I'm descended from a Knight Hospitaler (Giovanni Tresca), so I was very curious as to how Kingdom of Heaven would portray my ancestors and that of their sister organization, the Templars. The Hospitalers fared much better than the Templars throughout history-they majority of Templars were burned at the stake on Friday the 13th (thus the reason for that day being bad luck, who says reviews can't teach you something new!). There are plenty of both kinds of knights in Kingdom of Heaven.
How did they fare? Hospitalers good, Templars…not so much.
Balian (Orlando Bloom) is a blacksmith who has just lost his wife and unborn son to suicide. His crusading father, Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) comes to collect him and whisk Balian away to Jerusalem. Balian doesn't want to go at first, until he realizes a priest has stolen the crucifix off his dead wife's neck and had her beheaded. Because of course, if you commit suicide, you go to hell (see the movie Constantine for more about that).
Well, that's enough to make Balian murderously mad. Mad enough to toss the priest into a forge and watch him burn to death. Which is the first of several comments from the director (Ridley Scott) about religion and faith. How could a movie named Kingdom of Heaven be anything else?
Balian's crime catches up with him and his father's knights defend their new charge with vigor. Alas, it is not enough. Godfrey falls ill from his wounds and eventually dies, passing on his estate in Jerusalem to Balian. One shipwreck later and Balian has taken up his father's sword in the holy land.
At heart, Godfrey wants his son to be a good knight. This chivalric ideal is largely a modern vanity that was projected onto knights long after the Crusades, but here it serves as a very basic moral code. Balian is a Good and Honorable Man, in the most basic and primal fashion: he protects the weak, defends the innocent, and never kills without cause.
This quality is demonstrated most strongly in Balian's encounter with a Saracen (Muslims in medieval times). Balian fights for the right to a mount, kills the owner and lets the man's servant (Nasir, played by none other than the good doctor from Deep Space Nine, Alexander Siddig) go. From that point on, Balian acquires the reputation of being a Pretty Good Guy, even from his enemies.
Jerusalem, as visualized in Kingdom of Heaven, is a curious place. It seems to be a land of tolerance, where Muslim, Jew, and Christian live and worship together in harmony. It is kept that way by the Christian King, in a stalemate with the leader of the Saracens (Saladin, played by Ghassan Massoud). It's a gentlemanly standoff though, and there are no hard feelings all around. Through it all, Balian seeks the redemption of his own soul as well as that of his wife, but finds no peace.
Balian is not without his allies. Though the name of the organization is never mentioned, Balian is a Hospitaler. And the Hospitalers are undeniably the good guys: David Thewlis plays an unnamed knight; the leprous King Baldwin IV (Edward Norton) wears a mask to cover his horrific decay; Tiberias (Jeremy Irons) provides wise counsel as another Hospitaller.
Lined up on the bad guy side is a veritable cast of one-dimensional cartoon characters, all of them Templars: Guy de Lusignan (Marton Coskas) is the oily head knight angling for Baldwin's throne; his chief crony is the raving mad Reynald (Brendan Gleeson) who just likes to kill people. Like say, Saladin's sister.
Speaking of sisters, Baldwin's sister Sibylla (the elegant Eva Green) is promised to Guy but tumbles into Balian's bed. Her marriage is key, for upon her brother's death she will become queen and her husband king.
Eventually, the Templars provoke Saladin enough to finally get the war they always wanted. And they are fools for trying, as the knightly order is portrayed as being so idiotic as to not comprehend the dangers of fighting in the desert, much less fighting a superior army.
Reality is that the Templars were so adept at the tactics used by Saracens that many Europeans felt they had "gone native." The Templars were guilty of a lot of things, including everything portrayed in the movie, but military ineptitude was not one of them. They were an elite fighting force, not just greedy dogs slavering for power. Indeed, Templars largely grew into that role as bankers much later on.
But why let history get in the way of a good story?
The Hospitalers take off for Cyprus, leaving only a small force led by Balian to defend Jerusalem. Why? At heart, Balian feels that he must protect the people. Not just Christians, but everyone within the city's walls. Balian is as much a humanitarian as he is vague about his own religious beliefs.
The final battle that ensues is breathtaking, with enough CGI to rival Lord of the Rings. There's kist one nagging question: where exactly did the humble blacksmith learn advanced siege tactics, when he's never been through a siege himself? Balian transforms from a hammerer of iron to a forger of men, a super-tactician who knows how to topple siege towers and determine the perfect distance to strike an enemy by catapult.
Bloom's bland affability and wishy-washy lack of commitment to any specific ethos makes him appealing as a generic everyman but less so as a leader of warriors. Everyone does their part, with Neeson, Norton and Massoud shining in their roles as weary but just leaders. Heck, I liked Siddiq far better as a warrior than his wimpy doctor role on Star Trek.
Kingdom of Heaven closely hews to Gladiator's format, from the hero with nothing to lose, to the tinkering of history such that it makes for a compelling story. The difference is that in Gladiator, the antihero cut a bloody swath to the end of the movie without compromising the movie itself. Kingdom of Heaven has far less conviction, other than to perhaps not insult anybody.
On some level, Kingdom of Heaven is both a fine war epic and a blandly PC religious tract. The Crusades were awful because a lot of people on both sides had very ignorant views of the world and each other. As cast by the director, Balian is conveniently antiseptic, a crusader without any of the crusade in him. He seems mostly to want what's best for everyone…but what exactly that is (besides, you know, not killing people) is ill defined. Which is perhaps the message Scott wants to get across.