It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
The first thing to be said for Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven" is that Scott knows how to direct a historical epic. I might have been kinder to his "Gladiator" had I known that "Troy" and "Alexander" were in my future, but "Kingdom of Heaven" is better than "Gladiator" -- deeper, more thoughtful, more about human motivation and less about action.
The second thing is that Scott is a brave man to release a movie at this time about the wars between Christians and Muslims for control of Jerusalem. Few people will be capable of looking at "Kingdom of Heaven" objectively. I have been invited by both Muslims and Christians to view the movie with them so they can point out its shortcomings. When you've made both sides angry, you may have done something right. The Muslim scholar Hamid Dabashi, however, after being asked to consult on the movie, writes in the new issue of Sight & Sound: "It was neither pro- nor anti-Islamic, neither pro- nor anti-Christian. It was, in fact, not even about the 'Crusades.'" And yet I consider the film to be a profound act of faith." It is an act of faith, he thinks, because for its hero Balian (Orlando Bloom), who is a non-believer, "All religious affiliations fade in the light of his melancholic quest to find a noble purpose in life."
That's an insight that helps me understand my own initial question about the film, which was: Why don't they talk more about religion? Weren't the Crusades seen by Christians as a Holy War to gain control of Jerusalem from the Muslims? I wondered if perhaps Scott was evading the issue. But not really: He shows characters more concerned with personal power and advancement than with theological issues.
Balian, a village blacksmith in France, discovers he is the illegitimate son of Sir Godfrey (Liam Neeson). Godfrey is a knight returning from the Middle East, who paints Jerusalem not in terms of a holy war but in terms of its opportunities for an ambitious young man; it has a healthy economy at a time when medieval Europe is stagnant. "A man who in France has not a house is in the holy land the master of a city," Godfrey promises. "There at the end of the world you are not what you were born but what you have it in yourself to be." He makes Jerusalem sound like a medieval Atlanta, a city too busy to hate.