Kingdom of Heaven (Special Edition) Review
Europe at the end of the twelfth century is a grim and terrible place. Financially, medieval Europe is in retreat and many knights from Christian nations have travelled East to the Holy Land to both defend the birthplace of Christ as well as to build their wealth. One such knight is Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), who is returning to France from a Crusade with his knights and squire, chiefly to find forgiveness and redemption - something that he failed to find in battle and prayer in the Holy Land. His search leads him to a young blacksmith, Balian (Orlando Bloom), who is equally far from his faith in Christ, having had his wife's corpse beheaded by the priest as a punishment for the taking of her own life.
Hospitaler (David Thewlis), a colleague of Godfrey of Ibelin, recognises young Balian as the illegitimate son that Godfrey left behind on his leaving for the Crusades. Recognising that little remains for him in France, Balian joins his father and travels with him to the Holy Land, where the city of Jerusalem is enjoying a brief lull in the conflict between the Christian and Muslim armies. This period of relative peace is, however, finely balanced and despite the leadership of the Catholic King Baldwin (Edward Norton) and the Muslim Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), extremists exist within both their armies, most notably the Knights Templar of Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) and Reynald (Brendan Gleeson). Unfortunately, King Baldwin is suffering from leprosy and soon, a power struggle exists in his court between the Knights Templar and the soldiers of Tiberias (Jeremy Irons). As the king's health suffers and the Knights Templar pursue a reckless campaign against small camps of Muslims, Saladin's army grows in the desert and soon, the survival of Christian Jerusalem is in question.
As Ridley Scott gets older, he appears to have come through a dip in the quality of his work before approaching a career that owes much to John Boorman. Before crafting smaller, more personal dramas such as Hope & Glory and The General, Boorman was a wildly inventive director who jumped between genres with remarkable leaps of imagination. If his Hollywood debut, Point Blank, remains a landmark thriller, the impact of which, as seen in Mike Sutton's recent review of it, has not been dimmed by time, it is only one remarkable film in a career that's heavy with them. Even those films that are considered failures - Zardoz and Exorcist II: The Heretic - are fascinating films.
But in terms of Boorman's interest in fantasy epics, his Excalibur has simply never been bettered. It is a stately, enchanting and wondrous film, constructed with such detail and care that the worlds of man and magic - those of Arthur and Merlin - are deftly intertwined and made believable. There are no flashes of light or bloodthirsty dragons in Boorman's world, simply an acknowledgement of magic creeping into the shadows and away from the spread of Christianity. Magic - and it does exist in the Britain of Boorman's Arthur - is the link between Merlin and the land, sea and skies. Despite the earthy realism of the knights of the round table's quest for the grail, it is magic that defeats Morgana. It is, however, the recognition that the grail - not, in this case, the cup that held the blood of Christ - is the connection between the King and the Land becoming One that is the heart of the film and a rebuff to the new religion of Christianity. Excalibur is as much a quest for faith as it is an epic strewn with men slain in battle and Christianity and Paganism reach something of an understanding as the film ends - Arthur may rest in Avalon but it is the knights dubbed in the names of God, St Michael and St George who will continue to govern Britain.
Excalibur came frequently to mind whilst watching Kingdom Of Heaven and despite recognising the similarities between this and Gladiator, could also see that Scott's visuals did little to obscure the questions of faith asked by screenwriter William Monahan. Christianity, although not mentioned in Excalibur, was hinted at by the presence of priests in the wedding procession that led Guinevere to Camelot and by the stained glass church window through which Arthur was struck by lightening. In suggesting that Christianity is to the future of Britain what Paganism was to the past, it becomes a study of how one flourished in Arthur's kingdom at the expense of the other. Similarly, in Kingdom Of Heaven, the Crusades were also concerned with strengthening the hold of one faith in a region at the expense of another. In this case, the battle was for the soul of the Holy Land and it was conducted between the forces of Islam and those of Christianity.
The obvious view to take is that of Kingdom Of Heaven being a parallel to modern politics in the Middle East, in which Islamic states surround an Israel that is viewed locally as being supported by the Christian west. It may well be possible to view the film in those terms but to do so makes for a clumsy association. Whilst the current political issues in the area may well have prompted William Monahan to consider looking at the Crusades as their source, he has concentrated on writing Kingdom Of Heaven in the manner of a personal quest for Balian into the land in which his religion and his father - both lost, as the film opens - combine to create his own destiny. As much a pilgrimage as that of Chaucer's merry travellers or for the Christians who continue to travel to Jerusalem today, Balian's journey to Jerusalem is a search for kinship and for faith. Unsurprisingly, Balian finds neither but man has had little success in finding the presence of God on Earth. If Umberto Eco's The Name Of The Rose suggested that God was a stranger to the houses of Catholicism in medieval Europe, so too does Ridley Scott and William Monahan, whose inclusion of a thieving, lusting and vengeful priest in France suggests that God has all but deserted Europe. Not that God is any more present in the Holy Land but there, at least, Balian has family, not only Godfrey of Ibelin but also the knights in the court of King Baldwin and the Muslims living in Jerusalem under the protection of the Knights Templar.
