Ridley Scott's clangorous new epic advances through the territory of the medieval Crusades rather like a UN peace-keeping mission: armed to the teeth with good intentions, but lacking conviction. Kingdom of Heaven, seeking to find a middle way in portraying the centuries-long struggle between Christians and Muslims for the troubled soul of Jerusalem, has ended up pleasing neither side, though given the state of geopolitics post 9/11 and the incendiary charge already carried in the word "crusade" the film-makers probably saw this coming. During filming in Morocco last year the production was reportedly beset by death threats.
How deeply these waves of hostility affected Scott's navigation of the material is uncertain, but his screenwriter, William Monahan, has apparently taken pains to steer clear of any us-versus-them partisanship. Tolerance and respect are the bedrock of this particular yarn, for all that the history of the Crusades exemplifies the very opposite.
Orlando Bloom plays the noble-souled hero, Balian, a French blacksmith rediscovered by his Crusader father (Liam Neeson) and dispatched to Jerusalem, where he hopes to make amends for his young wife's suicide. No sooner has he fetched up on the shores of the Holy Land than he is required to fight a Muslim swordsman for possession of a horse. He kills the man, but gives the horse to his astonished servant. This is the first in what will be an ongoing sequence of careful checks and balances.
Once inside the walls of Jerusalem, which Scott recreates on a majestic scale with the aid of CGI, Balian finds a city-state governed by an uneasy truce between Christian and Muslim. The real menace appears to be in the ranks of the madly bellicose Knights Templar, whose leader, Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), is a natural heir to a line of medieval bearded baddies that began with Basil Rathbone.
When Guy and his flame-haired warmonger pal Reynald (Brendan Gleeson) propose a move against Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) and his Saracen army, their inflamed cohorts cry in support "God wills it", a phrase that will also be brandished by their enemies. In a plot development that makes no sense - you will bump up against a few of these - the dying king, Baldwin, offers Balian the chance to avert this disaster by killing the iniquitous Guy, marrying his wife Sybilla (the tiger-eyed beauty, Eva Green) and thus acceding to the throne himself, a bumper three-in-one offer you'd have thought no ex-blacksmith could refuse. But, perhaps because he can't read the royal expression - the king wears an iron mask to shield his leprous face - he does refuse, and brings down hell on Earth.
It comes as a relief when Scott finally cuts loose from the righteous blather ("Speak the truth always, even it leads to your death. Safeguard the helpless and do no wrong...") and pitches into what he does best - battle scenes of panoramic scope and bloody savagery. There's no director quite like him for balancing epic confrontation against the horrible intimacy of hand-to-hand combat, and one detects a kind of militaristic relish in his orchestration of the set-pieces. Welles called film the best train-set a boy ever had; for Scott it's the best game of soldiers. Other directors may challenge him in terms of scale (Wolfgang Petersen in Troy, Oliver Stone in Alexander) but Scott remains pre-eminent in packing the screen to bursting point.
At times you get the impression that he's trying to reproduce the intensity of Gladiator, his last foray into the ancient world, and certain sequences, such as the night sky pinpricked by flaming arrows, are pound-for-pound imitations of the earlier film. It is in the conception and casting of its hero where Kingdom of Heaven begins to feel undernourished. Russell Crowe's gladiator was driven by revenge after his wife and child were murdered, and in his course through destiny's grinder we were never allowed to forget that this guy, a warrior by profession, was fine-tuning his reflexes as a lean, mean fighting machine.
Now consider Orlando Bloom, who may be handy with the hammer and tongs but could never be mistaken for a man of war. His motivation seems dodgy, too. He intends to go to Jerusalem initially to seek forgiveness from God - for himself as well as his wife - yet, somehow, loses his religion along the way. Then, by some extraordinary metamorphosis granted only to movie characters, he becomes, in short order, a wily engineer, a brilliant military brain and a full-throated leader of men. What he really looks like is a skincare model mistakenly assigned to boot camp.
Scott is reported to have made the film as a challenge to "extremism of all kinds", and he does deserve credit for at least trying to present a balanced account of an insoluble conflict. But no one can seriously imagine that a two-hour-plus epic is a useful tool with which to unpick it.
"What does Jerusalem mean to you?" Balian asks Saladin at the end of the movie. "Nothing", he replies, then stops himself and says, "Everything". This could be a nice illustration of a weary leader's ambivalence, or it could be another refusal on the film's part to offer serious argument. I don't doubt that Kingdom of Heaven means well: it's just that it means well so very unconvincingly.