Kingdom of Heaven: Director’s Cut
May 23, 2006
Starring: Orlando Bloom, Eva Green, Jeremy Irons, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Marton Csokas, Liam Neeson, Kevin McKidd, Alexander Siddig, Ghassan Massoud, Khaled Nabawy, Edward Norton,
Kingdom of Heaven (2005) was Ridley Scott’s costly epic about the Crusades that promptly flopped at the box office in North America. Clearly, the studio and Scott were hoping for another zeitgeist galvanizing response to this film like with Gladiator (2000) but it was not meant to be. One of the criticisms leveled at the movie was that it seemed truncated. Subplots and characters were introduced and not resolved properly. It felt as if something was missing. To rectify this, Scott has gone back and recut Kingdom of Heaven to his preferred length of just over three hours, adding 45 minutes. Has this made the film any better?
Christian armies from Europe have taken control of Jerusalem. Europe is in the depths of poverty and repression, driving people to the Holy Land in search of riches and some kind of salvation. France, 1184 and we meet a young blacksmith named Balian (Bloom who has lost his wife and child. He now wanders listlessly through life having also lost his faith. Like Maximus in Gladiator, Balian has lost everything that meant something to him and has hit rock bottom.
A knight by the name of Godfrey (Neeson) and his group stop by to have their horses outfitted on the way to Jerusalem. Godfrey tells Balian that he knew his mother and asks him to join his army. The young man is not interested but after Godfrey and his men leave Balian realizes that the only way to atone for his wife’s suicide (which, according to Christianity damns her to hell) is to join Godfrey’s crusade and erase his sins in Jerusalem. Balian seems to be a truly blessed character as he’s able to survive a deadly ambush by knights on horseback with archers shooting arrows in his direction, and later walk away from a horrendous storm at sea that wrecks his boat and kills everyone on board! Kingdom of Heaven builds towards the battle for Jerusalem between the Christian and Muslim armies with plenty of betrayals and power plays along the way.
Poor Liam Neeson, stuck essaying yet another mentoring role to some young upstart. If it isn’t in this film then it’s in Batman Begins (2005) or Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999). It doesn’t hurt that he brings just the right amount of gravitas and physical presence to the role but one feels an eerie sense of déjà vu. Meanwhile, Marton Csokas gets to glower and yell a lot as Balian’s primary adversary. He’s almost upstaged by Brendan Gleeson who gleefully chews up the scenery as he competes with Csokas for who can be the more over-the-top bad guy.
Orlando Bloom is okay early on when he is given little dialogue to mangle and just has to look burnt out, but he’s simply outclassed up against thespian heavyweights like Neeson and David Thewlis. It’s once Bloom becomes a leader of men that he is out of his depth. He just doesn’t have the acting chops to convincingly sell the dialogue he’s given. Bloom was good in The Lord of the Rings films because he was only a part of a much bigger whole and his weaknesses weren’t as glaringly apparent. In this one, he’s the central figure and so the film rests on his shoulders and he just doesn’t have the experience to pull this off.
Scott films the battle scenes with the same kind of visceral grittiness he displayed in Gladiator. There is something about the way he manipulates the camera speed in these sequences that gives them an unpredictable quality that is quite exciting. Very few directors can handle a film of this epic scale and Scott is definitely one of them. He presents exotic locales with busy marketplaces teeming with people of all races and expansive desert landscapes. Kingdom of Heaven features such powerful images as Balian and his forces coming across the battlefield where the Christian army was slaughtered by the Muslims. Birds circle and pick at the bodies. It’s a potent, apocalyptic image. The siege on the Christian castle by the Muslim armies is incredible in its scale and scope with numerous catapults lobbing volley after volley of fiery missiles; massive battle towers filled with men and thousands of arrows fly through the arrow like sheets of rain. We see wave after punishing wave of Muslim soldiers attack the castle in a mind-boggling waste of life.
This version spends more time showing what motivates Balian to take up his quest and explains why he is so reluctant at first. However, it still doesn’t explain how he goes from simple blacksmith to suddenly a master tactician who is able to organize a complex defense plan in a matter of hours or how he is able to devise an elaborate irrigation system to turn his desert kingdom into fertile land. William Monahan’s screenplay feels, at times, like a weak retread of Gladiator as it is never able to fully get out from under that film’s impressive shadow. That being said, this new Director’s Cut of Kingdom of Heaven is a definite improvement over the old version and numerous hours of substantial supplementary material will keep fans busy for quite some time.
This new director’s cut is spread out over two discs with three different audio commentaries. First up, is one by director Ridley Scott, actor Orlando Bloom and screenwriter William Monahan. All three men talk about how they got involved in the film and what attracted them to the project. Bloom does a pretty good job of giving the perspective of an actor working on this large scale production and how intimidating it was to work with the likes of Liam Neeson. Scott talks about the differences between this longer version and the theatrical one, even addressing criticism leveled at the latter. He also does a great job explaining his approach to filmmaking. The only weak link is Monahan who comes off as pretentious as he muses about how people didn’t “get” the film and how much he knows about the Crusades.
The next commentary is by executive producer Lisa Ellzey, visual effects supervisor Wesley Sewell and first assistant director Adam Somner. Ellzey recounts the origins of the film simply: Scott came into the office one day and told her that he wanted to make a film about the Crusades. Somner ran day-to-day operations on the set, like dealing with extras and the like. He tells lots of filming anecdotes that are funny as hell and definitely the highlights of this track. Not surprisingly, Sewell is more technically oriented, pointing out where visual effects were used.
The final commentary is by film editor Dody Dorn. She points out what was put back into this cut and why this footage was removed in the first place. She goes into detail about how this new edit fleshes out the relationships between certain characters (i.e. Balian and his brother). She talks about how she actually worked on the set, editing scenes on location and then showing them to Scott as he was shooting.
Also included is “The Enginer’s Guide,” a subtitled track that provides technical and production information.
Spread out over disc three and disc four is a comprehensive feature-length making of documentary. Disc three covers the development, pre-production and the production in Spain phases. It shows just dedicated Scott is to the films he works on as he completely immerses himself and is passionate about the material. This doc. provides fascinating insight into his process and how a massive, big budget film is put together. Scott had been interested in the Crusades since he was a child and it was a project he had always wanted to do. There is some good footage of Scott rehearsing with his actors and how he works with them. This is something of a coup as the veteran director has never allowed this kind of footage to be shown before. It is some of the most interesting stuff in all of these extras. Where else do you get to see David Thewlis and Liam Neeson sitting at the same table together?