Ridley Scott is a director who is fantastic at building worlds. In Blade Runner it was the future of Los Angeles. In Gladiator it was Imperial Rome. In Kingdom of Heaven, it’s 14th century Jerusalem and Palestine.
The film follows a highly fictionalized version of the real historical figure Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom). In the film, Balian is a blacksmith living in France, who has lost his son to miscarriage, and his wife to suicide shortly afterwards, when he discovers that he is the bastard son of Godfrey, Baron of Ibelin (Liam Neeson). He is so informed by Godfrey himself who has returned from the Holy Land to pick up his son to be his heir, promising that Balian can start a new life in the Holy Land. Unfortunately, Neeson doesn’t get much screen time, as he’s mortally wounded in a fight while on the road to Messina – with a posse sent to take in Balian, who killed Balian’s priest half-brother. The priest who had Balian’s wife’s corpse prior to burial, and taunted Balian about it.
From here, Balian finds himself getting caught in the political maneuverings of the Holy Land – between King Baldwin IV (Ed Norton), who is trying to maintain an uneasy peace between the Muslims, lead by Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), and the Crusader forces, represented by Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), who are basically clamoring to engage in genocide. However, as Baldwin is a leper, it is impossible for this peace to last – and after Baldwin dies, war becomes inevitable.
To the credit of Scott and writer William Monahan, considering this is a film made after 9/11, the film is incredibly sympathetic to Saladin and his advisors – Nasir (Alexander Siddig – Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), and the Mullah (Khaled Nabawy). They are clearly the heroes of their own story – to the point that their conflicts with Guy and his ally Raynald of Châtillon (Brendan Gleeson) could merit their own film, with Saladin as the protagonist. By comparison, Balian is practically the archetype of the Worthy Antagonist figure, the noble representative of a side that is nominally within the text represented by more villainous figures.
It’s not that there aren’t sympathetic leadership figures on the Crusader side – aside from Balian, there’s Tiberias (Jeremy Irons), Queen Sibylla (Eva Green), and The Hospitaller (David Thewlis) – but by the film’s climactic battle, they’ve either died (Hospitaller), renounced their agency or otherwise had no role to play in the defense (Sibylla), or skipped out on the city, considering it indefensible (Tiberias). The remaining sympathetic characters on the Crusader side are characters from humble origins.
Much as Gladiator put a tremendous amount of effort into re-creating ancient Rome, Kingdom of Heaven does the same with Jerusalem and Medieval Europe. The film’s locations feel lived in and appropriate to the period. The costumes also work tremendously well. There’s a problem with films like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, as much as I love those films, is that the clothing feels just a little too clean, and not very worn. Seeing Kingdom of Heaven on Blu-Ray, it’s clear that the clothing in the film worn by people in the film, aside from formal dress, is clothing that feels worn – not ragged, but instead has a sense that they’ve been worn and cleaned multiple times, and not always cleaned the day after they were initially worn. It doesn’t quite go so far as, say, the TV series Rome where it goes down to the grafitti. Still, it builds the film a very strong world to inhabit for its runtime.
The film’s battles are wonderfully shot. There’s no real shaky cam to speak of in the film, and the tactics make sense. I don’t quite buy Saladin not noticing Balian’s range markers outside of the walls of Jerusalem, but otherwise the way the battle is fought makes sense considering the tactics and equipment available to both sides – with perhaps the main exception of the little crossbow+windlass trick to topple the siege towers that Balian employs which looks clever, but I’m not sure if it could have been pulled off, under the circumstances.
All in all, of Scott’s historical epics, I’d say the Director’s Cut of Kingdom of Heaven is, in my view, the best, the writing is just as good as Gladiator, but the pacing works better, and the scope feels right for the story they’re trying to tell. With Gladiator, the film had a massive scope, with its focus on the overthrow of the Emperor, but ultimately by focusing the film on the gladiatorial arena, it felt small. This feels big, and with enough painted around the edges that there’s even more outside of what we see on the film’s canvas.