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Sunday, October 30, 2005

Kingdom of Hollywood

I watched the DVD of "Kingdom of Heaven" last night. Right up front, I'll admit that I wished I'd seen it on the big screen. Directed in the grand, sweeping, visually electrifying style we have come to expect from Ridley Scott, it's a quality production with a meaty, historically based story and a stellar cast.

All that being said, the movie was an overly simplistic representation of that era. For starters, there was a lot more than this one episode involved in the Crusades.

The Crusades were a varied series of military campaigns that for lasted hundreds of years. One of the major reasons for these wars was for Christianity to secure control of the Holy Land. But the many wars we have come to call the Crusades had numerous other geopolitical causes, among them defense of European peoples against Muslim invasions. None of this is mentioned or even implied, and perhaps it would be unfair to expect that. Hollywood scripts do not lend themselves well to historical layers and complexity.

Orlando Bloom plays Balian, illegitimate son of Godfrey, played by Liam Neeson. I'm not quite sure how Godfrey knows to direct his cavalry through Balian's village en route to Jerusalem, thus meeting his son for the first time. Godfrey invites Balian to join the Army, so to speak. Balian, lost in the nether regions of personal grief, decides to find meaning in life by following Dad. And there you have it--instant plot.

After giving Balian some rapid sword training, Godfrey is mortally wounded. In true Hollywood fashion, Godfrey gives his most eloquent, sage, and dramatic speech to Balian while stepping through death's door. Considering the fact that he only knew his father for a few days, the speech made quite a lasting impression on Balian, because he spends the rest of the movie parroting Dad's words back to various and sundry supporting characters.

Balian is a lost soul. He finds no solace in religion, but forges his own path to leadership in a very pioneering, modern-day humanist fashion. He is a true hero, inspiring the army of Jerusalem to defend its walls. But it is highly unlikely that someone of his era in history would be applying post-Enlightenment thinking to his actions.

There are no good Christians in this movie, period. Priest, bishop, or leader, they are portrayed as evil, corrupt, cowardly, and stupid. Undoubtedly, such Christians participated in the Crusades, but I'm sure there were a few good eggs among the garbage. Muslims, on the other hand, are played as wise, thoughtful, and compassionate in their responses. Again, no doubt true in many cases. But the stacks of decapitated heads silently suggest a more brutal Muslim response on at least a few occasions.

Which leads me to the director's favorite special effect, copious sprays of gushing blood. They are ubiquitous in this film, so you'd better brace yourself for plenty of spatter during the battle scenes. It's not for a queasy stomach.

"Kingdom of Heaven" is a mediocre history lesson, but it is a very good film. If you're curious about the history of the Crusades, it's an interesting starting point--provided you plan to keep reading on the subject.