"I put no stock in religion. By the word religion I have seen the lunacy of fanatics of every denomination be called the will of god. I have seen too much religion in the eyes of too many murderers. Holiness is in right action, and courage on behalf of those who cannot defend themselves, and goodness." - Hospitaller (David Thewlis), Kingdom of Heaven
By Brian Finamore @Movie_Fin
Why does nobody seemingly allow Ridley Scott to release his final cut of his film? We all know the troubled history regarding Scott's masterpiece Blade Runner, which had a mixed reception until Scott released his Director's Cut in 1992. Scott is often called the father of the Director's Cut and has an enthusiasm for it, recutting several of his films after the success of Blade Runner: Director's Cut that were originally reviewed disappointingly. Today it's more common place for a studio to release a Director's Cut on Blu Ray and DVD as a marketing strategy. Often the new material isn't that substantial, however after viewing Kingdom of Heaven: Extended Director's Cut, I've concluded that Scott's version is the most substantial Director's Cut of all time.
There's no reason for me to even bring up the Theatrical Cut, it exists but now that this version is available there's really no need to seek the Theatrical Cut out unless you want to do a comparison. I will not do a comparison of the Theatrical Cut and Director's Cut only to say that the 45 minutes of extra footage Scott shows us turns a film I originally admired into a film I now think is among Scott's very best. Sadly, the demand of studios to keep films under 3 hours so there can be more showings in one day has robbed many films in terms of quality. Didn't anyone learn with The Lord of the Rings that films can be three hours and still do great business? 20th Century Fox did not allow Scott to turn in a cut longer than two and a half hours, so while Scott did have "final cut" on the theatrical version he was forced to keep the film a certain length resulting in a film that was well made but felt undercooked in terms of story. However, Scott's Director's Cut fixes nearly all of the Theatrical Cut flaws and deserves to be ranked among the greatest historical epics of all time.
The story is set during the Crusades of the 12th century. A French village blacksmith, Balian (Orlando Bloom), goes to aid the Kingdom of Jerusalem in its defense against the Ayyubid Muslim sultan Saladin, who is battling to reclaim the city from the Christians leading to the Battle of Hattin. The film script is a heavily fictionalized portrayal of the life of Balian of Ibelin (ca. 1143–93), but that doesn't really matter because the story written by William Monahan (who won an Oscar for writing The Departed) works very well. Seeing Balian make the journey from poor blacksmith to a Knight allows for more depth, and by the end of the film we've watched a fully realized and developed character.
Ridley Scott is no stranger to historical epics, his film Gladiator (2000) won an Oscar for Best Picture. While I admire Scott's directing in Gladiator, I don't really like the film. It's simplistic, macho bullshit that features the worst CGI effects ever to appear in a film (The Coliseum). Nonetheless, Gladiator was very successful and turned Russell Crowe into a household name. The film was so successful, in fact, that the geniuses at 20th Century Fox thought, "Even though this isn't really anything like Gladiator, let's market the film as a macho, battle driven film! $$$$$!" Yeah that really didn't work, Kingdom of Heaven was released on May 6, 2005 and flopped at the US box office, ending the sword and sandals epic craze that ironically enough, started with Ridley Scott's Gladiator in 2000 and ended with Kingdom of Heaven in 2005. Several historical drama films, King Arthur (2004), Alexander (2004), Troy (2004), and The Alamo (2004) performed poorly at the box office before Kingdom of Heaven was even released. The Lord of the Rings shifted the focus from historical epics to fantasy epics and Scott, unfortunately, was a little behind. Kingdom of Heaven seemingly came and went and failed to make Orlando Bloom a star as a leading man.
Be that as it may, the Extended Director's Cut was released limitedly in December of 2005 (without help from 20th Century Fox) to great acclaim. 20th Century Fox did release a kick ass four disc Director's Cut in 2006, though only just one disc on Blu Ray as of now, with no extras. I'd recommend going with the four disc Director's Cut on DVD, however the Blu Ray is great to watch in 1080p.
Now my thought's on the film itself. As a modern take on the Crusades, Kingdom of Heaven works fantastically well. The film has WAY WAY WAY more depth than Gladiator and has a great message of religious tolerance. We see Muslim extremists and Christian extremists, but we also see tolerant Muslims, like Saladin and Imad, as well as tolerant Christians, like Balian and Baldwin IV. The film has great battle scenes, including the finale, but it's not a battle driven film and in the end it's tolerance on both Muslims and Christians that defuses a potential massacre. The film is accurate in what it conveys to us and while not completely historically accurate, remains faithful to the characters interpretation by Scott and Monahan.
