Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jun 27, 2005 8:31 pm 
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A beautiful and misunderstood epic

Ridley Scott's new crusader epic is one of the most beautiful films he's ever made, but it's taken a critical basting. One reviewer called it "a damp gust" and described the hero Bailan (Orlando Bloom) as a man with a "religion as watery as his blood lust." The same writer called the movie "politically nervous" and "desperate not to offend" and Bloom "a light-footed lad, still part elf." Unable to banish Legalas from his mind, he argued like others that Bloom can't carry an epic and summed up the film as "a rambling, hollow show about a boy." Another review opened with a sweeping dismissal: "What sucks the wind out of the movie's sails is the vacuum at its core." The "surfeit of scruples makes it static," this writer said. Another claimed Scott chose to "sidestep the issues, soft-pedal mortal costs, talk a fat game, and divert your attention away from history with exercises in spectacle and power." This paper had called in their wrecker-ball writer for the job and subtly titled the result "Holy Crap."

Interesting the prevalence of watery metaphors in reviews, since control of water as a military strategy is a theme of the film. Whether their mixed metaphors made the film wind or vacuum, watery or dried out, many critics' verdict was clear: this epic wasn't tough enough. Ending a story with a truce between Christians and Moslems and Europeans yielding Jerusalem to Saladin, they saw as bleeding-heart liberal stuff -- not the proper focus of a movie epic. To prove this point, recent competition was repeatedly dragged out, Kingdom of Heaven declared inferior to Scott's own gutsier Gladiator; to Troy, even to the long winded, campy Alexander.

White liberalism may lie behind the project, but that doesn't make it unhistorical, and these recent Hollywood epics are the wrong reference point to analyze Kingdom of Heaven. Despite their similar scale, their subjects are totally different, and lack the values or the moral complexity of this new epic.

The writer who called Bloom "a light-footed lad" quoted Balian's father the dying Godfrey advising his son to become "not what you were born but what you have it in yourself to be," and quipped: "Having barely studied the period, I hadn't realized twelfth-century nobles favored the rhetoric of a miked-up Tony Robbins." Very funny; but what if a dying nobleman conferred the knighthood on a commoner, his bastard son: might he not utter just these words? Maybe Tony Robbins occasionally recommends knightly values, in however debased a form.

That for the Christian crusaders knightly values apply is clearly signaled in the movie when the blacksmith Bailan is knighted by his dying father Godrey (Liam Neeson) in that striking early scene, and again, prior to the fight to defend the ramparts of Jerusalem Bailan declares all able bodied men knights in en masse battlefield commission. Among the Moslems led by the great hero of the Islamic conquests Salah ad-Din (Saladin, played by the excellent Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud), the values weren't dissimilar. Not just the teachings of the Qur'an but also the more ancient values of the Arabian Peninsula fed into them. Pre-Islamic Arabic poetry shows the ancient desert chieftains were free men who, like European knights, most esteemed hospitality, generosity, honor, liberality and loyalty. They spent their time fighting, winning lovely women, and practicing the arts of riding and poetry.

Is it really a bad idea to show Christians and Moslems resembling each other at their best, respecting each other and behaving nobly? Are honor in defeat and mercy toward one's enemies such despicable values for an epic to champion? While for critics whose memories only go back to the last screen epic Kingdom of Heaven was ill-timed, it arrived when the world direly needed it. Balian's goal of protecting the Holy Land rather than gobbling up real estate is an old and true one; it's just not the one that has prevailed. And it's nice to see Arab actors playing positive Arab roles and speaking some Arabic for a change. For sure, not everything is historically accurate, but to pretend it's total invention is wrongheaded.

The movie is beautiful to look at in every sense. It's a splendid visual evocation of a period, and the displays of twelfth century military technology are particularly awesome. Sometimes this very beauty and incredible grasp of how to make flowing long shots full of crowds or armies or architecture aesthetically pleasing overwhelms the structure, however. Balian needs (as another reviewer put it) "more Laurence of Arabia stuff"-- quiet moments to survey the vast desert and ponder things. He like the story rushes forward without enough analysis of all the ideas that are whirling around.

Perhaps such contemplative moments were there and fell on the cutting room floor. Ridley Scott has said the proper edit of his new film isn't 145 but 220 minutes, and certain characters, notably Sybilla (Eva Green) are underdeveloped in the current version. Luckily what remains still includes fine work by Massoud, Liam Neeson, Edward Norton, David Thewlis, Jeremy Irons, and others in an excellent cast, who not only can act but are handsome and dashing or beautiful and sexy.

Unlike The Last Samurai which is admirable in this respect, Kingdom of Heaven like Gladiator is marred by the fact that it's edited so battle sequences hide specific details of sword action -- the real detail of hand-to-hand combat, the thrusts and counter thrusts. The film at these moments seems to have gotten cut up worse than the combatants. Nonetheless, without commenting on every historical detail of Kingdom of Heaven, some of which are certainly fanciful, it's a stunningly beautiful and for the most part very well acted film that has gotten a bit of a raw deal from reviewers and at the box office. 8/10

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