If you come to 2005's Kingdom of Heaven out of admiration for director Ridley Scott's Gladiator, you might be expecting a triumphant conclusion. You may be disappointed. Kingdom of Heaven, a historical epic as well as a war movie, is in many ways a hard movie to watch. And that's not due to any failure on the part of the filmmakers, but due to the actual historical events themselves, and the frequently cruel leaders who caused them.
Kingdom of Heaven is about the Crusades - students of history are already saying, "Oh. Ouch." Ouch is right. A several century period in the medieval era during which Christian Europe and Middle Eastern Islam warred over possession of the Holy Land, the Crusades were a frequent occasion for slaughter and atrocities conducted in the name of God.
From Blacksmith to Warrior
This is the story of Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom). As the movie opens, humble Balian is the blacksmith. His child has died, and his distraught wife committed suicide. His French village no longer wants him, and his wife, the priest tells him, is in hell.
Along comes a group of Crusaders, led by Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson). Godfrey is looking for Balian. It turns out that Balian is Godfrey's son, illegitimate and previously unacknowledged. (There was a real Balian of Ibelin, but this story has been fictionalized to such an extent that this Balian should be considered a fictional character.) After some hesitation, Balian agrees to join Godfrey and return with him to the Holy Land.
Godfrey is wounded in a skirmish before they even leave France. He lingers but finally dies in Messina, having first knighted Balian and given him his oath. His last words to Balian are, "Protect the king."
A Fragile Kingdom of Peace
Balian arrives in Jerusalem just in time to witness the hanging of two Knights Templar, executed for killing Moslems. The Kingdom of Jerusalem, founded a century ago by European Crusaders, is currently maintaining a fragile peace, and Jerusalem is a city where all faiths can worship in peace. The Knights Templar object to the system of tolerance, but young King Baldwin (Edward Norton) insists.
Balian meets Baldwin, the king he swore to protect, and here is the most tragic character in the story. Baldwin is a leper and wears a silver mask to hide his advancing deformity. The mask maintains its cool air of angelic serenity in every circumstance.
You might be tempted to think that the filmmakers were making a point about the Kingdom having only the surface appearance of peace, with rotting ugliness underneath, and that might be the case - but in fact the historical King Baldwin was indeed a masked leper who died young, with tragic consequences for the fate of his kingdom.
Villains and Fair Ladies
Balian also meets Baldin's sister, the Princess Sybilla (Eva Green), a spirited, attractive woman who is drawn to Balian. Unfortunately, Sybilla is married to the despicable Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), a man who more than anything wants war between the Christian kingdom and the Muslim Saracens, led by Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), despite the fact that the Saracens have this tiny toehold kingdom surrounded and vastly outnumbered.
With increasing difficulty, Baldwin maintains the peace and rides herd on the restive knights who want war, but his health is failing. Balian is asked if he would marry Sybilla if she were free, and he says of course he would - but when he realizes that Baldwin and his principal military advisor Tiberias (Jeremy Irons) intend to have Guy killed to achieve that end, he wants no part of it.
And so Baldwin dies, and his sister becomes Queen Sybilla of Jerusalem and crowns her hated husband, Guy, as King.
A Very Stupid War
It's all downhill from here. Guy releases his co-conspirator Reynald (Brendan Gleeson) from prison and sends him off the with directive, "Give me a war." "It's what I do," Reynald assures him. Reynald attacks a caravan and kills Saladin's sister.
Guy has war now, the war he wanted in the worst way and proceeds to fight it in the worst way. He musters his army and marches them out without water to meet the army of Saladin. The Christian army is almost defeated by the desert before the battle even begins; all Saladin has to do is sweep up the pieces.
The Defense of Jerusalem
Since the king picked a war and then threw away the army, it falls to Balian to take command of the defense of Jerusalem. And it's important to realize going in that this is an impossible task. Saladin is going to take Jerusalem; there's no two ways about it.
While possession of the Holy Places has been driving men mad for over a century, Balian's only concern is for the citizens of Jerusalem, and his only hope is to defend the walled and besieged city so well that Saladin will bargain and allow the residents to leave unharmed.
The Impact of Kingdom of Heaven
Watching The Kingdom of Heaven can be an uncomfortable experience, but it's an experience that stays with you and makes you think. Movies are not always about making the audience feel good. Sometimes, it's about making people feel angry. Sometimes the 'good guys' lose. Sometimes the forces of intolerance and cruelty win. And we all have to decide what we can do with that knowledge.
Credits and Rating
Kingdom of Heaven is directed by Ridley Scott and written by William Monahan. It is rated R for violence.