STUDIO: 20th Century Fox
PRICE: $29.98
RUNNING TIME: 144 Minutes
Interactive behind-the-scenes featurette
"Pilgrim’s Guide" text commentary
History Channel documentary
• A&E documentary
• Internet featurettes
• Theatrical trailer

[Note: the review copy sent to CHUD was apparently an early promotional copy, and as such displayed a text stamp across the bottom of the screen throughout the running time of the feature. The screencaps in the following review were taken from this copy; the legend on each is expected, and will not appear in retail copies.]

With Kingdom of Heaven, Ridley Scott disappointed many filmgoers who had been hoping for Gladiator in Jerusalem. Instead of going that route, which would have been relatively easy, and profitable, Scott expanded his canvas to include a wide cast of characters, as well as a plot with themes that stretch well beyond the personal. While remedying the trend toward historical inaccuracy that plagued his Roman drama, Kingdom of Heaven loses all of the emotional pull that made the former so successful with a broad audience.

The Flick

Orlando Bloom (Elizabethtown) plays Balian, a blacksmith and bastard son of a baron, who, at the opening of the film, is grieving both the death of his daughter and the suicide of his wife. His father Godfrey, played by Liam Neeson, arrives on horseback one day to drag Balian off to the crusades, tempting him with the hope that in Jerusalem a man’s sins can be cleansed.

Godfrey, already an old man, does not survive the lengthy trip to Jerusalem, and so Balian inherits his father’s title and lands, as well as a knighthood. In Jerusalem, his illusory hope of justification and forgiveness is shattered by the presence of politicking through the Holy City. The current king (Edward Norton), a leper, is near death; his sister (Eva Green, The Dreamers) stands to inherit the throne, and her husband, Guy de Lusignan (Martin Csokas, The Fellowship of the Ring) has designs upon the Christian Army.

It’s Hell, and they’re proud of it.

In the years preceding Balian’s arrival, Jerusalem existed in an uneasy state of truce with the Muslim army led by Saladin the Turk. Christian militias would form to attack Muslim caravans against the wishes of the king; Muslim regiments would retaliate, and force King Baldwin and Saladin to compromise their treaty.

One of the strengths of Kingdom of Heaven is in the performances of Edward Norton as King Baldwin and Ghassan Massoud as Saladin. Both men portray their characters as kings beyond self, accepting the weight of their peoples’ decisions and actions onto their own shoulders, and approaching war with a grace uncommon in enemies. It is an idealistic portrayal of both, but it is an ideal that doesn’t harm by exposure.

There is more idealism in the movie, and some of it is more difficult to swallow. Orlando Bloom, though certainly a competent actor in this role, is given a character with absolutely no arc. None. He begins as a stoic man with an unwavering honor and deep intentions, and ends in precisely the same spot. As a protagonist, Balian would get lost in the plot if it weren’t for Bloom’s presence. By choosing to eliminate the audience from whatever part of Balian’s life instilled such goodness of purpose in his heart, the momentum of the plot is diminished, and the audience is asked to absorb themselves in the particulars of the politics rather than in the characters.

The politics follow a predictable path; the people of Jerusalem pull in all different directions, because the stench of the king’s impending death is heavy in the air. The successful faction, that of Guy de Lusignan, wishes to claim not only Jerusalem, but all the Holy Land, because they believe that is the will of God. In order to claim that land, of course, they will first have to politely ask the Muslim armies to vacate it, and these good Christian bloodhounds are plenty ready for the altercation.

This man could whip D’Artagnon any day.

Their motivation for such is unclear, beyond the simple thirst for violence. There is the possibility that Scott was making commentary on our Christian world, playing allegory with the politics of his characters to make us look at our own seemingly unjustified actions, but that is a bald and simplistic interpretation. It’s much more likely that, during editing, a lot of key dialogue of Guy’s was lost to bring the film down to a manageable level. Beyond the abovementioned desire to claim more land for the Christians, and the Christians alone, Guy’s motivation is severely muted. What that means for the film is that we have an antagonist with a clear goal and no reason for it, and a protagonist with no clear goal at all, other than to be a boy scout. The drama is lacking.

Part of that lack could be attributed to the dialogue. Writer William Monahan’s decent stab at the language of chivalry is lacking the poesy of literature, despite a few obvious attempts. What should have been a rousing speech from Balian to the soldiers and citizens of Jerusalem gets mired in conflicting imagery and stutters with a painful meter. In smaller exchanges, the dialogue works better, but for the most part it overshoots poetic and lands in the realm of obtuse and hollow.

There are inconsistencies in the structure of the writing, as well. For example, despite being an uneducated blacksmith, Balian has a remarkable aptitude for defending against a siege. Also, in addition to the problem of missing motivations mentioned above, only a very few of the characters’ plot threads are wound up; the remains of many of the characters’ arcs are left untidied, not even touched upon in the climax and resolution. This could be attributed to Scott having been required to trim the film significantly (from a rumored 220 minutes to the 144 featured on this disc).

