At the Gates of Hell

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 6, 2005

"Kingdom of Heaven" is full of astonishments, not the least of which are its ideas.

You may or may not agree with them and you may or may not agree with the uses to which the director, Ridley Scott, puts the historical record in order to advance them. Regardless, the movie is built around an intellectual structure as much as a dramatic one.

Set in the 12th century, just before the Third Crusade, as Christian knights had established a mini-Camelot in and around Jerusalem, the movie fully deploys the splendors and the savageries of its age, including the beauty of armored men on magnificent steeds under rippling pennants and the carnage that they are capable of unleashing upon each other. But these are simply elements in the philosophical calculus, a screen to mask its true direction.

It decodes into something quite familiar: zealots vs. cosmopolitans. In the liberal view, this would be conservatives vs. liberals. In the conservative view, this would be warriors vs. wimps. In Washington, neocons vs. cons. In any event, on both sides, the fanatics push toward extreme solutions and the moderates urge restraint and negotiation. The movie apotheosizes, at its end, an act not of heroism but of surrender: One general puts himself and his men in the care of the other general, confident in the knowledge that both are men of honor and, more important, men of the sane middle ground, and that both can survive with dignity and responsibilities intact.

A pipe dream of possibility in the Middle East? Perhaps, and Scott has to do a lot of jury-rigging of actuality in order to bring it off. But in Scott's retelling it's the moderate elements of both Muslim and Christian societies that just want to get along, and the true battle they face is against the extremists in either camp, who want not only war but slaughter in its aftermath. In other words, the boys from Massacres-R-Us vs. the boys from We-R-the-World.

We open with the French blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom) mourning for his wife, who killed herself after their child died. Balian's long-lost father arrives, and it's none other than Sir Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), a salty crusader up from his duchy in the Holy Land to regain the out-of-wedlock son he'd abandoned years before. Balian rejects the older man's entreaty, but when a priest mocks him for loving a wife who as a suicide was not permitted into Heaven and now resides in Hell, Balian sends that fellow to Hell as well by piercing his breast and dousing him in flame. Stricken with guilt, he realizes that the only place where he can achieve God's forgiveness is the Holy Land, so he hastens to join his father.

There truly was a Balian but he was no blacksmith. He was simply another highborn knight in the Holy Land, which was the only home he ever knew. What's the point of the change? Possibly Scott meant to show that by his loss, his grief and his ordeal was his Balian open to compromise and change from a strict crusader's commitment to slaughtering infidels -- even as the infidels were slaughtering them back, under the impression they were the ones slaughtering infidels.

But this doesn't quite work. Instead, the plot argues a reactionary theory that Scott might not even be aware of: the natural superiority of the hereditary aristocrat, particularly as Balian, who has styled himself a blue-collar working guy, rises almost effortlessly by dint of his inherited talents and soon is not only a knight himself but a wise battlefield commander. (Balian's rise might not have seemed so easy and quick had the movie been released in its intended 3-hour 40-minute format instead of this streamlined 2-hour 20-minute variant.)

Anyhow, the wise and generous Godfrey is soon disposed of (in a brilliantly choreographed small unit action), and Balian, now arrived in Jerusalem, finds himself in the hothouse of crusader politics, backroom-style. In Jerusalem, the leper king Baldwin (Edward Norton, behind a silver mask) and his wise counselor Tiberias (Jeremy Irons, as a kind of Colin Powell of 1194) yearn for peace and work hard to negotiate with the Muslims their grandfathers so bloodily drove out of Jerusalem some 80 years earlier. Meanwhile, the great Muslim leader Saladin (Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud) battles his own bloodthirsty minions to keep a fragile peace with the blue-eyed outlanders.

But most of the politics is on the crusader side: The knights Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) and Reynald (a red-bearded Brendan Gleeson) pine for war and the pleasures of genocide. In a power ploy meant to hasten the demise of King Baldwin's power and advance Guy's, they begin a secret terror campaign and soon enough, despite the importunings of heroic moderates, the war is inevitable.

If you know your history, you know that the war was an exceedingly bad idea. Guy and Reynald led the knights and squires and men at arms into the desert and, at a place called Hattin, managed to get themselves wiped out. Reynald was executed by Saladin himself, a scene that Scott creates as the application of justice. Then it was onward to Jerusalem, which was at this time commanded by Our Hero Balian.

Two questions: Is Orlando Bloom enough of a star to sustain a $100 million costume drama? The answer turns out to be yes. A pretty face as Paris in "Troy" and a blond nonentity as the arrow-flinger in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, he is able to dominate the second half of this film in the old-fashioned movie-star way. Scott is smart enough to dirty the young man's face and let his beard blur the freak perfection of his features, which gives this Balian a more masculine, more commanding presence. Bloom fights his own fights and reveals an athlete's quick grace and strength with the broadsword, so that as a warrior he's convincing. As a thinker and diplomat he's also impressive. As a late-borning humanitarian idealist he will break your heart, even if you despise his and the movie's politics.

Second is the issue of war. This is Scott's specialty ("Gladiator," "Black Hawk Down"), and as a technician of movie battle, he's probably the world's best. Using the full range of film trickery -- the CGI is especially compelling in its ability to re-create medieval panoramas and endless fields of troops -- he really puts you in the thick of mortal danger. The early fights are mostly on horseback, and Scott loves horses and is able to get so much of these grand, sinewy weapons of destruction, their muscles bulging, their ligaments straining, their nostrils spouting steam. You feel like you've been deposited into the center of a Howard Pyle illustration.

But it's the siege where Scott shines. He tracks the huge war machines that were the heavy artillery of the pre-gunpowder age, gizmos that flung boulders like 155mm shells. But most of all, he gets the labor of war: This was heavy lifting of the heaviest sort, and the physical ordeal and the terrible nature of the blade- and spearpoint-induced wounds gets full, frightening display.

Adore the film's politics or abjure them, you must respect Scott for refusing to settle for empty spectacle. And the spectacle, besides being idea-jammed, is spectacular.

Kingdom of Heaven (138 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for extreme violence.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company