You will not watch Kingdom of Heaven for its entertainment value. It has nearly none, even though glimpses of the battle scenes from the movie make it look like another war romp in the style of Lord of the Rings or Troy. However, within the context of the film itself, these battle scenes are presented with a gravitas that makes those other movies feel like lighthearted adventures. There is no joy, no machismo, no glory in the battles here -- just death, blood, and misery.
Such a conscious choice of style lends weight to the ideas that director Ridley Scott tries to communicate, but it's unfortunately counterbalanced by an almost childlike simplicity in the ideas themselves. Kingdom of Heaven uses the Crusades -- in this case, a specific event during a time of truce that leads directly to the Third Crusade -- to not only chastise war itself, but also the use of religious causes in waging war. Its message is one of non-denominational morality: defend the helpless, for every other cause of war equates to greed, theft and plunder, no matter how much God's name is invoked.
Something is deeply ironic -- or, perhaps, just plain fitting -- about making a Crusades movie to decry the emptiness of religion during times of war. And because it's a movie made with such skill and purpose, it's almost insulting to its subject matter that it ends up being about what it is. There's no consideration for the complexity of the driving forces behind Christian and Muslim motives and politics here -- just plain-faced moralizing. Kingdom of Heaven cannot be mistaken for anything other than a 21st century, post-9/11 film, so direct is its commentary on what some might consider the modern crusades going on in the Middle East. It's at once bold and dumbed down.
Boldness counts for a lot, though, and Scott's movie is admirable for being sober and not easily likeable during a time when epic movies like this are constantly being sized up for their blockbuster potential. It doesn't want to be loved, it just wants to be heard, and it makes most of its noise with its production value. The look of the film is astoundingly detailed, from the replica of Jerusalem to the costumes of the combatants. Aesthetically, it is stripped of fantasy potential -- it looks like it means business, and it does. It uses big budget movie-making techniques to make a point, and, regardless of how well the point is made, the spectacle successfully remains.
What Kingdom of Heaven can't do is reconcile the spectacle with its themes. Its main character arc -- about Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) and how he came to defend the city of Jerusalem from invading forces -- is another example of the paradox between its intent to be literate and convincing and its willingness to talk in broad, simple terms. Balian is set on the the course of the commoner who rises to be a hero, but the historical events don't naturally lend themselves to an arc depicting such a rapid, direct ascension. He's presented as morally pure (convinced God has abandoned him, he then fights for the people), as is, curiously, the Christian King Baldwin IV (Edward Norton), the leper king, who envisions Jerusalem as a "Kingdom of Heaven" where people of different religions can be free to find God in their own ways. Balian's rallying call before the big battle also reflects this point of view, and it sounds less like timely inspiration and more like the work of a contemporary speech writer.
Such a modern take on a world which so naturally does not lend itself to such a depiction tends to make the contradictions between a historical subject matter and a present worldview stick out -- the ol' square peg in a round hole. The ideas are fine, but turning a movie about the Crusades into a mouthpiece for them is demeaning to the past. The story deserves not only to be rich in detail in the visuals of the time period but believable in its political colors as well.
(Released by 20th Century Fox and rated "R" for strong violence and epic warfare.)
Review also posted on www.windowtothemovies.com.