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Revisiting the ancient struggle of East and West


Most of the blockbuster historical epics that regularly disturb the peace in the local megaplex display little in the way of relevance to their actual time and place or any connection to the personal lives of the viewers. Aside from its location in a peculiar version of the city's past, for example, Martin Scorsese's long, turgid, blood-soaked Gangs of New York suggested only the vaguest resemblance even to the most violent areas of contemporary Manhattan. Though many members of the audience may have experienced nausea when, after more than three hours of silliness, melodrama, and bad acting, The Titanic finally sank, few of them, I am sure, could attribute it to seasickness.

Although his last venture into the past resulted in the overblown and overpraisedGladiator --- again, a picture with little pertinence to our time --- Ridley Scott apparently remains committed to history. This time around, Kingdom of Heaven, which takes place in the Middle Ages, in fact suggests some appropriate, perhaps inescapable parallels between events in the 12th and 21st centuries. The major point of comparison derives from the ancient series of violent confrontations between Islam and Christendom that long ago defined so much of the world we know, and which of course continues today in the invasion of Iraq and the manifold tensions between East and West.

The movie concentrates on a brief period of relative peace falling between two of the great Crusades that brought Europeans temporary control of Jerusalem. Balian (Orlando Bloom), a French blacksmith, learns that he is the bastard son of a nobleman named Godfrey (Liam Neeson). Forced to flee his village, he joins his father's band of Crusaders on their way to Jerusalem. Godfrey wants to instruct his son in knightly conduct, while Balian seeks the promise of redemption in the journey to the Holy Land.

In the turmoil of the captured, polyglot city, a number of factions compete for power and wealth, underlining the abject failure of the allegedly noble and ultimately foolish endeavor. The obstreperous Knights Templar, eager for gold and glory, want to renew the Crusade and argue for war on the Muslims, led by the great Salahdin (GhassanMassoud). The King of Jerusalem, a dying leper who wears a silver mask to conceal his ruined face, backed by other groups of warriors and noblemen, insists on maintaining the peace.

Balian, who succeeds his father and earns the devotion of his father's followers, sides with the King and ascends to a position of some respect among the quarreling Europeans. The young man who initially travels to Jerusalem as an act of penitence and spends a night on Calvary, hoping to hear some word from God, a sign of forgiveness, becomes not only a warrior but ultimately even the leader of the defense against the attacking army of Salahdin. He also finds love, naturally, in the arms of the King's beautiful sister, Princess Sibylla (Eva Green).

The picture's numerous violent confrontations emphasize the powerful desire for some kind of peace that constitutes the major theme. The major dialectic engages the forces of comparative reason and enlightenment in a barbaric age against the avarice, vainglory, and religious zealotry of many of the Crusaders. Against that background the movie shows Balian's own attempts to find a kind of personal salvation amid the violence and bloodshed of everyday life in the Holy Land.

Although the epic rarely allows for the display of any particular subtlety by its actors, almost everyone in the cast performs with competence, and sometimes even distinction. The many fine actors in supporting roles --- Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, even David Thewlis --- seem much stronger than Orlando Bloom, who tends to look dewy-eyed and sweetly sincere far too often. Turning in perhaps the best performance in the film, GhassanMassoud makes Salahdin a character of genuine complexity and engaging presence.

Most important, Kingdom of Heaven displays the necessary scenes and sequences that provide the obligatory epic power and visual splendor. The grand battle scenes, with the sunlight glittering from the shields and swords of thousands of charging men and horses, the spectacular siege of Jerusalem, showing all the ingenious weaponry of the Middle Ages, the paradoxically thrilling sight of Crusaders marching off to war and certain death under the leadership of boastful demagogues reflect the epic subject and style, and sadly, remind us all over again of the most recent confrontations between East and West in our own enlightened time.

Kingdom of Heaven (R), directed by Ridley Scott. Brockport Strand, Canandaigua Theatres, Culver Ridge, Geneseo Theatres, Greece Ridge 12, Pittsford Cinema