Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven: The War on Terror’s Bloody Past

Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, from a screenplay by William Monohan, was reportedly conceived before the invasion of Iraq pitted contemporary Christian soldiers against their Muslim counterparts. Even so, before Iraq, there had been ever-increasing tensions between Christians and Muslims in the wake of 9/11. It is therefore difficult to imagine what Mr. Scott and Mr. Monohan were hoping to accomplish with this violent re-enactment of the Crusades, which were first launched in 1095 with the cry “God wills it!” The man issuing this divine decree was warrior-like Pope Urban II, who boldly and brashly exhorted Christian Europe to reclaim the holy city of Jerusalem, which had been conquered by the Muslim armies that swept through the Middle East in the seventh century.

Ironically (or perhaps not), the Muslims in today’s Middle East have a longer and stronger memory of the Crusades than we do in the West. I can’t recall any films on the subject since Cecil B. DeMille’s 1935 production of The Crusades, with Richard the Lionheart (Henry Wilcoxon) rescuing Loretta Young’s Christian princess kidnapped by the “infidels.” Even with this ridiculously melodramatic fabrication, DeMille and his writers were unusually respectful of the Muslim chieftain Saladin. I recall a scene in which Richard demonstrates the power of his broadsword by demolishing a cement block, only to have a memorably genial Saladin respond by slicing a handkerchief with his sword blade.

The point is, in Britain and America, Saladin was always regarded as a worthy and chivalrous foe to Richard the Lionheart. Hence, Mr. Scott and Mr. Monohan get no extra brownie points for “tolerance” in their respectful portrayal of Saladin, played by Syrian actor and filmmaker Ghassan Massoud.

Kingdom of Heaven begins on a quintessentially dreary French hillside, where Orlando Bloom glowers darkly as the village blacksmith Balian. His wife, who committed suicide, has just been beheaded for her sin; such were the Dark Ages of 1186. Balian is visited by a group of heavily armored crusaders led by Godfrey (Liam Neeson), a knight close to the Christian King of Jerusalem. Godfrey confesses that Balian is his illegitimate son and only surviving heir.

At first, Balian refuses Godfrey’s request that he join him on his return trip to Jerusalem. Later, however, after Balian murders a priest during an argument over his wife’s suicide, he rides off to join Godfrey. When the bishop’s men ride up to arrest him, Godfrey refuses to surrender Balian, and a deadly battle ensues in which Godfrey is grievously wounded. Before he dies, however, he knights his son and passes on his sword.

Shipwrecked on his way from Messina to Jerusalem, Balian makes his way through the desert and encounters a Muslim tribal prince whom he kills in an argument over a horse. But good Christian that he is, Balian spares the life of his victim’s servant. And so it goes, kill and preach, preach and kill, until the screen seems perpetually strewn with corpses. In these days of cinematic overkill, I could take the violence, especially since it was magically magnified by computer-generated images. A few thousand riders (many from the Moroccan Army) become, thanks to C.G.I., the 200,000-man force Saladin launched from Damascus against the Jerusalem palace of King Baldwin IV after the death of the king and the defeat of the new king’s Knights Templar at the Battle of Hattin.

Balian, left in Jerusalem with no knights to defend the city, proceeds to knight all the common people and mount a valiant defense against Saladin’s massive assault, during the course of which all sorts of wooden towers and ballistic devices are employed (just as in DeMille’s 1935 film).

As an epic hero, I’m afraid to say, Mr. Bloom just doesn’t do it for me; and as his love interest, Eva Green’s Sibylla-the wife of the ill-fated Knight Templar Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas)-does even less. Her too-frequent changes of costume and hairdo become laughable as the body count keeps steadily rising.

And the righteous rhetoric never stops, whether before, during or after all the carnage: tolerate all religions, help the poor and the helpless, keep the road to Jerusalem open for pilgrims, keep your soul your own, tell the truth always, forgive your enemies. I may have some of the words wrong, but the religious sentiment accumulates into a tower of politically correct Jell-O.

But the spectacle, at least, is impressive. At a reported cost of $140 million, one should hope so.

Run, Lili, Run

Benoît Jacquot’s A Tout de Suite (Right Now), from his own screenplay, based on the memoir by Elizabeth Fager, When I Was 19, tells a seemingly familiar story, but in a daringly original manner. A flighty, somewhat spoiled Parisian art student, Lili (Isild Le Besco), picks up a quietly mysterious Moroccan at a nightclub after breaking up with her boyfriend. After she’s slept with him, he calls her one night to tell her that he and a confederate have robbed a bank, killed a teller and escaped with a hostage. Can he come over? She says yes instantly. Later, she asks him if she can join him in his continued flight from the law with his partner (Nicolas Duvauchelle) and the partner’s girlfriend (Laurence Cordier).

Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) comes to mind, and Mr. Jacquot doesn’t hesitate in interviews to acknowledge such apparent influences, which also include Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937), Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night (1949), Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965) and Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973). But he’s correct in saying that A Tout de Suite goes off in an entirely different direction from its predecessors, for better and for worse.

It might be noted that the only films in this group made in black-and-white date back to 1937 and 1949, when black-and-white was the norm, whereas the three later films were in color, even though they were noirs. Yet here we are in 2005, and A Tout de Suite is in black-and-white, though the action shifts from Paris to Spain to Morocco to Greece. It’s actually as unostentatious a black-and-white film as can be, insofar as the film’s emphasis is on the female lead, not on the adventures of a couple on the lam or the international scenery.

