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Culture Reviews
Kingdom of Heaven
Tchaikovsky Cultural Center 
Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by William Monahan. Starring: Orlando Bloom, Marton Csokas, Eva Green, Jeremy Irons, Ghassan Massoud, Liam Neeson. 145 min. USA/Spain/UK.

By Sam Gerrans

Review top sheet: from the director of “Gladiator”, this a visually breathtaking fantasy with superb, gut-wrenching fight scenes. It is set in a real historical context, but one with which the story presented to us has almost no factual connection.

I liked “Gladiator” and accepted it on its own terms, those of a pseudo-historical fiction. The story wasn’t bad, and it was refreshing to have a hero with a concept of a life after this one and a sense of moral responsibility.

“Kingdom of Heaven” is “Gladiator II” by another name (complete with incredible sets, good looks, moral integrity and many of the usual failings of a sequel).

Will you like this film?

Yes, if: politicised history doesn’t bother you and you’re not overcome by the need to mock the fact that 12th century European Christian crusaders had to include a token Black, albeit fleetingly… I kid you not. No, pants to all that, you’re there for the action and the spectacular visuals.
No, if: history is your thing. My next-door neighbour and good friend is a historian. Films like this one leave him a heaving, fuming wreck. Personally, I hope he’s too busy to see it since I’m going to have to deal with at least some of the fallout.
Maybe, if: like me, you were interested to see a film which has something positive – however guardedly stated – to say about Muslims and Islamic culture, manners and morals during the Crusades (or at any other time, come to that). Now that’s a first.

Comments: the fight scenes are awesome. I mean, they are viscerally impressive. They drag you into the gut-wrenching, adrenalin rush of the transcendental semi-madness which is battle (medieval battle I mean – where you see your adversary’s face – not picking off Iraqi civilians three miles away from the comfort of an Abrams tank while you listen to Megadeth and suck the dregs out of a Coke through a straw – that doesn’t count).

Scott is the master of the whole pre-gunpowder battle genre in my book and he excels himself here.

The landscapes, sets and cinematic composition are breathtaking and form a superb canvas for the fine period dress, intricate Arabesque latticework and hard-wrought tools of war. The result is a visually rich, intricate, sumptuous, martial experience. The mass scenes are awesome in terms of scale, beauty and sheer power. It’s all done astoundingly well and you can gorge your senses till you burst.

The story was lacklustre. The typical roles were represented of course – the good, the bad and the ugly – but they were more token than integral.

If you take scale out of the picture, you will miss a lot of what makes this film worth seeing, so I recommend the large screen.

Out-of-five star ratings:

• Story: *
• Dialogue: **
• Substance: *
• Film craft: *****

Story comments: the pillaging of history to derive conclusions which would have been utterly foreign to the people involved in the actual events seems fated to a certain mediocrity no matter how masterfully it is all presented.

The result, for me, is too Communistic and New World Order to be either credible or even particularly interesting. But that’s me, and there’s a lot more to this story than, er, just the story.

Dialogue comments: the lines are well-crafted and pared to a military minimum.

You go to certain death, says one character. All death is certain, comes the reply. This is my kind of stuff.

But then it all gets bogged down in a pro-lumpen, pseudo-democratic rhetoric better suited to (and about as interesting as) a Billy Brag concert.

Obviously, if you like Billy Brag you’ll hate the bits I liked and have a better time overall.

Orlando Bloom as Balian is good looking and can act tolerably well. That may give the girls something to look at while their American boyfriends sit and gut a gallon or two of popcorn, but I need more. Ghassan Massoud as Saladin on the other hand isn’t good looking as such but has an awesome presence and can really act.

I would have preferred to have Saladin as the main character. But then, I don’t eat popcorn. Perhaps I should start.

Substance comments: the film fumbles around with questions of life, death and faith, but the delivery is way too superficial to deserve serious consideration.

It is much better to regard the film as the vehicle for an ideological statement arrived at by committee; that is, a statement which is misshapen, driven by politics, and incapable of pleasing anyone fully.

I can understand why a lot of thought went into the propaganda subtext of the film – i.e. how the thoughts the film was designed to leave you with were to be embedded without you noticing – given the tensions between the West and the Islamic world right now. But the purview of the ideological remit extends much further than merely the clash of civilisations our tax dollars are helping to pay for and, for me, ended up bordering on the ludicrous.

I pictured this committee made up of the directors of a “non-government organisation” (you know, well-funded, nice office, and a set of policies which miraculously happen to mirror those of the current US administration), Gloria Steinem, Louis Farrakhan and some commissar-wannabee United Nations interns. I had Ken Livingstone, the left-wing, right-on mayor of London in the chair and Condoleezza Rice taking the minutes and making the coffee. The result was such a dog’s dinner of conflicting certainties that it would require an entire dissertation unpick. Another time, perhaps.

Despite the moral hero’s grindingly consistent integrity, it takes all of eight seconds for him to come round to the idea of sleeping with another man’s wife once the opportunity presents itself. Given that the best-looking woman in the film is married, the question was always going to come up. What interested me was how a secularised audience was going to be expected to absorb this behavioural blip in the context of that rare creature on our screens: the moral man. The answer was: she doesn’t like her husband.

I’ll keep a baseball bat handy just in case Mr. Moral decides to pay me a visit when I’ve just had a disagreement with my wife.

On the upside, the film will introduce Generation X – delinked as it is from any real historical appreciation – to the Muslim world’s superior morals and manners at the time of the Crusades. The chivalry (noble self-sacrifice and protection of those in need) which we associate with European knights was, in fact, learnt from the Muslims during the Crusades and brought back to Europe.

In the context of the on-going occupation of Iraq (let’s stop calling it a war – the US has not declared war since 1941) you can’t help but look for analogies in this film with the situation on the ground, or at least what’s left of it in Iraq, no matter how far-fetched they might seem.

For my money, the sickly and ineffectual King Baldwin represents the United Nations, Guy de Lusignan and his Knights Templar are George Bush and his robber barons, and the plucky hero, Balian, (who lacks nothing but the right patronage at the highest levels) is Scott Ritter.

That just leaves the righteous, maligned and unfairly provoked Saladin as, er, Saddam Hussein.

I’m sure that’s not what they meant to say, but if you try to write by committee, that is what you get.

Film craft: outstanding. The sheer scale is breathtaking and the computer-graphic extras blend into the mix acceptably well. But see it on the big screen.

A taste of the story: a humble blacksmith, Balian, played by Orlando Bloom, is called to serve in Christian-occupied Jerusalem.

Some (but by no means all) powerful people take to Balian and promote him, irresponsibly, I thought, way beyond either his talents or experience.

Events conspire to leave our hero carrying the can of responsibility for the public good amid an ever-worsening situation.


Sam Gerrans is a freelance writer and translator: http://samgerrans.com.

05.05.05
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