Movies: To War or Not to War

Ridley Scott's ambitious Kingdom of Heaven tries to make a judicious action epic out of the Crusades

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Two worthy adversaries--Balian (Orlando Bloom), leader of the crusading Christian army, and Saladin the Muslim (Ghassan Massoud)--meet to discuss what they're fighting over. "What is Jerusalem worth?" asks Balian. "Nothing," Saladin says. A pause, then: "Everything."

The apparent contradiction in that exchange gets to the crux of Ridley Scott's fascinating epic Kingdom of Heaven. The film, written by novelist William Monahan, constantly poses thorny questions on the nature of military goals and religious beliefs. It raises these issues for viewers and, crucially, for itself. And it keeps juggling its conundrums up to the climax and beyond.

Their dilemma is this: How do you make an antiwar war movie? How, in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, and with the dispute over Jerusalem still roiling Israeli-Palestinian tensions, do you create a film that both explains and criticizes Christian Europe's invasion and occupation of Jerusalem almost a millennium ago? Scott's implicit answer: the way a porcupine makes love. Very carefully.

In 1186 Christian knight Godfrey (Liam Neeson) enlists his illegitimate son Balian in the Crusades. Godfrey's hope is that they can fashion "a kingdom of conscience, a kingdom of heaven" where "there is peace between Christian and Muslim." Well, one way for peace to come to the region would be for the Christians to leave. That doesn't suit Godfrey and his men. They are soldiers for Christ. They have a mission to achieve, and they will do it, by God. Their God, that is.

All right, let's have a big fight. After all, movies love to move. The spectacle of armies massing, horses rearing, swords clashing, body parts severedis at the heart of action cinema. Lives and ideals are put to their greatest risk. And Scott is a magnificent strategist of organized carnage, as he proved in Gladiator and Black Hawk Down. The battle skirmishes here mix sudden violence with slow-motion artistry. The attractive cast can sell an obsession or articulate a conundrum with equal fervor. Eva Green, in the token-girl role every action epic needs, has a classic movie star's beauty and allure, and Bloom has matured splendidly (the beard helps). He gives Balian heft and winsomeness as a pensive man of action.

So what's missing? In movie terms, a rooting interest. In religious terms, a sense of faith. Balian's faith is a wavering, sometime thing. The final decision--to make war or to chuck it--is a matter not of Christian belief but of a secular conscience. That's because Balian is less an ancient warrior than a modern statesman. As a 12th century commander, he is obliged to seize the Holy Land for the church and state he serves. But as a representative of early 21st century liberal thinking, he has to consider a decision that only posterity will deem heroic and that could deprive the genre of its natural climax.

All that makes for an odd war epic. But a movie of two minds is infinitely preferable to a movie with none. --By Richard Corliss