Though the words, the characters they are meant to sketch, and the plot they fit into are the standout failures of the film, the casting, performances, and visual accuracy of the world created around that skeleton are certainly its highlights. The expansive roster of characters are embodied deftly by the veteran actors Scott brought in. Jeremy Irons turns in his best work in some time as the brooding Tiberius; David Thewlis plays the wise Hospitaler as a man whose wisdom required him to choose between cynicism and hopeless optimism, and who chose the latter; and, as mentioned above, both Edward Norton and Ghassan Massoud act as centers of gravity for each scene in which they are featured.

Come hither.

The events of the film are almost entirely fictionalized, but the filmmakers were well aware of the period they were shooting for, much more so than they were in Gladiator. From the fighting stances to the war gear, the costuming, set design, and research ought to be enough to please even a member of the SCA. The accuracy is in the details, and it makes for a vibrant backdrop which somewhat salvages the tired plot.

Kingdom of Heaven didn’t do as well as hoped at the box office, and I would wager that was because the story is targeted at a smaller subset of the moviegoing audience. Rather than offering a personal journey billed as an epic, it closer approaches the old definition of "epic", in which individual characters are nothing more than small players in some game of the gods, or god, in this case. It’s not a story for a lazy audience; but it asks for an equal, or greater, amount of effort from the filmmakers as it does from the audience. The set designers, consultants, actors, and costumers all made contributions that help to create a believable, ancient world. Unfortunately, in the realms of editing, writing, and aspects of the directing, Kingdom of Heaven smacks of small effort.

7.5 out of 10

The Look

2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, which translates as something like "damn beautiful". The geography surrounding the Jerusalem of the film is a barren waste, but Scott and cinematographer John Mathieson make it appear more like a blank canvas (Balian’s actions treat it that way, as well) than Road Warrior terrain.

There night shots rarely test the range of the blacks. There are dusky orange or blue filters over these sequences, which makes their details easy to pick out, but also puts a viewer in mind of the old cinematic technique of filming night shots during the day with such filters in place.

7 out of 10

The Noise

Both a 5.1 Dolby digital surround and a DTS 5.1 surround track are present, with the DTS possessing a brighter range of tone. There are pounding hoofbeats and meaty thuds galore. The bottom end is nicely filled by such effects, but the treble ranges are somewhat ignored. The result is an occasionally muddy mix, particularly when the script calls for subdued dialogue. The music is nothing special; it features no themes or memorable strains, and is hardly even melodic. Composer Harry Gregson-Williams’ score serves to embellish scenes with small flourishes, but it’s listless.

6 out of 10

"Dere mum how ar you I am an ilitrit blaksmith stop"

The Goodies

On the first disc, there is a text commentary feature called "The Pilgrim’s Guide" that’s a bit different from your standard film-centered commentary. The pop-up boxes (they dominate most of the lower third of the screen, including bar space if you’re viewing on a 4:3 set) feature historical information (as well as thematic production notes) about the crusades, about the real-life crusaders the characters were based from (or, more accurately, from whom the writer borrowed names), and any other medieval trivia you could possibly need. All right, I thought. One or two boxes per minute, like one of those "Spot the Mistakes" episodes of The Drew Carey Show, right? No, sir; these boxes come flying at you almost faster than you can read them. There’s so much information, it’s hard to take it all in, but it’s a delight to be exposed to, and an awesome feature to have on a film like this. (Overcompensation for the criticism of Gladiator? Possibly.)

The second disc holds several featurettes, including a "Choose Your Own Documentary" deal they call "The Grid". The Grid is basically a four-by-four square, with points at the intersections, where you can examine three different aspects of the production (directing, crew, cast) during three different stages of production (pre-production, production, and post-production). By clicking on a point of intersection, you get a short behind-the-scenes look at whatever you selected; for example, clicking at the coordinate 1,1 gives you a look at the job of the director during pre-production. It’s an unnecessarily complicated system for conveying information, but fortunately there is a "Play All" function.

It’s comforting to know that the mind is the last thing to go.

Functioning better on the documentary front are two features originally presented as hourlongs on cable: one from the History Channel, and one from A&E. Both focus on the historical accuracy and points of divergence between real life and the Hollywood version of it. Both are informative pieces, mostly devoid of marketing fluff, and worthwhile inclusions on the disc.

To fill in the cracks, we have a set of featurettes which played on the Internet during the run-up to the movie’s theatrical release, and the theatrical trailer.

This is a set of extras that, arguably, holds less information about the movie itself than about the time period Scott was trying to emulate; not a bad fit for a movie that already does its best to keep you at a distance.

8 out of 10

The Artwork

I was fond of the theatrical poster art — I thought it went a long way toward distancing Orlando Bloom from the effeminate image he has picked up. I also liked that the colors were on the cool side of the spectrum, muted blue, which lent an interesting contrast to the heat-of-battle images. I think that Fox screwed up by changing to a warmer color palette here. Now the disc will blend right in with every other actioner on the shelves.

5 out of 10

Overall: 7 out of 10