What more spectacular and reverent way to celebrate the selection of the world's richest and most sanctimonious corporation's new puppethead than release a Hollywood softball epic about the Crusades? Deus lo volt, as the knights used to cry. Untold millions of slaughtered infidels later, President Bush announces his "crusade" against Muslim terrorists, the Islamic and secular worlds go apeshit over the reference, and Ridley Scott says, Eureka! The time is right! Kingdom of Heaven is well aware of the sociopolitical slag pit into which it plops, and the movie does what any self-respecting politician would do: sidestep the issues, soft-pedal mortal costs, talk a fat game, and divert your attention away from history with exercises in spectacle and power.
As the Second Crusade's brooding Luke Skywalker, the blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom) is soon distracted from the funk over his dead wife and child by a Crusading Baron (Liam Neeson) passing through, who informs our expressionless hero that he had raped Balian's mother and is the lad's father, and why not come with him to Jerusalemdeclared more than once as some kind of "new world!" After skewering a scummy priest, Balian accepts and even submits to an Obi-Wan swordsmanship lesson in the blue forests of Gladiator, before entering the digitized walls of the Holy City proper. From there, we're dawdling around in a calamitous three-year period beginning in 1184, when the city was ruled by Baldwin IV the Leper King (Edward Norton, behind a mask), who maintained an uneasy truce with Muslim leader Saladin (Ghassan Massoud). "Peace," we're told, "reigns between Muslim and Christian!" This utopian fantasy doesn't last long, thanks to the less-devout-than-power-mad Reynald (Brendan Gleeson) and Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), the designated evil Templars. (The presence of an obnoxious French knight only reinspires memories of the Pythons amid the Scottish mist.) Bloom and Jeremy Irons, who gets the Dafoe-in-Platoon, we-were-fighting-for-something-once speech, represent the liberal garde. The simplistic narrative cosmology drags on the eyelids like a covert Star Wars sequel.
For the most part, Kingdom of Heaven is stupefyingly dull; the naturally dramatic material is reduced to vapid gazes, monosyllabic declarations, and aeons of sword-clanging combat, dolled up with every shuddery slo-mo post-production gimmick on Scott's state-of-the-art hard drive. His film, containing not so much as a single undoctored sunset, has as much human humor and energy as a car commercial, a Sir Ridley specialty. (Bloom is no help; his earnest emptiness makes old-school costume vet Victor Mature look like Jim Carrey. What wouldn't we give for Angelina Jolie and a snake?) In fact, the unfettered passion on display for monstrous marching hordes, army formations, and computer- generated masses (occasionally seeming to use programming left over from The Return of the King) suggests a fascist or at least newly Riefenstahlian perspective.
But getting to the bone of the matter, Scott's movie grabs a hold of this lit-dynamite "crusade" business rather delicately. On one hand, Kingdom of Heaven is ostensibly secular, left-leaning, and almost anticlericalthe greatest vehemence is reserved for weaselly bishops. Saladin and his Muslims are noble, tolerant, and pragmatic, and in a telling reversal, the catapult-shelling of Jerusalem is as close to the full-on bombing of Baghdad as American audiences will ever have to tolerate.
Mountains of Muslims die anyway, of course, which is regarded as the price of event moviemaking as well as empire. Balian, playing down party affiliation like a congressman in TV ads, inspires the civilian Jerusalemites to fight with heroic rationalizations like "None of us took this city from the Muslims!" Well, in that case . . . Not that second-generation Israelis aren't prone to saying similar things. Can you make a film about the Crusades and pretend that the Christian invaders aren't mortally responsible for the world's longest-running imperialistic carnage? Or that the culpability doesn't matter? Perhaps screenwriter William Monahan appreciated the nuanced moral vacuum produced by Schindler's List, the American Holocaust movie with a sensitive Nazi for a hero and a sense of guiltless salvation that's palatable in public schools from Southampton to Seattle.
"Who has claim?" Balian hollers late in the frayimplying that no one does, and that Jerusalem is only a few weapon surrenders from being Mr. Rogers's Neighborhood. The optimism is touching, but it's hard to say that Scott has, in the end, made an anti-war film. It's just anti-reality.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.