Kingdom of ... uh, whatever

There's something missing in "Kingdom of Heaven," Ridley Scott's latest eye-popper about the Second Crusade. But most of the reviews don't tell you what. Instead, they blame the star, Orlando Bloom, for lacking "true gravitas" (Austin Chronicle). Some express regret that Russell Crowe was not available to play Balian, the humble blacksmith who ends up defending Jerusalem against the Muslim general Saladin. Others bash Bloom for being a "pretty boy" barely able to swing a sword.

I will grant that Bloom is not the industrial-strength warrior type. But neither is Elijah Wood, who as Frodo in "The Fellowship of the Rings" did a pretty good job of battling Orcs. No, the problem is the script. Written by one-time novelist and first-time screenwriter William Monahan, it is painfully laconic and annoyingly noncommittal.

I know, I know. Hollywood is under a lot of pressure to eliminate human language from its product. Research has shown that popcorn-munching skateboarders don't like "talky" movies. Foreigners don't like subtitles. And DVD-watching couch potatoes don't like dialogue about stuff they didn't bother to learn about in school. But give me a break. This film wants to make a statement, and you can't do that without talking.

What is the statement Scott wants to make? In a world riven by religious fear and hatred, he seeks to dignify religious tolerance, past and present. To some extent, he succeeds: those who mock "Kingdom of Heaven" as politically correct and anachronistic are mistaken. Mercy and justice were not unknown in the 12th century. For example, Saladin (played magnificently by the Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud) was an extremely devout Muslim who was nonetheless capable of compromising with Christians and Jews when it was in his interest to do so.

The main problem, according to historian Thomas F. Madden, is that in its effort to tout tolerance, "The Kingdom of Heaven" waters down the religiosity of all the characters. How much more timely and interesting this film would be if someone had dared to show deeply, even zealously religious people practicing tolerance!

After all, Dante was a medieval Christian, and he respected Saladin enough to put him in Limbo with the great pagan poets and philosophers. But then, Dante wasn't afraid to write about great themes in the vernacular...

May 13, 2005 10:15 AM |



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