After the success of Ridley Scott's Oscar-winning "Gladiator" in 2000, audiences were excited to see his next historical epic. Kingdom of Heaven, set during the period of violent struggle known as The Crusades, tells the story of a blacksmith who rises to be the champion of Jerusalem. It is fair to say that on its release Kingdom of Heaven was not received as well as its predecessor. Gone was much of the melodrama, the speechifying, and the fall and rise storyline, and replacing them was a much more subtle, nuanced look at history. The film remains largely ambivalent about The Crusades as a political and military project. There are a few pantomime villains in the guise of the Templar knights, irredeemably racist zealots who are single-minded in their determination to exterminate the muslim population and retain control of the Holy Land. However, there are also positive portrayals of knights, chivalrous and conflicted, the king of Jerusalem is shown as a man striving for peace between the warring religions, and most strikingly Saladin, the famed muslim commander, is shown to be a canny general, just and compassionate. It is this complex picture that is perhaps the films greatest strength. It is a story told on an epic scale, with several warring factions and interweaving storylines. This is even more true of the Director's Cut which re-inserts a story about the king's successor that was entirely excised from the Theatrical release.
Ridley Scott is highly regarded as a great world builder, both in his historical and science-fiction films, and this is no exception. Every place that we visit, whether it is the French village at the beginning or the sprawling city of Jerusalem complete with preachers, pilgrims, knights and every manner of person, there is a clear attention to detail. Special effects are used in sequences such as the Messina port and elsewhere, but never overburden the film, and the battles all have a weight and realism to them. There is a superb cast with Orlando Bloom fresh from his breakthrough role in Lord of the Rings starring as Balian. It is a decent performance of this conflicted character, who is coming to terms with the death of a child and his wife's suicide, discovering his true father, and journeying to the Holy Land to seek redemption. A cast that includes Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, Eva Green, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, a small role for Michael Sheen, and an uncredited Edward Norton as the king of Jerusalem, is surely reason alone to watch this film. Harry-Gregson Williams score is incredible, evoking the mystique of the middle-eastern cities, the plaintive religiosity of the period, as well as soaring accompaniment to the battles. He uses traditional instrumentation to create a sense of historicity and wonder.
I would highly recommend this film to fans of historical epics, especially if you have a particular interest in the period. There are weaknesses with the film. It perhaps could make itself clearer at times what the import of characters or events are, and the complexity of the several interweaving plots may detract from a more traditional action hero tale. This is particularly evidenced in the closing scenes of the film, where the climax is historically accurate but will perhaps leaves many with a feeling that there should have been more of a triumphant ending. Personally, I believe this is fantastic film, with great performances, score, cinematography, and a story that is not only thrilling at times but also packed with interesting character studies and difficult choices.