War: What Is It Good For?

In Ridley Scott's latest epic, it's good for one really stunning siege

Whatever you do, don't accuse Ridley Scott of turning his back on a fight. Doesn't matter if it's slimy-fanged space aliens attacking Sigourney Weaver, Roman slaves battling against hungry lions down at the Coliseum or American GIs going at it with Somali insurgents. Sir Ridley is always happy to stage the proceedings with a minimum of talk and a maximum of bloodshed. In his latest costume epic, Kingdom of Heaven, there are actually two heavyweight bouts on the card: Christianity dukes it out with Islam in twelfth-century Jerusalem, and, in a more parochial punch-up, Good Crusaders battle Bad Crusaders for the soul of the Church. By the time the last Saracen ax-swinger has been boiled in oil and the last severed Templar head's been impaled on a spike, we pretty much know where Ridley Scott stands.

For peace, of course.

Filmed on location in Spain and Morocco, then injected with 30 million bucks' worth of special-effects steroids back in California, Kingdom of Heaven is the kind of Hollywood extravaganza we come to expect each spring and summer -- an exercise in bloody bombast decorated with the usual dose of tender romance. The director of Alien and Gladiator is nothing if not keenly aware of the demands of the marketplace, blockbuster-wise. So the dashing hero he gives us here, a humble French blacksmith who turns into a fierce swordsman, a brilliant military strategist and a masterful diplomat in about ten minutes, also gets to take up with a doe-eyed queen named Sibylla. She appears to be a kind of medieval fashion model who goes very heavy on the mascara and keeps us dazzled with her selection of frocks even as the infidels are hurling huge fireballs over the walls of the besieged city. Like many a starlet before her, pretty Eva Green puts in a long shift at the nursing station without smudging her lipstick.

The fictional hero, cooked up by Scott and screenwriter William Monahan, is a hard-bodied young worthy named Balian; he is played by Lord of the Rings star Orlando Bloom, and he bears little resemblance to any Crusader who ever took up chain mail and broadsword. As the film would have it, the boy is but a reluctant warrior, infused by his idealistic father (the equally fictional Sir Godfrey) with fairness and fellow-feeling. Dad, it turns out, has fought all his life for "a kingdom of conscience" in the Holy Land, a utopia where all men and all creeds are equal. Played by Liam Neeson, this paragon pops into his illegitimate son's life just long enough to instruct the kid in virtue and bestow knighthood on him, before expiring of noble wounds.

It's not hard to see where this is leading. For the next two hours and fifteen minutes, Scott and Monahan and the bankers at 20th Century Fox try to mount a half-hearted assault on our conscience too. While taking in the movie's festival of gore and dismemberment, we are also meant to eat our spinach, in the form of a plea to all jihadists in Baghdad, Damascus and points east -- and to the equally belligerent ones in the White House and the Pentagon -- for brotherhood. Christians and Muslims have been banging on each other for ten centuries, it says here: Hasn't the madness gone on long enough, for God's sake? The protagonist Balian, a wise but doomed leper-king gotten up in a silver mask (Edward Norton), the king's thoughtful military adviser, Tiberius (Jeremy Irons), and the movie's romanticized version of the great Islamic warrior Saladin are all meant to embody this enlightened view -- at least when they're not busy decapitating their enemies. The villains here are the radical, Christianity-must-rule Crusaders represented by the Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) and his bloodthirsty Knights Templar.

That this hands-across-the-sea message comes off as phony and manipulative will come as no surprise. Hollywood has been distorting history for its own purposes since D.W. Griffith glorified the Klan in Birth of a Nation, and Kingdom's wishful thinking about Crusader pacifism and Islamic mercy just doesn't wash -- as much as we might like it to in our own day, when the U.S. is at war with radical Islamists in the Middle East and increasingly militant Christian fundamentalists are battling "secular humanists" here at home. Trying to draw parallels between the Second Crusade and the second Bush Administration just doesn't work very well -- even if George W. did, in the days immediately following 9/11, refer to America's battle against al Qaeda as a "crusade" before his handlers shushed him.

So, if you want to see this loud but rather ordinary epic at all, don't expect its tricked-up cultural and theological messages to carry much water. For entertainment value, it's hard to beat the climactic siege of Jerusalem, a Ridley Scott-perfect half-hour that matches anything in Troy or Gladiator for sheer, bloody, helmet-bashing mayhem. But if you're hungry for actual ideas, political or otherwise, best to go elsewhere.

 
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