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French Version

A very commercial Crusade

'Kingdom of Heaven' looks to the market beyond civilization-clash

"Convert to Islam," says the Latin Bishop of Jerusalem, scowling at Salah al-Din's army through the broken walls of the city. "Repent later." Imagine, a high-ceilinged reception hall in some derelict building in, say, Gibraltar.

An ageing Levantine (an 'abayyeh draped over the shoulders of his Armani suit) saunters over to the lectern at the front of the room, heaves open a ledger, and begins recounting the infractions standing between the supplicant and his place in cinematic history.

Otherwise celestial personalities like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, the Scott brothers (Sir Ridley and Tony) must all come, cap in hand, while this Mr Eugenides runs his finger down the list of misdemeanors.

"Yes, 'Bladerunner'," he nods. "'Alien' - we very much liked the anti-corporate motif. I had a lot of time for 'Thelma and Louise.' But what about those Arab-ish feet in 'Gladiator?' Then you had to make 'Black Hawk Down.' 'You can't diddle around with the truth' indeed. Uff," he clucks. "What were you thinking?"

He pulls a Mont Blanc out of the air.

"Go make an even-handed film about - oh I don't know - the Crusades." He sighs. "Follow that 'good men in unfortunate circumstances' model if you must, but give the Muslims something to say for a change, will you?"

The Eugenides figure scribbles something in the margins of his ledger, slams the book shut, and dispatches a minion to bring him a cup of shai binaanaa. Sir Ridley replaces his hat, strokes his beard, and wonders how on earth he's going to pull this one off.

It's tempting, isn't it, to imagine that - somewhere between "Hollywood" and "the Middle East" - star filmmakers will all face such an earthly purgatory.

Alas, "Kingdom of Heaven" is not Ridley Scott's penance for "Black Hawk Down." Unlike "Alexander," Oliver Stone's recent swords-and-foreigners clunker, Scott's film isn't much interested in embedding today's geo-political crisis in history.

Though its matter is the medieval clash of Christendom and Islam, "Kingdom" is a more forward-looking thing, reaching out to the Orient with a market-conscious even-handedness.

It is late 12th-century and Godfrey, Baron of of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), retainer to the Frankish King of Jerusalem, has returned to France to find his bastard son Balian (Orlando Bloom, with an altered nose-to-chin ratio) and convince him to come to the Holy Land. Balian agrees, and by circuitous route makes his way to Jerusalem bearing papa's sword and title.

Bloom and Neeson thus recreate the blacksmith-cum-adventurer from "Pirates of the Caribbean" and the soon-to-die daddy of "Gangs of New York."

Once in Jerusalem, Balian steps easily into his father's loyalties, finding that Baldwin, King of Jerusalem (Edward Norton, lisping through his iron mask like a late-model Marlon Brando) has set up a secular state that treats all religions equally. Unfortunately he's dying, which bodes ill since the next in line is Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), a raving Christian fundamentalist.

It so happens Guy is married to the King's sister, Sibylla (Eva Green), the hottest babe in all the Holy Land. She's also a bit loose - declaring breezily that she loved Balian's dad and would love his son as well. In short order she does just that, but not before uttering the film's most unspeakable line: "In the East, between one person and another there is only light."

With this "Western chicks are harlots" stereotype duly reinforced, the film rushes toward the worst-case scenario and the climactic scenes of carnage that audiences on both sides of the Atlantic will pay to watch.

Ever since Ken Branagh adapted "Henry V" to the screen, it's been impossible to bring off climactic battle without some sort of "St Crispin's Day" speech. In "Kingdom," Balian rallies the troops with: "Who has more claim to Jerusalem? No one!"

Such pat ecumenicalism offers more incentive to retire than to fight, but of course this rallying cry isn't meant for the pantomime knights but the audience. Certainly there is an audience for "Kingdom." Lots of folk hereabouts spend lots of time sopping up television melodramas (musalsalaat) that feature bearded swordsmen riding horseback through the heroic-age Middle East. Many will pay to sop up this musalsal as well.

"Kingdom" lacks the brilliance of Scott's early work but it's excellently executed musalsal. As is to be expected from a director with his budgets and eye for cinematographers - the film's lovely looking. In fact at a technical level - sets, choreography and so forth - it can't be faulted.

Everything looks authentic but the film demands so much suspension of disbelief - everyone from France to Palestine has a remarkable facility with English, for instance - that it dissolves any pretence of historical realism for all but the most ignorant.

The anachronisms, necessary to commoditize these 12th-century creatures for a 21st century audience, make the whole thing even sillier. "Defend the king," Godfrey tells his son. "If the king falls, defend the people." During the siege of Jerusalem, Balian elaborates this sentiment, saying he is fighting for the "safety, liberty and freedom" of Jerusalem's residents - concepts as alien to medieval realities (and as comic) as Michael Palin's "anarcho-syndicalist collective" in "Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail."

Jerusalem, Christendom and Islam are contentious stuff for light entertainment but "Kingdom" is as inoffensive as a Mars Bar. True, its heroes and villains are all Europeans but the Muslim "characters," if not three dimensional, are at least sympathetic.

This brings us to Salah al-Din. The press has noted Scott's dutiful representation of the Kurdish sultan as "positive," even "strong." These days it's undoubtedly a good thing for North Americans to see a screen Muslim that's as rational and sane as Ghassan Massoud's Salah al-Din. He's even allowed to utter the odd gem of a line. That said, at no point does the sultan rise above the ideal type of "the noble Arab."

"Kingdom" throws "God" around a lot but it's about as pious as an iPod. Balian loses his faith early on and - in a scene Diderot would have relished - runs a red-hot sword through the guts of his parish priest before pushing him into a forge.

The world Scott leaves us with is, nevertheless, unhappily sectarian. The warring peoples are divided along religious lines, the "holy places" that justify all the nonsense left intact.

At one point Salah al-Din remarks of Jerusalem's holy places, "Indeed I sometimes think we'd be better off without them." But if this film has a "message," it isn't in its representation of sectarian civilization-clash but the market's mission to circumvent it. "Convert to Islam," as the bishop said. "Repent later."

Beirut,05 16 2005
Jim Quilty
The Daily Star
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