Kingdom of Heaven (Director's Cut) (United States/United Kingdom/Spain/Germany, 2005)
In recent years, the term "director's cut" has undergone a devaluation. It has become a marketing term, appended to DVDs to enhance their salability. Often, a "director's cut" will be essentially the same as the theatrical cut, except with a few trivial snipped scenes restored. It's no wonder that consumers can no longer tell the difference between a "director's cut," an "extended edition," and an "unrated version." Kingdom of Heaven: Director's Cut, is a rare title that deserves the label. Radically altered from the financially unsuccessful version that unspooled in theaters in the summer of 2005, Kingdom of Heaven: Director's Cut restores 45 minutes of footage and transforms a compelling-yet-frustrating movie into a breathtaking epic.
Now that the director's cut is available, there's no reason for anyone to watch the neutered theatrical edition. Too much is gained from the added 45 minutes. When director Ridley Scott submitted his version of the film to Fox in 2005, they demanded that he take out his pruning shears. It was too long, the executives claimed. Conveniently ignoring Titanic and The Lord of the Rings, they complained that three-hour movies were box office poison because fewer screenings could be scheduled each day. So Scott, dutiful soldier that he is, trimmed a significant subplot and sliced out other important scenes. The resulting 2:25 version ended up like an extended trailer for a more complete movie.
I'm not going to utilize the word "masterpiece," because it's overused and doesn't apply. Kingdom of Heaven: Director's Cut fails to reach that level. It is flawed. Orlando Bloom, while better than he has been in anything else, lacks the gravitas to pull off the role with complete conviction, and there are a few narrative hiccups. However, the major holes have been plugged, the story has been expanded, and at least one historical inaccuracy has been fixed.
The movie begins in 1184 France, where blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom) is in mourning. Following the death of her child, his wife has committed suicide - a sin that, under Catholic doctrine, condemns her soul to hell. Enter Baron Godrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), a Crusader who has returned to Europe for one reason - to locate and declare his parentage to his only son, Balian. Godfrey invites Balian to accompany him to Jerusalem. Seeking absolution for his own sins (which include killing his half-brother, a priest) as well as those of his dead wife, Balian agrees, and the journey begins. It is destined to be an eventful and tragic one.
On the road to Messina, Godfrey's band is attacked. Several men are killed and Godfrey is mortally wounded. He lingers for several days before succumbing to fever. Before he dies, he knights Belian and confers upon him the title of Baron of Ibelin. The subsequent sea voyage leads to a shipwreck, but Balian eventually arrives in Jerusalem and allies himself with the dying masked leper king, Baldwin IV (Edward Norton) and the Marshall of Jerusalem, Tiberias (Jeremy Irons). He is immediately at odds with his father's enemy, the influential Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas). The enmity does not extend to Guy's wife, Princess Sibylla (Eva Green), who is Baldwin's sister and the mother to the king's young heir. Sibylla and Balian begin an affair, but their relationship is threatened by politics - succession issues surrounding the throne once Baldwin IV dies - and war. Arab leader Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) has massed an army of 200,000 men to take back Jerusalem from the Christians who have occupied it for a century. Although he is loathe to draw first blood, the radical Templar Reynald (Brendan Gleeson) has provided him with justification for an attack.
There are surprisingly few movies about The Crusades, despite their importance in the annals of human history. For whatever reason, they have not energized movie-makes in the way that other conflicts have. Ridley Scott has long wanted to make a Crusades movie. Kingdom of Heaven: Director's Cut represents the fulfillment of that desire. It's unfortunate that the full story's path faced so many obstacles. How many potential viewers will ignore this version of Kingdom of Heaven because they were unimpressed by or heard bad things about the theatrical edition?
It's impossible to ignore the topicality of the subject matter: religious tension between Muslims and Christians with zealotry on both sides threatens to ignite a powder keg. Ultimately, it's tolerance and mutual understanding that defuses the situation and avoids a final massacre. It reminds one of the old maxim: Those who ignore history are destined (or is it "cursed?") to repeat it. Yet, watching Kingdom of Heaven, one does not sense that Scott or his screenwriter, William Monahan, has a political axe to grind. The movie is not set up as an allegory - it is a historically-based adventure story about events that occurred nine hundred years ago in an era very different from today. While the movie takes liberties with the established facts for dramatic purposes, much of what is conveyed on a grand scale reflects the known record.
