in the Mideast at the time of the Crusades. Muslims such as Saladin and Nasir portray characters at least as admirable as their praiseworthy Christian counterparts. The film contains many deep insights about war and peace, religious tolerance, individual action in the face of crisis, the essential nature of adhering to a moral code and the importance of historical understanding. With all those important themes to recommend Kingdom of Heaven, I hope you find one among them that impels you to watch this excellent film.

Related DVD

Director's Cut Set

Soundtrack CD