Set during the Crusades of the 1100s, Kingdom of Heaven is a historical epic which attempts to make a hero out of a blacksmith and present a more neutral view on religion than anyone likely thought possible. The Crusades were a period of turmoil, and it was all brought about due to religious conflicts between the Christians and the Muslims. In the film, religion is certainly present, but the struggle for power, land, and wealth is the driving factor for the wars; the religion of the people comes second.
The lead is Orlando Bloom, who plays the aforementioned blacksmith, Balian. He, grieving the loss of a child and the suicide of his wife, is approached by a knight, Godfrey (Liam Neeson), who explains that he is Balian’s father, and that if the blacksmith wishes, the two could journey together to Jerusalem. Reluctantly, Balian tags along, only to see his father killed in a raid. He takes over that position, and soon enough is in a position that one would assume is way over his head. He’s dining with Princesses, Counts, high-ranking knights, and so on, and becomes something of a leader.
It’s here where the film gets more complicated. We get to see a lot of the scheming of the supporting cast. The King (Edward Norton), is a leper and has been keeping the peace with the Muslims for his reign, although he knows he’s dying. The man who will succeed him, Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), along with another knight, Raynauld de Châtillon (Brendan Gleeson), want the war, and believe they will win, even though that seems incorrect. They want to defeat their only opposition, as it will ensure the Christians keep Jerusalem for themselves.
Meanwhile, the Muslims want Jerusalem, too, but not because of any religious importance. They had it taken from them, and want it back because it represents power and wealth. That’s the motivation behind most of the actions in the film. Balian himself isn’t even particularly religious, which allows this perspective to be effective. The film isn’t anti-religious but it doesn’t present one side as better than the other. Muslims and Christians are shown as good and bad, depending on the character.
There’s a lot going on and there isn’t a whole lot of time for everything to be explored and concluded. Kingdom of Heaven runs for only 144 minutes, and it’s edited quickly and without a lot of cohesion. Some motivations are left unexplained, while many characters show up only to be removed just a few scenes later. This is a movie that moves at a very quick pace, and could have used slowing down.
If you’re expecting a lot of action, you’re going to be disappointed. Kingdom of Heaven only contains one lengthy action scene, which occurs right at the end and features the inevitable battle for Jerusalem. There are a couple of smaller ones scattered throughout, and they’re all well-made, but I couldn’t help feel that they were too similar to one another, as well as to those of other films in this genre. I get that it’s hard to make sword fights and castle invasions feel unique, but Kingdom of Heaven‘s action beats eventually grow tiresome.
For instance, the Jerusalem battle feels a lot like the Battle for Helm’s Deep in the second Lord of the Rings film, and it was done better there. In that movie, there were a great number of creative moments. Here, it’s all by-the-numbers. It’s relatively exciting, but since we’ve seen it, almost shot for shot, before, I couldn’t help feeling let down, especially for what was supposed to be such an emotional climax — there was little emotion because we only know one character particularly well.
Kingdom of Heaven is a film that draws you into its proceedings thanks to its fantastic production design and gorgeous cinematography. A lot of historical films feature both of these, but it can never be said enough how amazing a film like Kingdom of Heaven looks. You get lost in the time period and wish to spend a lot longer here than the film permits. If you need one definite reason to see this movie, it’s because of its visuals, which are incredible.
Initially, I didn’t think Orlando Bloom would make for a strong lead in a film like this one. He works out rather well, in large part because his character is supposed to be an underdog. He doesn’t begin the film as a confident person, but rather a broken one. It is over the course of the film that he builds up to the type of man who could lead an army. The supporting cast around him is good, but are unfortunately not given enough character to do a whole lot. Some are gone the scene after they’re introduced.
Kingdom of Heaven is a film of epic scope and potential, and in large part, it reaches those lofty heights. It looks amazing, it tells an interesting — although poorly explained — story, and its neutral stance on religion in the period is interesting, if not terribly insightful. It has good actors in roles that are largely underwritten, and its pacing is incredibly quick especially given its 144-minute running time. Is it is a success? Absolutely. It’s an enjoyable film and I recommend seeing it.