I'm willing to give Ridley Scott the benefit of the doubt that the half-hour-plus of footage held back from the release of Kingdom of Heaven (purported to be reinserted for the DVD release) will make for a better film. But this well-meaning Crusades epic—with Orlando Bloom's idealistically noble knight yelping "No one has claim. All have claim!" before riding into battle against Saladin's army—amounts to a confused and confusing compromise at best and a dull obfuscation of history at worst.
Scott and screenwriter William Monahan seem to be on the same earnest page. Everyone talks in lessons, morals, epigrams, pronouncements, and foreshadows. If that sort of film sounds a bit exhausting, imagine it enacted by an equally humorless cast (anchored by the blankly heroic Bloom) in the dark lustrousness of Scott-vision. Kingdom of Heaven has clashes big and small, cut from the thick cloth of the modern epic style Scott helped, with Gladiator, to design. But nothing could be more frustrating than a big-budget Crusades epic, finally and ironically released during the Crusade on Terror, that fails to command a point of view or, alternatively, leaven its lumbering action and half-hearted proselytizing with satiric relevance.
Bloom plays Balian, a 12th Century blacksmith drawn into the Crusades when his deadbeat dad (Liam Neeson) trots up to his hovel and offers to gather him into the holy war. Soon, Balian's a makeshift knight making his way around the Christian and Muslim forces that clash over the occupation of Jerusalem. "It is a kingdom of conscience or nothing," Neeson rumbles, while David Thewlis's monk explains that "Holiness is in right action." Clearly, we are meant to scoff at the old opportunism that lies behind any war, as well as the ruthless sentiment "To kill an infidel is not murder—it is the path to heaven."
To that end, Scott sensitively depicts the Muslim forces, led by Ghassan Massoud's Saladin, as noble men with an equally sincere self-confidence in their own righteousness. A bolder film on the Crusades would more decisively balance the narrative scales between the Muslims and the Christians, but it's the thought that counts. The European power-brokers (among them Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, and a masked Edward Norton as leprous King Baldwin IV) squabble over ambition and "right action," and the battlefields are fierce, but somehow Balian floats through it all with his body, soul, and adulterous lover (Eva Green of The Dreamers) intact.
Bloom's unconvincingly God-kissed knight is a mythical ticket for this tragical history tour, but at least we get a proper eyeful once in a while. Scott sums up the whole film in a time-lapse image: a climactic overhead shot of a Sisyphean clash in the breach of a Holy City wall depicts massed bodies failing to make any headway. The shot melts into the aftermath: a boneyard of discarded shields and lifeless futility. The other 144-odd minutes can't compete with this swift visual lyric.