The Right Coast

May 07, 2005
Kingdom of Whatever
By Tom Smith

Well, almost the entire brood, including my lovely wife Jeanne, and one friend, saw the Crusader movie Kingdom of Heaven yesterday. 18 month old Mark stayed with his nanny.

My 13 year old loved the movie. I think he tends to see these movies as "plot plot plot BATTLE! BATTLE! plot plot plot," so this movie had enough to keep his interest. I however was a little disappointed. Not hugely. Just a little. On a scale where Ridley Scott's previous battle epic Gladiator would get an A or A-, Kingdom of Heaven gets only a B.

The reason is simple. The movie has a very weak script, which is to say, it just does not have an interesting story to tell. To make a movie like this work, you need a strong story that gives vivid characters credible motivations. Gladiator ("My name is Gladiator, and I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next!") is motivated first by the desire to be a good general and servant to wise Emperor Marcus, and then by the quite understandable passion to revenge his horribly murdered family. The praetorians crucified his lovely wife and children, for heaven's sake. That would irritate anyone. But he gets captured by slavers, ends up in the ring and has to fight his way up to where he has a shot at the disgusting perv emperor Maximus, whose motives are also quite clear. He wants absolute power, popular adulation and to get it on with his sister. Yukky, but it makes for a good villain.

In contrast, the characters in Kingdom are opaque. Orlando Bloom seems to think crusading will ease the pains of his suicide wife in hell, but he seems to forget her quickly enough when he lays his eyes upon the hot future Queen of Jerusalem. He comes across as a confused, drifting sort of hero. Realistic perhaps, but not good movie material.

The villains similarly make no sense. Guy de whathisname, husband of hot sister of the Leper King Baldwin, wants to start a war with the Sarecens, but why? It is obvious he cannot win. Evil as he is, does he think God will not let him lose? It is completely obscure. His greasy henchman, Raymond de wherever, actually has a line where he says something like, "I'm a villain, that's just what I do," and indeed, that's about all the sense it makes. He's off to provoke war, kill Salladin's sister, and generally be awful because, well, that's just the sort of chap he is. Villains need motives too. Actually, their motives may be the most important of all. In a particularly nice example, in the pretty darn good western Tombstone, Wyatt Erp asks Doc Holiday what motivates the almost unbelievably nasty Ringo (I think it's Ringo). Doc says "Revenge." Wyatt says "Revenge? Revenge for what?" "For bein' born," says Doc, and you think you know exactly what he means, and why that makes Ringo an especially depraved sort of villain. The wickedness of the Crusader villains, you're supposed to take on faith, I guess. (Speaking of motives, of Wyatt's motives, Doc says "It's not revenge he's after. It's a reckoning." A great line, perfectly delivered, and all the better for its utter opacity.)

Is Kingdom of Heaven offensive PC tripe? I did not take it that way, but a good case could be made that it is. Orlando Bloom (Baron Balin or whatever his name is) has the chance to save Jerusalem, get the hot Queen, with whom he has sort of fallen in love, maybe, or at least is fond of, get rid of the villains, and save the people from war. We know what W would have done. But no, doing that would smack to much of preemptive war, I guess. Baron B cannot, and keep his soul pure, even though it is far from clear what would be morally objectionable in this course of action, and seems a bit finicky for a guy who has thrown a priest in furnace and is busy boinking the married princess, even if her husband is a bad guy. (In a memorably stupid line, princess hotness says to Orlando, immediately before throwing herself at him, that "In the East, there is nothing between people but light." What the heck does that mean? Something like "forget it, it's Chinatown"? or "Dude, you can't let all this atmosphere go to waste"?) If Baldwin wants to name Orlando as heir, what is wrong with that? If Raymond and Guy end up getting the chop because they won't acknowledge him, isn't that their own doing? It's not explained; we just have to assume it was too dirty for Orlando. Just like defending against terrorism is wrong if it means you might have to kill anybody. Guy and Raymond head off to war, it being perfectly clear they will die in the desert, as they promptly do, and it's on to the seige of Jerusalem. The seige scenes are technically impressive, but there is no suspense, since you know the Crusader defenders are just fighting for good terms of surrender. This they get, and everyone gets to march out of Jerusalem under the banner of honorable surrender.

It's hard not to see this as a metaphor for how Hollywood sees US foreign policy. Everything would be fine if we would just not provoke the Mohammedans, but for inexplicable reasons, the bad guys in power have to provoke them. At that point, the most that can be hoped for is honorable surrender to the powers of the non-West, who after all have the cooler clothes, better climate, and vastly superior interior decorators. But there is honor in surrender, because it's all about saving the people. It's not so bad not being King and Queen; you get to ride off into the horizon, as if on a camping trip.

So, yes, I'm afraid the movie, which seems silly at first viewing does upon reflection resolve into a PC tale that is deeply stupid. But perhaps not intentionally so. It comes across as not really being aware of how dumb it is, which is more than you can say for a lot of Hollywood products, which seem intelligently designed to gnaw at the foundations of civilization. The movie also seems to view Islam as a more benign religion than Christianity, which certainly seems an odd historical judgment to make. The vague, questing spirituality of Orlando Bloom and Liam Neesom seem OK, but the Church comes across as very much the realm of evil doers. Orlando tells a paunchy, cynical, sneering Bishop "you've taught me a lot about religion." I suppose we should be grateful there was no subplot about the right to choose, like maybe a deformed baby that really had to be exposed on a hillside for the good of everyone involved.

In defense of the movie, however, it's sheer dunderheadedness becomes clear only upon reflection. You can definitely watch it for the battles and the locations. It is almost up to the Gladiator standard on that score. I could have done with more close quarter combat of the Gladiator kind, where one could see how the fight choreographers conceived of medieval fighting styles, about which a lot has been learned in the last 20 years or so. You can see a bit of that, and it is pretty good, with fights showing how weapons are versatile. If you know a bit about weaponry, you can see a nice variety of weapons, including swords, maces, axes, war hammers and crossbows. The Muslims seem to favor round shields, swords and spears, and much less in the way of hammers, axes, and maces. I don't know whether that is accurate or not. Siege artillery is given a prominent role in the big battle, which I suspect is realistic. However, I wonder if the trebuchets would really be capable of achieving the low angle, high velocity shots shown in the movie. Cool looking, but I think the physics is dubious.

My advice is, if you like big epic battle scenes, the movie is worth watching. Just don't expect a particularly good story inbetween the battles. If you are not battle scene person, you might enjoy the costumes, which are extremely well done. But otherwise this is a missable movie. It's too bad, because any sensible script, which was inhabited by recognizable humans, would have made the movie so much better.