The performances are universally great across the board. Orlando Bloom delivers his best work as a leading man. He was criticized by many at the time of the release for being wooden and not showing much emotion, but Balian serves as the leading character, it's his story, and there's enough great supporting performances that are more emotive. Bloom does a perfect job giving a nuanced, understated performance that serves the film very well. Among the great supporting performances are Jeremy Irons as Raymond III of Tripoli, Eva Green as Queen Sibylla of Jerusalem (Bloom's love interest), Liam Neeson as Godfrey of Ibelin (Bloom's long lost father, another Neeson mentor role), David Thewlis as a Knights Hospitaller, Godfrey's right hand man and mentor figure to Balian after Godfrey dies, Brendan Gleeson as the despicable (historically accurate) Raynald of Châtillon, and the underrated Marton Csokas is very sinister as the main villain of the film, Guy of Lusignan (historically accurate).
There are three important supporting performances I want to really highlight, two are playing Muslims and one a Christian. Ghassan Massoud, a Syrian actor, plays Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb, better known to the Western world as Saladin to tremendous effect. We don't see Saladin until about an hour and a half into the picture, but when Massoud shows up he instantly makes an impression as the tolerant and respectable ruler of the Muslims. One of his aids that we meet earlier in the film, whom Balian spares his life in return for guidance to Jerusalem, Imad, is played wonderfully by well known Arabic actor Alexander Siddig. These two performances are crucial to the films message because they are accurately portrayed as cultured and intelligent men. It would have been easy for Scott and Monahan to make Saladin and Imad into villains, a popular choice at the time considering the film was released only three and a half years after 9/11, but instead the main villains are Guy and Raynald who are Christians.
The best performance in the film, however, is covered by a mask for most for all except one scene (see picture at the top). Edward Norton gives an incredible, uncredited performance as King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, who is accurately portrayed as a dying leper. Performances in masks often don't really work to well which makes Norton's accomplishment even more astonishing. He plays Baldwin IV as an intelligent, tolerant, and capable leader of Jerusalem (at the time Jerusalem was ruled by the Christians). His story is sad though because he's nearly crippled being a leper and knows he will not live to see 30 years old. Eventually he dies, sending the Christian Kingdom into the hands of Guy (whose married to Eva Green's Sibylla) who hates the Muslims. Scott has featured actors "disappearing" into roles before (Gary Oldman in Hannibal) but what Edward Norton brings to this role is incredible.
The best scene in the film involves all three of these characters and the only time we see Saladin and Baldwin in the same scene (sadly it's not available on YouTube). Balian has just bravely fought against Saladin's lead calvary in order to slow down Saladin's advance. It's a relatively minor battle that Balian and his 100 cavaliers lose, but important because it shows how brave Balian is being vastly outnumbered. Here, Balian meets Imad again, who he finds out is not a mere servant but one of Saladin's top men. Imad spares his life in repayment for sparing his and the two share a nice little moment together. Behind Imad we see Saladin's huge army start to appear and he urges Balian to go back to Raynald's fortress (Saladin is attacking because Raynald and Guy, against Baldwin's wishes, brutally sleighed a Muslim caravan). However, Imad also notices the Christians and Baldwin are behind Balian. The two armies meet and Baldwin rides out to meet Saladin. Scott gorgeously films this moment and the costumes and set ups are all amazing. The meeting lasts for less than two minutes where Baldwin and Saladin agree on terms, Baldwin will punish Raynald and a major battle will be avoided. It's scenes like these that are a rarity in motion pictures, Christian and Muslim enemies agreeing to terms to avoid bloodshed. It's a magnificently written and shot scene. Here's a link to a clip: http://klipd.com/watch/kingdom-of-heaven/king-baldwin-meets-saladin-scene
Kingdom of Heaven: Extended Director's Cut is a masterpiece and deserves to be mentioned among Scott's best work. It maybe has the most depth of any Ridley Scott film, and I found Scott and Monahan's interpretation of the Crusades awe inspiring. The religious tolerant themes make it especially special, adding a whole new dimension to Scott's work. I highly recommend checking this film out on DVD and Blu Ray if you haven't already seen it. For those only going off the Theatrical Cut, whether you enjoyed it or not, still check this out because it's among the most substantial Director's Cut of all time and further argument that a filmmaker's ultimate vision is his best.
Ridley Scott will again tackle a historical epic with religious themes with the upcoming release of Exodus: Gods and Kings, which will be released by the same studio that released Kingdom of Heaven, 20th Century Fox. Let's hope they learned from Kingdom of Heaven to allow Ridley Scott to release his final cut! Exodus stars Christian Bale, Aaron Paul, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Ben Kingsley, and Sigourney Weaver. The film is currently in post - production and will be released December 12, 2014.
Review by Brian Finamore