Hence, when the two fugitives from justice are separated, the movie stays with the girl while the boy fades into oblivion. She gets all the close-ups, and the camera follows her voyeuristically through all her erotic adventures, which involve two men at one point and another woman at another. Yet, in a curious way, she remains true to the love of her life, even after he’s been gunned down in shootout (which she only hears about via a terse radio bulletin). That Lili’s a woman of the 70’s reflects Ms. Fager’s authorial conviction that this was the breakout decade, perhaps because she herself was 19 at the time.

The Horse and Carriage

Yvan Attal’s Happily Ever After is the third film from the triple-threat writer-director-actor, who has again cast his real-life partner Charlotte Gainsbourg as his screen wife. Unfortunately, I have never had the opportunity to see the first two Attal-Gainsbourg collaborations, but I can well believe the buzz that Happily Ever After is the best of the three. It is certainly the funniest and most moving account of the vagaries and varieties of marital love, with or without children, that I’ve seen this year. The original French title was Ils Se Marièrent et Eurent Beaucoup d’Enfants (literally, “They Were Married and Had Many Children”), which is the Gallic version of “and so they lived happily ever after.”

Gabrielle (Ms. Gainsbourg) is a real-estate broker married to car dealer Vincent (Mr. Attal). Vincent has two soccer-playing buddies at work, Georges (Alain Chabat), and Fred (Alain Cohen). Georges is unhappily and stormily married to Nathalie (Emmanuelle Seigner), while Fred is single and plays the field with spectacular success-until a girlfriend gets pregnant and he finds himself more securely hooked than either of his two friends. For his part, Vincent gets deeply and adulterously involved with a woman he meets at a massage parlor (Angie David). Much of the comedy arises from the fact that men and women alike are tormented by their uncertainties about what and whom they really want in life. Anouk Aimée and Claude Berri, as Vincent’s long-married mother and father, summon all the poignant magic from their youthful pasts to project an unforgettable image of two old married people who have learned to co-exist through a whole life without really conversing or communicating.

Gabrielle is beset from the outset of the film with the limitless possibilities of fantasizing about possible alternatives to the probably unfaithful Vincent. On two occasions, she finds herself in a fantasy featuring Johnny Depp, incongruously bespectacled in the dream. Yet in their moments of intimacy, Gabrielle and Vincent are capable of the most uproariously farcical behavior. The beauty of the movie lies in its fluid, well-timed transitions from riotous merriment to reflective melancholy. It’s not too much of a stretch to describe such transitions as Chekhovian. If you ever get a chance to see Happily Ever After at any venue and in any form, drop everything and see it.

Understanding Stalin

Slava Tsukerman’s Stalin’s Wife serves as enlightenment for those of us who know little if anything of Stalin’s private life in the years that he served as general secretary of the Communist Party of the U.S.S.R. and as total dictator of the sprawling Soviet Empire (1922-1953). For a time, Stalin was perceived as a deadly threat to the United States and its European allies; for a time also, the left in the West was polarized between the Stalinists and the anti-Stalinists or Trotskyites. I was never part of this polarization, having grown up in a Greek monarchist and U.S. Republican-i.e., anti-Communist and anti-socialist-family. My folks were rooting for Hitler and Franco-until that is, Hitler invaded Greece. At this point, my father and mother decided that Hitler had gone too far and turned to Churchill and Roosevelt-whom they formally despised-to help save the motherland. I never went against the opinions of my parents, and thus I felt more bemused than betrayed by the universal demonization of Stalin.

Mr. Tsukerman investigates the supposed suicide of Stalin’s wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, in 1932 through a combination of excavated archives and interviews with witnesses of the events leading up to her death, amid whispered rumors of a pistol on her pillow. Yet there is no smoking gun for the frequently voiced suspicion that Stalin himself had his wife murdered. What the available evidence shows is that he was certainly capable of such a dastardly act-after all, by 1932 his ruthless policies of collectivization and expropriation to feed the people in the major Russian cities at the expense of the rural masses had begun to cause the deaths of millions of his own people, mostly from famines.

Yet what is most striking about Stalin’s Wife is not the litany of horrors he unleashed on the Russian people, but the startling portrait of Stalin in his early years as a charming, seductive personality, to whom people of both sexes eagerly gravitated. When dictators like Hitler and Stalin fall, they are so completely demonized that it becomes difficult to imagine how they ever acquired power in the first place. Of course, Stalin continued to charm hard-headed people like Churchill and Roosevelt well into the 1940’s. And it has been amply documented how he outwitted a dying Lenin, who deeply distrusted him at the helm of the state.

At the vulnerable age of 16, Nad-ezhda Alliluyev (1901-1932) married Joseph Stalin, 23 years her senior. There were rumors at the time that he had raped her on a train and, when confronted by her family, agreed to marry her. But this story has been disputed by her surviving children and other observers, who recall that Nadezhda had had a crush on Stalin even in her early teens. Nadezhda emerges in this film as a complex, conscience-ridden, austerely selfless personality in her own right, and an inevitable victim of her power-corrupted husband. Throughout this grim misalliance, one gets a sense of the nuances of life in Russia both before and after the revolution. If you have the slightest curiosity about the people and the period, Stalin’s Wife is mandatory viewing.

Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven: The War on Terror’s Bloody Past