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Kingdom of Heaven

In 2001 Ridley Scott’s Gladiator won the Academy Award for Best Picture. While some approved, many voiced their surprise and discontent with such a selection. While Gladiator was not a bad film, it wasn’t a great one, and certainly wasn’t a film that was worthy of such high praise. In the latest argument of why Ridley Scott isn’t the director the Academy claims him to be, we offer up Kingdom of Heaven, Scott’s latest visually impressive epic, that suffers many of the same problems Gladiator did. When I think about the world of knights, I tend to think of King Arthur and the stories of the Knights of the Round Table. Ridley Scott apparently thinks of the Crusades. In his desire to tell a story about knights (Scott’s original concept was just titled “knight”), Scott takes us to the Crusades and one of the final battles for Jerusalem between the Christians and the Muslims.

Oddly, we are taken to this battle by following Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom), a man lacking of Christian faith. Balian’s wife has committed suicide, and so Balian is convinced he is not in God’s vision. As Balian is mourning his lost wife, his father Godfrey pays him a visit, played by the very-fatherly requirement of Liam Neeson. Godfrey is a baron and a knight, and wants to make peace with some of the wrong things he did in life. Siring Balian and then abandoning him is one of those wrong things, so he asks Balian to come with him. However it isn’t long until Godfrey is dead (another requirement for a Liam Neeson character) and Balian is thrown into his father’s place. For those who aren’t following along well, this means a man who doesn’t have much faith is fighting in the crusade. There - I’ve just saved you an hour and a half of the movie.

The other hour of the movie is made up of Balian forming bonds with one of the Muslims he encounters in battle, Nasir (Alexander Siddig), the king of Jerusalem and his sister, King Baldwin (Edward Norton) and Sibylla (Eva Green), and one of the King’s best men, Tiberias (Jeremy Irons) Along the way he also comes into conflict with some of the less reputable Christian knights, Guy (Marton Csokas) and Reynard (Brandon Gleeson). The way each of these relationships is formed, it is evident from the moment the characters meet how Balian will fit into their schemes, eventually leading to a grand epic scale battle that everyone but the characters in the movie saw coming from moment one. Subtlety is not the movie’s strong point. For that matter plot isn’t really a strong point either. The film would be easier to sum up if it had less characters, many of whom don’t really matter for the picture’s conclusion.

Where the movie is stronger is in its visuals. This is an “epic picture” depicting epic-scale events. When you have religious armies coming to a head, the results need to look impressive. The movie stops nothing short of accomplishing something along the lines of The Return of the King’s Battle at Pelennor Fields. But there’s the problem - I already saw that battle in Return of the King and it was awesome. I don’t need to see it here again, and that’s what I felt like I was watching. Down to the approach of the Muslim army toward the city of Minis, Jerusalem looking exactly like the army of Orcs from King I felt like I was watching that battle over again. All I needed were some trolls pushing the muslim army’s siege towers to make things complete. Given how choppy the camerawork is once we get into the battle, there could have been some trolls out there though. Kingdom of Heaven features yet another epic battle that we’re not allowed to see, in hopes of creating the feeling of chaos by shaking the camera a lot.

If the movie was going to pull off battles that looked like something straight out of Return of the King, the least they could have done was given us that same sort of emotional bond with the characters. Unfortunately this is where Kingdom of Heaven proves it’s an epic film, not a personal one. While it’s very good at depicting those monumental battles, there is no connection with the characters whatsoever. Bloom’s Balian barely says a dozen words in the first fifteen to twenty minutes of the film, so it’s hard to get in his head. From there, he’s a man fighting for a different cause then the entire war is about. Given, fighting for the safety of people rather then religion could be considered by many a more practical and noble cause, but still, either way you look at it this is a character that we aren’t given the opportunity to know fighting a battle we never really understand (at least not in the context of the movie), and for that reason the movie suffers.

All of these comments - the impressive visuals, the lack of connection with the characters, the poor visual style once battle actually hits - were criticisms I had about Gladiator as well. They’re just more visible in Kingdom of Heaven. It’s not something I take comfort in though. Unfortunately they serve as proof that Ridley Scott just may not be the director for this genre. Hopefully he’ll come to terms with that before we’re forced to see more of his emotionless epics in action. Fox has put together a decent presentation for the DVD release of Kingdom of Heaven making me wonder if it won’t avoid the double dipping that Scott’s other epic film just went through.

As with most Fox titles, the DVD first gives you the typical hard-rock commercial reminding you that stealing movies is a crime. Then come the trailers, but in an odd move Fox has decided not to promote upcoming or recent releases. Instead the trailers attached are for Castaway and Man on Fire two releases that have been out for a while (the Man on Fire trailer isn’t even for the more recent deluxe version of the disc). This is a very strange marketing move from Fox, one that I can’t quite fathom.

The movie is presented with a very nice looking transfer. Since for the most part, visuals are all the movie has going for it, this is a big plus. The movie is of course available with various sound options, however there is no audio commentary track (maybe that will be saved for a deluxe release). There is, however, a text commentary track included titled “The Pilgrim’s Guide” which offers production notes and historical tidbits throughout the movie. It’s nice to see the track convey more historical information about a film that, despite not being very good, does attempt to remain historical.

That idea of remaining historical makes up a lot of the bonus material on the second disc of the set. Two A&E television specials specifically focusing on the history of the setting are included on this disc: “Movie Real: Kingdom of Heaven” and an episode of “History Vs. Hollywood” centered around the movie. Both specials emphasize and expand on the historical information presented in the film.

The real guts of the second disc, however, is the “interactive production grid”, an interesting way to allow you to control what exactly you’re watching. The grid is presented as an opportunity to follow one of three different groups through one of three stages of production: the director, cast, and crew, through preproduction, production, and post-production respectively. Say you want to watch a featurette about the crew during production. You just click on that part of the grid and voila! - you’re there. Or, if you want to see all of the preproduction featurettes you click on the preproduction option and away you go. What this really is, is a fancy way to tie together nine production oriented featurettes. Any real fan of DVDs or making-of documentaries will be heading straight for that “Play All” button, but the option of breaking them up is nice.

I think the biggest shame coming from the production grid is the idea that no part of this movie was an accident. The problems I take issue with in the movie were decisions that were consciously made by Scott throughout production. While on the good side he decided to remain true to the time period and not cheat and give the knights plate armor, he also made the decisions of what to keep and what to cut, and how to make the movie “better”. Since the script originally drew a lot of these quality actors to the project, I can only blame Scott for the failures of the final project. It seems he started out with the best tools, but somehow they weren’t utilized properly.

Kingdom of Heaven, like Gladiator is not a great film, but it’s not a bad film either. It’s worth a rental to at least be taken in by the impressive visual effects and armies of the movie. However I can’t say I’d suggest picking it up unless you’re already a really big fan of Scott’s previous epic, in which case you probably will like the flick and probably haven’t listened to a word I’ve said.