One crucial choice made by Scott and Monahan is not to demonize Saladin. The Arab leader and his aid, Nasir (Alexander Siddig), are portrayed as cultured, intelligent men. However, the choice not to turn Saladin into a one-dimensional bad-guy leaves Kingdom of Heaven without its obvious villain. That role is ably filled by Guy, one of those self-serving political schemers who is easy to dislike. Guy's associate, Reynald, is equally despicable. He rapes and murders Saladin's sister in order to provoke a war.
What has been added to flesh out Kingdom of Heaven: Director's Cut? The opening sequences in France have been expanded, adding depth to both Godfrey and Balian's characters by revealing more of their backgrounds. One scene in particular stands out: a brief flashback of a loving interlude between Balian and his wife, which gives us a greater sense of what he has lost. Sibylla's storyline, including everything involving her son (who ruled briefly after Baldwin IV's death), is restored. No longer is she a satellite character whose primary purpose is to provide a love interest for Balian, and her bizarre change in personality is explained. Finally, and arguably most importantly, Kingdom of Heaven: Director's Cut gives us a critical element missing from the theatrical version: a final confrontation between Guy and Balian. In the original film, Guy's fate is ambiguous; here, we are given something more definitive.
Restored to its full length, Kingdom of Heaven: Director's Cut has all the breadth, depth, and scope of Scott's acclaimed Gladiator. Yet the recent film with which Kingdom of Heaven shares the most may be Peter Jackson's The Two Towers, the central chapter of The Lord of the Rings. There are numerous similarities between Balian's defense of Jerusalem and the battle of Helm's Deep. Both feature heroic, undermanned armies defending a site against impossible odds. Admittedly, the results are not the same, but that's often the case when comparing real-life battles to fictional ones.
With two of the primary roles filled by relatively new cinematic faces (Bloom, Eva Green), Scott has brought on board several veterans to balance things out. Thus, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, and Liam Neeson get their share of screen time, and all do fine jobs. As previously mentioned, Bloom is adequate, but there are times when the role demands more than he can give. Green provides a workmanlike performance as Sibylla, especially now that we can see the shading and subtleties she brings to the role (qualities not evident in the theatrical version, where Sibylla's character development was a casualty). Marton Csokas does what all actors playing villains should do - makes us despise the character. All that's missing is the black hat. Arguably, the two best performances come from the actors playing Arabs: Syrian Ghassan Massoud portrays a proud and powerful, yet sympathetic, Saladin. Alexander Siddig (a familiar face from his years on TV's Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) leaves nearly as strong an impression as Nasir.
To those who have followed Scott's career, which includes the achievements Alien, Blade Runner, and the aforementioned Gladiator, it should come as no surprise that the production design for Kingdom of Heaven is astonishing. Filmed in Spain and Morocco, the film has no trouble leaping back a millennium in time and transporting its audience to France and Jerusalem as they were. Use, but not overuse, of CGI helps. Scott knows that computer generated visuals have their best impact when they are employed to enhance, not create, a setting. Thus a crowd of over a thousand extras can be expanded to fill out an army of 200,000, but many of the buildings, siege towers, and trebuchets are full size. Few directors give us as strong a "you are there" sense as Scott.
Epic movies of the sort envisioned by Ridley Scott when he began making Kingdom of Heaven have often been embraced by movie audiences, so it's a shame to look back on the film and see how shabbily it was treated. It deserved better, although 20th Century Fox warrants a measure of credit for belatedly allowing the director the opportunity to right the ship (they could easily have written off Kingdom of Heaven). Despite featuring the same actors in the same roles and telling the same story, Kingdom of Heaven: Director's Cut is not the same movie as its theatrical counterpart. It is the film Scott envisioned, and one that is worthy of the resume of a director with many remarkable titles to his name.
Kingdom of Heaven (Director's Cut) (United States/United Kingdom/Spain/Germany, 2005)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35
Screenplay: William Monahan
Cinematography: John Mathieson
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams