I put off seeing "Kingdom of Heaven" for a while, mostly because of all the hype the film received, particularly as being anti-Christian and especially anti-organized religion, but I always knew I would see it eventually and so I did, curiosity finally getting the better of me. It was about a historical period I find fascinated and featured some of my favorite historical characters. Of course, it wastes no time in attacking the Church. The film only happens because of a wicked, uncaring, grave robbing priest and it is remarked how the Pope has urged all Christians to kill Muslims as though the Crusades were supposed to be some kind of campaign of genocide and it is noted several times with a very un-Medieval 21st Century mentality that you can only be truly devoted to your faith if you are a fanatic. All of the "good guys" in this movie only let religion influence them up to a point. For them, it is no so much a belief as it is simply a matter of which camp you are in and what sort of flag you fly. The supposed hero is openly agnostic.
As for the cast, Liam Neeson plays the father of our would-be hero Godfrey of Ibelin, the would-be hero himself, Balian of Ibelin, is played by Orlando Bloom; possibly the most annoying character in the movie. David Thewlis is an unnamed knight Hospitaler, Marton Csokas is Guy de Lusignan, a character totally out of step with his historical counterpart, much like the star of the show; Eva Green is Princess Sibylle, Jeremy Irons plays a guy called Tiberius, the Marshal of Jerusalem but based on Count Raymond of Tripoli, Ghassan Massoud does a good enough job as Sultan Saladin, he might easily be mistaken as the hero of the film given his portrayal; Brendan Gleeson plays the maniacal Reynaud of Chatillon with about the right level of cruel fanaticism and finally Edward Norton portrays excellently the part of King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem. In my opinion, as well as at least one other I know, the movie would have been much better and certainly more inspirational and uplifting had it simply been about him.
Perhaps even more so than "Gladiator" the historical inaccuracies in "Kingdom of Heaven" are numerous. The attempt to add modern moral lessons is clumsy and arrogant and takes up time that could have been better spent showing actual, exciting events central to the story like the battle at the Horns of Hattin for instance, which happens off screen in this movie. There is plenty of action to be sure, but the siege of Jerusalem is the only really big battle depicted on screen. Probably the worst part of the movie is Orlando Bloom. His character is totally inaccurate, annoying and rather pathetic. Rest assured the actual Balian of Ibelin was nothing like this. In the movie he is a simple blacksmith until Godfrey of Ibelin rides up and announces he had a one-night-stand with his mother and Balian was the result. He assures the young man that his mother was taken willingly -oh yeah, what a gentleman.
The character is totally unbelievable. The movie would have us believe that he is not in the least bothered by finding out that he is the illegitimate son of a noble lord who never came to see him in his whole life, nor made any provision for him or his mother to ensure that his son did not have to become, well, a blacksmith in a dirt poor French village lets say. Furthermore, after being a blacksmith all his life he somehow learns to be a knight in less than a day, after only one unfinished lesson before dear old daddy bites the dust. He continues on to the Holy Land as his father wished, to serve the king and the people, though he arrives there after a somewhat bewildering shipwreck that really was not necessary. He then kills a Muslim who challenges him and has the man's servant escort him to Jerusalem, after which he gives the man his freedom and his horse. Evidently, this man then spread word of this great act of charity to every single Muslim on the planet so that they all like Balian in the future and know what a great guy he is.
Once in Jerusalem he goes to see King Baldwin IV. On the way he sees Knights Templar being executed for violating the peace agreement with the Muslims. Marveling at what a great king they had, Balian remarks that these men were killed for doing what the Pope would have commanded them to do. Nothing like that happened in real life of course, but it is important for the filmmakers to highlight just what an evil warmonger the Holy Father was. In town he meets the sister of the king, Princess Sibylle who takes an instant liking to the heartthrob Balian even though she is married to rough and tough Guy of Lusignan who naturally takes just as strong a disliking to our would-be hero. Princess Sibylle is portrayed as a woman trapped in a loveless and unhappy marriage, when in fact the opposite was true. Guy was basically a big, dumb brute, but she was very devoted to him in real life.
Finally, Balian meets King Baldwin IV, the man who SHOULD have been the star of the movie. In this case, the filmmakers mostly get it right. Baldwin IV was, in reality, a very good, upright, wise and heroic ruler who really did come down with leprosy when he was only nine years old. He didn't actually ride around wearing a silver mask, but that is easily forgiven since it looks so cool. In fact, by the end of his young life Baldwin the Leper, as he was called, was so covered by sores that he could not walk at all but had to be carried everywhere on a litter. He is the best man in the movie and my favorite character by far. Of course, they try to portray him as being somewhat more "modern" than he actually was, not one of the religious fanatics, though in fact the young leprous king was a pious man and a great warrior who bested the fierce Saladin more than once when he was only a teenager. Undoubtedly my absolute favorite scene of the entire movie is when King Baldwin confronts the wicked Reynaud of Chatillon. Ordering him to his knees, Baldwin announces, "I am Jerusalem" before taking off his left glove to reveal his withered and sore-covered hand, extending it to Reynaud and ordering him to give him the kiss of peace. Once this is done he gives the bad knight a good thrashing with his riding crop. That is a scene everyone would have to appreciate, and, as a side note to something the movie got right, Saladin really did send his doctors to try and treat the gallant young Christian king.
When the young king finally dies it is a truly sad and touching scene. His sister is there to comfort him and after his death she removes his mask to reveal the ravages of the disease he had kept hidden for so long. However, in his last moments, as he remembered the happier days of his youth, she correctly remarks that he was a man beautiful in every way. That is, in the way that really matters -in the heart. However, as much as I prefer Baldwin, I should get back to the star of the show, Balian of Ibelin. Just to refresh, the real Balian was not illegitimate, he was not French, not a blacksmith and not humble born. He was actually born in the Holy Land, head of a noble family with ambitions of his own, his wife was a Byzantine princess and he did not have a one-night-stand with Princess Sibylle. Oh, did I forget to mention that? The star of the film having an affair with the only babe on screen, boy, I bet no one saw that coming did they? Oddly enough, in the movie (none of this happened in real life) King Baldwin offers to knock off the wicked Guy of Lusignan and marry his sister to Balian. After all, in the movie Sibylle does not love Guy, she does love Balian and this way the Kingdom of Jerusalem will pass to a good guy rather than a murdering thug. The ideal plan right? You would think so, but Balian won't go along with it since our agnostic knight who complains that God does not know him has moral qualms about being responsible for the killing of the wicked and murderous Guy. Oddly enough he didn't seem to have any moral qualms about sleeping with the man's wife! It is just another reason why Balian is such a terrible movie hero. So, ultimately, a maniac takes the throne, provokes a war with Saladin that the Christians cannot win and brings about hundreds or thousands of deaths and the fall of Jerusalem all because Balian does not want to be involved in the death of a bad man who deserved to die anyway. And, I might add, the sole reason given for Balian becoming agnostic is that he went to Calvary and felt no different afterwards. I guess his whole faith hung on visions of angels and a booming voice from the sky telling him everything is okay. For crying out loud, he could have just gone to confession!
Anyway, that is how it works out. The upright King of Jerusalem dies, Baldwin the Leper, and his sister becomes Queen. She automatically makes Guy the new King and he and Reynaud pick a fight with the Muslims by massacring some Arab pilgrims and kidnapping the sister of Saladin (Reynaud was a jerk -most Christians and Muslims would probably agree on this). They are then defeated by Saladin at the Horns of Hattin, after which the Muslim army marches on Jerusalem. It is up to Balian to defend the city even though the local Patriarch advised immediate surrender on any terms. This is another character the films gets wrong, from what I have read the real Patriarch was an upstanding guy. In any event, Balian leads the defense of the city, which is accurate, and does surrender the city after threatening to fight to the death and destroy every holy place therein, which is also true though I think in actuality he only threatened the Muslim sites and I cannot imagine Saladin thinking that might be a good idea (rest assured though Christians come off looking worse there is plenty that would offend devout Muslims as well). Once again, we see how Balian is not the standard sort of hero when his greatest claim to fame is giving up the Holy City. The film then ends on even greater distortions of truth. In fact, Saladin did not let the Christians go free, he ransomed them and anyone who could not pay the ransom was sold into slavery. The film really loses touch with reality when Balian and Sibylle go back to France to live happily ever after where Balian is once again a blacksmith in his same shop (the film ignores the fact that Balian is a wanted criminal here at the start of the film and burns his shop down, so the movie is not even accurate to its own story line) and he turns down an invitation to return to the Holy Land by King Richard I of England. In truth, the real Balian never left and he and Richard were enemies in a bitter dispute over the kingship of Jerusalem, but evidently the film totally abandoned history by the end, throwing up its hands and saying WE JUST DON'T CARE! Of course, what is possibly the least believable thing is that a Medieval princess turned Queen would go off to live in a hut and be the wife of a blacksmith.
Now, with that out of the way, let me say that there were things about this movie that I liked. Ridley Scott knows how to do good battle scenes as we saw in "Gladiator" and this movie has great ones and would have been even better if they had shown the so-called marriage siege at Kerak castle and the Horns of Hattin. There are some great scenes and great lines in this film to compensate for the bad ones. One of my favorites is when the Muslim soldier sees dust on the horizon and announces that "Jerusalem has come" as the Latin knights come marching and riding in, with the True Cross held up front before them and Baldwin the Leper riding in the vanguard. Of course, all of his scenes are touching, and I love how they had his horse trained to kneel so the leper king could step off rather than dismounting in the traditional way. I did not like the way the Templars were portrayed to be a bunch of bloodthirsty fanatics, but there is a lesson to be learned in expecting that God will get you out of any fight just because you are a Christian. What happens at Hattin is a slight parallel to what happened to the Israelites in the Bible when they think they can fight for their own reasons and still gain help from God by carrying the Ark of the Covenant before them, only to have God prove them wrong and allow them to be defeated in spite of the presence of the Ark.
The movie also does show, though only slightly, that there was peace and tolerance in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, that there were real heroes like Baldwin the Leper and that knights were expected to live by a moral code to protect the weak and innocent, which Balian does before the Muslims at Kerak. The film moves well, the only notable exceptions being the time wasted showing Balian spruce up his inherited fiefdom and the boring affair between him and Sibylle. The look of the movie was good, and though I would be wary about recommending it to just anyone because of the anti-religious slant and the gross inaccuracies, I would say it is worth a look if only for the portrayal of the noble Christian King, Baldwin IV and the touching and truthful scenes he is the center of. Once again we see that Hollywood knows all the technical tricks to make a good movie, they just need better stories; better writers.