The sword and sandal film, arguably the easiest genre to create an epic. A sweeping drama that is high on production values and story with grandiose sets, actors of the age and a run time to match. With giants like Anthony and Cleopatra and Ben Hur, it is easy to be swayed. However, for every Spartacus there is a Troy and for every Gladiator there is a Kingdom of Heaven. You see, Kingdom of Heaven, has all the pre-requisites for an 'epic' yet it still manages to fall short, there are perhaps a number of reasons, but for now let us take a quick look at the story, which this evening is brought to you by Monty Python, and contains major spoilers.
The hero of the story is Balian (Orlando Bloom), a poor blacksmith still grieving over the death of his wife, a suicide caused by her own grief at the death of their son. To add to his problems, one day his dear old dad Godfrey (Lian Neeson) pops by to offer him some fatherly advice, “if you want anything from me, take it now, I shall not pass this way again.” Balian refuses, and Godfrey all but says, “you make me sad, but I must cross this bridge,” before stomping off.
Thank the maker that the village priest (Michael Sheen) is on hand to offer Balian a nudge in the right direction, else the film would have ended right there; and what does he get for his troubles, a stab in the heart and roasted on the spit, and all this from the 'Perfect Knight', no less. Balian then runs off after dad, who welcomes him with open arms and then tries to chop them off. Balian's shenanigans back at the village caused a fury, the sheriff and his men sent to retrieve him end up fighting for his capture in which dad suffers a mortal wound, though he insists 'tis but a scratch. Sensing the end is near Godfrey bequeaths his belongings and title to his only son, along with his sword, ring and a good few lines that he'll need later in the film.
The journey is perilous and long, with ship wrecks, sword fighting and certain temptation. After making it to Jerusalem, Balian preys for his and his wife's salvation, only to be disappointed when the clouds don't open up for God to offer him a quest. However, things aren't all bad, dad's men find him and put him up for the night, after which he is summoned before the King. Seems he is all special an' all because dad spotted the King's leprosy before anyone else, so he confides in Balian the secret of Jerusalem, neglecting to tell him of the impending war because he can't control his own knights.
After one too many attacks on the Muslims, Saladin has gathered his entire army to march on Jerusalem. The full scale war is averted by the King turning up in all his splendour, but unfortunately this costs him his life. This is bad news for Jerusalem because the King's sister is marred to the very same knight, Guy de Lusignan, who wants a war! Nevertheless de Lusignan is crowned King, and there was great rejoicing, but before he can go all out and declare war he has that pesky Balian to be rid of. A team of assassins is dispatched and it looks like the end, but luckily the script writer had a fatal heart attack and the assassination plot is no more.
Meanwhile back at the camp de Lusignan is in council demanding a war, but to his surprise Balian turns up and draws on his extensive military tactics learned while blacksmithing, warning the new King of impending doom. De Lusignan ignores him and leaves anyway though not before Tiberias (Jeremy Irons) withdraws his Knights Templar from the field. It's a dreadfully long way and when the King's army draws near they attack without heading Tim's advice; they are quickly dispatched by vicious pointy teeth. Saladin, drunk with victory marches on Jerusalem.
Balian, once again drawing on his extensive blacksmithing military tactics sets up a perimeter defence. He explains that they should count to three and not five before using the Holy Hand-grenade of Antioc. He then knights the entire city using some of the handy lines dear Godfrey left for him. Then the battle is on, it is fierce and spectacular and far too complicated to be explained in a review like this. However, Balian's tactics are solid; he is not afraid and answers the questions three while Saladin remains outside the walls. Eventually the walls are breached, yet the defences still hold, forcing terms; Balian secures safe passage for everyone out of Jerusalem, and there was great rejoicing. Satisfied that he has achieved all he can, Balian returns to the village to write his memoirs, luckily everyone has forgotten about that nosey priest. He even denies the King of England his own name stating he has already got one, you see, he is just a blacksmith.
A somewhat flippant review, perhaps, but one that contains the major story elements, and one that injects some much needed humour. For Kingdom of Heaven is trying so desperately hard to conform the 'epic' idea it has forgotten the most important rule of film, to entertain. Fundamentally this is the major flaw. Many critics point to Orlando Bloom as the problem, and whilst his casting is different, he has the skill and talent to make a winning part, but it is the character of Balian that is at fault. Even with an actor with more presence, say for arguments sake Russell Crowe, would not have been able to make the part shine, because it is too under written and there is little to no motivation for his quest. Why did he feel the need to be the 'perfect knight' and defend Jerusalem, surely not to live up the expectations of a father he did not know. Or perhaps because he wanted salvation for his sole. Maybe even to get the girl. In truth we are expected to believe that it is a combination of all of these, but much like the film and a whole, the sum of its parts do not quite add up. Although I am prepared to admit that when Bloom comes to deliver his rousing speech, he seems hopelessly out of his depth, and quite small too, perhaps he should have saved some of that hobbit armour.
However, there is a very serious side to Kingdom of Heaven, that of religious bigotry. I feel the film handles very nicely the various faiths and puts into perspective the importance of Jerusalem. The King Baldwin, played by Eddie Norton, plays a short but pivotal role, and his explanation of Jerusalem to Balian is as good as I've ever heard for the depth of faith. It is amazing to think that after a thousand years, the city is still the focal point of very same antagonism as is portrayed in the film. And the film does not shy from the truths of the brutalities committed in the name of religion. When Ridley Scott plays to these strengths the film is never better, juxtaposing morality and action and all the time trying to make one think about the ramifications. Scott also has an eye for action and it comes in swathes. The climatic battle outside the walls of Jerusalem does suffer from looking a little too much Lord of the Rings, but with such a film as a forbearer it can be forgiven. The look of the film to is one of pure class, and also contains a plethora of talented actors. There really is much going for this 'epic', but when all is said and done and the final credits role one is left with an unsatisfactory feeling of being let down. This is not hype, but rather a lack of a decent impacting story and all this with so much eye candy the feeling is irrepressible.
Kingdom of Heaven? House of boredom more like.
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