Five years ago, Sir Ridley Scott revitalized the historical epic by directing “Gladiator.” Alas, the revival foundered when the makers of “Alexander,” “The Alamo” and “King Arthur” failed to establish the chief reason for Scott’s success: a strong narrative built around lively characters who had something to prove.
Now Scott has made the same mistake. “Kingdom of Heaven,” his long-awaited $140 million epic about the Crusades, has neither the narrative momentum nor the characters needed to justify its 138-minute running time. It gradually turns into a series of spectacular battle scenes in which it’s impossible to care about who wins or even what’s at stake.
The script by William Monahan (author of the next “Jurassic Park” movie) makes a number of politically correct points about the dangers of religious fanaticism and the futility and corruption of the Crusades. The author’s message comes out of the mouths of Jeremy Irons (as a military advisor who seems surprised to learn that the Crusades were really about nothing but gaining wealth and property) and Liam Neeson (who lends some weight to the early scenes, before his character disappears).
At the same time Monahan is preaching about the drawbacks of the Crusades, he and Scott are pitching mayhem. Beheadings and hangings are graphically portrayed, arrows are dramatically stuck in soldiers' necks, giant siege towers attack Jerusalem, and lethal flames swallow up the people in the towers. Scott can be quite resourceful at orchestrating such chaos, as he proved in “Black Hawk Down”; technically, the film is impressive. And the survivors’ battle scars seem honestly earned.
The story, set in the 12th Century, revolves around a hapless blacksmith, Balian (Orlando Bloom), whose wife has committed suicide after the death of their child. “God, what is it you want of me?” he wonders as he finds himself abandoning his French village and heading toward Jerusalem. On more than one occasion he’s told “to be a good knight,” whatever that might mean in this context.
Balian remains an ill-defined hero. Although he falls for a king’s sister (Eva Green from “The Dreamers”), meets his father (Neeson) for the first time, survives several deadly sword battles and leads a battle against the legendary Muslim leader, Saladin, he never seems to grow or learn. He’s as much a child at film’s end as he was at the beginning, partly because Bloom projects humorless boyishness even in his scenes with the vampish Green.
Several fine actors bring passion and variety to their supporting roles: Irons, Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, David Thewlis and Kevin McKidd, who would clearly make a more compelling Balian than Bloom does (watch McKidd energize the scene he shares with Bloom – he makes it look so easy). Most of them have just a few minutes to make an impression; they’ll probably have more to do in the 220-minute version that will be released on DVD later this year.
Maybe Scott left all the good stuff on the cutting-room floor. It’s hard to believe there isn’t a better version of this material lying around somewhere.