When Peter Jackson made The Lord of the Rings films, those battle scenes set a new standard for epic filmmaking. It was as though he threw down the gauntlet, challenging other great filmmakers to "top that." And it seems Ridley Scott, director of this week's box office champion, Kingdom of Heaven, took the challenge personally. In his latest, masterful period re-creation, Scott brings the late 12th century to life, and plunges us into the Muslim siege of Jerusalem during the early days of the Crusades.

Scott has succeeded in crafting a better film than Gladiator, his last major period piece. Kingdom of Heaven offers a much richer and more complex web of stories, and it glorifies a search for virtue and peace that involves something more admirable than a mere revenge quest. We follow the journeys of Balian (Orlando Bloom)—a blacksmith, a widower, and a murderer—in his search for redemption, led by his long-lost father Godfrey (Liam Neeson), who teaches him about the virtuous character of a knight. Together, they struggle against a violent, power-hungry Christian soldier (Martin Csokas) to keep the leprous King (Edward Norton, performing brilliantly behind a mask) on the right path as the Muslim warlord Saladin moves against Jerusalem. Purpose-driven, Balian finds himself rising to become a leader.

Kingdom of Heaven is a movie of and for our times, truly. Screenwriter William Monahan tries very hard to talk about a historical clash of Christians and Muslims without offending Christians or Muslims. He does this by portraying a wide variety of religious individuals on both sides of the conflict, and by focusing on sins of arrogance and brutality instead of errors in dogma. Nevertheless, he does seem to favor the path ...

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