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War: What Is It Good For?

In Ridley Scott's latest epic, it's good for one really stunning siege.

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In Ridley Scott's latest costume epic, Kingdom of Heaven, there are two heavyweight bouts on the card: Christianity dukes it out with Islam in 12th-century Jerusalem and, in a more parochial punch-up, Good Crusaders battle Bad Crusaders for the soul of the church. By the time the last Saracen ax-swinger has been boiled in oil and the last severed Templar head impaled on a spike, we pretty much know where the director stands.

For peace, of course.

Filmed on location in Spain and Morocco, then injected with $30 million worth of special-effects steroids back in California, Kingdom of Heaven is the kind of Hollywood extravaganza we've come to expect each summer -- an exercise in bloody bombast decorated with the usual dose of tender romance. The director of Alien and Gladiator is nothing if not keenly aware of the demands of the blockbuster marketplace. So the dashing hero he gives us here, a humble French blacksmith who turns into a fierce swordsman, a brilliant military strategist and a masterful diplomat in about 10 minutes, also gets to take up with a doe-eyed queen named Sibylla. Like many a starlet before her, pretty Eva Green puts in a long shift at the nursing station without smudging her lipstick.

The fictional hero, cooked up by Scott and screenwriter William Monahan, is a hard-bodied young worthy named Balian. He is played by Lord of the Rings star Orlando Bloom, and he bears little resemblance to any Crusader who ever took up chain mail and broadsword. As the film would have it, the boy is but a reluctant warrior, infused by his idealistic father (the equally fictional Sir Godfrey) with fairness and fellow-feeling. Dad, played by Liam Neeson, has fought all his life for "a kingdom of conscience" in the Holy Land, a utopia where all men and all creeds are equals.

It's not hard to see where this is leading. For the next two hours and 15 minutes, Scott and Monahan and the bankers at 20th Century Fox mount a half-hearted assault on our conscience, too. In the movie's festival of gore and dismemberment, we are also meant to hear a plea to all jihadists in Baghdad, Damascus and points east -- and to the equally belligerent ones in the White House and the Pentagon -- for brotherhood. Balian, a wise but doomed king in a silver mask (Edward Norton), royal adviser Tiberius (Jeremy Irons), and the movie's romanticized version of the great Islamic warrior Saladin are all meant to embody this enlightened view -- at least when they're not busy decapitating their enemies. The villains here are the radical, Christianity-must-rule Crusaders represented by the Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) and his bloodthirsty Knights Templar.

That this hands-across-the-sea message comes off as phony and manipulative comes as no surprise. Hollywood has been distorting history for its own purposes since D.W. Griffith glorified the Klan in Birth of a Nation, and Kingdom's wishful thinking about Crusader pacifism and Islamic mercy just doesn't wash. For entertainment value, it's hard to beat the climactic siege of Jerusalem, a Ridley Scott-perfect half-hour that matches anything in Gladiator for sheer helmet-bashing mayhem. But if you're hungry for actual ideas, political or otherwise, look elsewhere.

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