There was a moment in Hollywood in 2001, soon after Ridley Scott’s Gladiator took home several hundred million dollars and a best picture Oscar, when the sweeping, stirring, blood-and-Technicolor historical epic seemed poised for a long-overdue renaissance. In the digital age, conjuring up castles and cavalry charges no longer required a cast of thousands or sets the size of Egypt: Technology alone could offer moviegoers a glimpse of ancient Greece or medieval Europe, the battle of Gaugamela or the siege of Petersburg. Directors, stars, and studios scrambled to commission their own period pieces—to do for Arthurian England, feudal Japan, or even the topless towers of Ilium what Scott and Russell Crowe had done for Rome.
Five years later, the DVD release of another Scott film, Kingdom of Heaven—in a pathetically lavish four-disc “director’s cut” box set—rings down the curtain on the historical-movie moment. The rush to produce big-budget visions of the past—which gave us The Patriot, Gangs of New York, Troy, The Last Samurai, Master and Commander, Cold Mountain, King Arthur, Alexander, and finally Kingdom of Heaven—appears to be petering out, a victim of middling box-office and worse reviews. For the foreseeable future, Hollywood’s encounters with history are likely to be occasional and idiosyncratic, such as Terence Malick’s The New World or Sofia Coppola’s forthcoming Marie Antoinette. The studios had the technology, it turned out, but lacked the vision thing.
To understand what went wrong, it’s worth enduring the three-hour-and-10-minute cut of Scott’s Crusades epic. The theatrical version of Kingdom of Heaven was apparently butchered by a length-shy studio, and Sir Ridley himself appears at the beginning of the recut version, talking darkly about “some people” who thought the film’s third act dragged on too long. “Some people” were wrong: The theatrical version’s plot was like the walls of Jerusalem after Saladin’s catapults did their work, and the three-hour Kingdom of Heaven, with a story that makes more sense and moves more naturally, almost feels shorter than the original 140-minute version.
The result is a better film, but still a bad one. The extra 40 minutes explain motivations, but it can’t change the unfortunate impression left by Orlando Bloom as the heroic knight Balian of Ibelin—which is similar to the impression left by Colin Farrell as Alexander the Great, by Tom Cruise as a Victorian cavalryman-turned-samurai, by Clive Owen as King Arthur, and by Leonardo DiCaprio as an immigrant rabble-rouser in old New York. Scott and his screenwriter, William Monaghan, never miss a chance to hammer home Balian’s supposed impressiveness: The leprous King of Jerusalem tries to hand him the throne after meeting him twice; Eva Green’s Crusader princess falls for him on first sight; the film’s villains, a pair of fanatical Templars (Martin Csokas and a pink-bearded Brendan Gleeson), loudly mark him as their biggest threat. Balian’s men worship him and the common people adore him; his Muslim rivals honor his courage and chivalry. But like Cruise studying Bushido, or Farrell wandering in the Hindu Kush, Bloom never looks like anything but what he is—a handsome, unreflective 21st-century guy dropped down in a medieval setting, with none of the hardened masculinity or the defiant otherness that would make you believe that he belongs to a different time.
This isn’t just a leading-man problem: The ranks of actors who can slip into the skin of any premodern man are apparently thin enough to guarantee Gleeson—who also showed up in Troy, Gangs of New York, and Braveheart—a part in any film set before 1870. But based on the evidence of the last few years, the rank of current actors who can convincingly portray a premodern hero starts and ends with Russell Crowe. Brad Pitt, as Achilles in Troy, got halfway there by sculpting his body into something alien and awesome (though his eyes never quite lost the vacant sheen of Malibu). But most of Hollywood’s younger stars have proved too adolescent for the job, leaving epic after epic with a void where the hero is supposed to be.
The past’s otherness—in dress and mood, belief and attitude—hasn’t just created casting problems for epic-makers; it’s ruined plots as well. Gladiator, like Braveheart before it, succeeded by keeping its story simple: a wronged man with a dead wife and a tyrant to overthrow. But subsequent epics wandered from that formula, allowing pixelated carnage or politically correct revisionism to overwhelm the human drama, and lost their way in the thickets of the past.
Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, for instance, set out to celebrate the oppressed Irish immigrants of the Five Points district—”These are the hands that built America,” U2 keened over the credits—but its baffling third act sent those same immigrants rioting through the streets of Civil War-era Manhattan, hanging free blacks from lamp poles to protest the draft. The Last Samurai began as a critique of Western imperialism and ended by lionizing a warrior caste one step up from the Taliban, whose oh-so-noble leader, as David Edelstein pointed out in Slate, “would rather die (and sacrifice thousands of his followers) than remove his sword at a conference.” In Alexander, Oliver Stone’s conspiracy-addled mind was so confounded by the Hellenic world’s complexities that he forgot to sympathize with anyone.
But Kingdom of Heaven tops them all by making one of the most famous wars in history seem inconsequential and deadly dull. Too PC to be pro-Christian and too timid to side with Saladin, the movie celebrates agnostic Crusaders and their (understandable) discontents. Bloom’s Balian and his allies wander around spouting anachronisms—”I put no stock in religion”; “God will understand. If He doesn’t, then He is not God”—and trying to build a “kingdom of conscience,” while the bad guys are those Christians fanatical enough to think that the Holy Land is actually worth fighting over. Worse, the fanatics are dispatched with 40 minutes to go, leaving one enlightened agnostic (Saladin) to besiege Jerusalem while another enlightened agnostic (Balian) defends it. Bloom rouses the defenders with a stirring speech about the unimportance of religion; the catapults let fly; the audience dozes off.
No doubt Scott thought that he was making an admirable statement about the importance of tolerance, or the agony of contemporary Middle Eastern politics, or something similarly high-minded. But a movie about the Crusades needed the courage to be big and strange and bloody, awing us with visions of a vanished world, rather than lecturing us with the pieties of the present. If the epics of the last five years are remembered, it will be the weirder, wilder scenes that linger: Russell Crowe’s Maximus carving his way through the Roman arena; the leaping duel between Achilles and Hector in Troy; the thrilling brutalities of shipboard life in Master and Commander. We’ll also recall the fascinating, deliberately alien performances: Val Kilmer’s raving, lecherous, one-eyed King Philip in Alexander; Renée Zellweger’s chicken-throttling hillbilly in Cold Mountain; Daniel Day-Lewis’ terrifying Butcher Bill in Gangs of New York.
It’s encouraging, then, that the only quasi-epic due out this year is Mel Gibson’s Mayan-language Apocalypto, about the collapse of a Mesoamerican civilization some time before Columbus. With The Passion of the Christ, Gibson proved that he could woo audiences, if not the critics, with a hallucinatory, blood-drenched trip into ancient Palestine, without big-name stars or even English-language dialogue to mitigate the strangeness of his vision. He may not draw similar crowds for Apocalypto (there’s no Christianity this time, or culture-war controversy), but at the moment Gibson is the historical epic’s last best hope. He seems to understand that the movies can be a time machine, but only if you treat the past like the foreign country it is.