The portrayal of the Knights Templar is one of the better aspects of Kingdom Of Heaven with Scott and Monahan prepared to show them as a disloyal army interested in little but increasing their already vast wealth. Through various sources - Foucault's Pendulum, The da Vinci Code, National Treasure, Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade - the popular view of the Knights Templar is of a shadowy order protecting both the treasures gained through the Crusades as well as a truth about the life of Christ. Here, though, they are presented as a reckless army under the control of the vain Guy de Lusignan, prepared to attack unarmed Muslim camps, thereby threatening the delicate peace between Muslims and Christians.
The struggle between Guy de Lusignan and Tiberias - whilst a rather predictable disagreement between hawks and doves - reveals how much of the defence of the Holy Land was an uneasy, unpredictable affair fought by people who had long since forgotten the reason for their taking up the cross of Christ in battle. In that respect, the principal characters, both Christian and Muslim, are well drawn with Jeremy Irons and David Thewlis being the most impressive. Their weary loss of faith in the battles fought, in their defence of Jerusalem and in Christ reveal men too far from home who travelled in the hope of finding, as Balian hoped, something of themselves and of Christ but, instead, found nothing. In that sense, Guy de Lusignan is not the cartoonish villain that he might otherwise have been but is, instead, a man who, like Tiberias and Hospitaler, found nothing but the broken promises of the Vatican. Unlike them, however, de Lusignan is prepared to cast Jerusalem as he sees fit and although this leads to an astonishingly thorough defeat by Saladin, his actions are little different to those that founded much of Europe. One could even ask how different are de Lusignan's actions from that of Boorman's Arthur - being king of Jerusalem, de Lusignan's use of the words, "I am Jerusalem", suggest that he is as aware of the land and the king being one as was Arthur. If Kingdom Of Heaven reflects an era in which people's lives were consumed by religion, then its greatest achievement is that it also reveals how the faith of those who joined the Crusades was crushed by the experience.
Unfortunately, in all other respects, Kingdom Of Heaven is a mixed bag. The battle scenes are quite marvellous, as one might expect from Ridley Scott, but Orlando Bloom never really convinces as the blacksmith who would become the defender of Jerusalem. So great does his legend become that we are led to believe that Richard of Lionheart, during his passage through France, seeks him out but Bloom doesn't wear his status comfortably, suggesting that his days as an actor able to carry a film such as this remain in his future. Otherwise, the romance between Balian and Princess Sibylla (Eva Green) is a rather flimsy affair and remains so throughout. The events that see Sibylla marrying Guy de Lusignan and thereby knowingly damning the city of Jerusalem to being taken by Saladin is the result of little more than a spat between she and Balian and as she sits alone whilst Saladin's army batters the walls of the city, neither Scott nor Monahan ever seem able to convince us of her belief in her actions nor the guilt that she may feel as the city falls.
It is, however, a comfortable experience, which suggests that its future place as a Sunday evening favourite is assured. Monahan and Scott ensure that de Lusignan and Reynald remain as the villains of the piece, leaving their Knights Templar as savages compared to the cultured Saladin and King Baldwin. Similarly, Scott ensures that the battle scenes look wonderful and it is genuinely difficult to tell what's real and what's CGI. When both combine as they do at the castle of Kerak, which sees the Christian army arriving with an enormous crucifix glinting in the sun and ends with Baldwin and Saladin reaching terms, the film comes close to being wonderful but fails to sustain this spectacle throughout.
In his cinema review, Kevin O'Reilly stated that Kingdom Of Heaven deserves to been seen on a big screen and whilst, through DVD, it has been moved to a smaller screen, it still pays to watch it on as big a television as you can. The picture quality is excellent throughout with the early scenes in France standing out. Detail and colour are both terrific and, with this being a recent film, there is no visible damage to the print.
The English audio tracks - you get both a Dolby Digital 5.1 and a DTS track - are just as good with great use of the surround channels and sub woofer. I couldn't hear any noticeable distortion in either track with there being little to distinguish one from the other. If anything, the DTS track has a little more punch and detail to it but the Dolby Digital track is almost as good.
The Pilgrim's Guide: With a title that aches with how knowing it is, this is a historical information track that is selectable both from the subtitles menu during the film as well as from the main menu. Information is plentiful and is generally treated seriously but, occasionally, it is delivered with a slightly mocking tone. It does, however, include much information on the background to the story in Kingdom Of Heaven and, thankfully, only occasionally does it get diverted with trivia on the making of the film.
Inside Look (1m44s): During the opening seconds of this feature, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was about Robin Hood, what with it including footage of the rolling countryside of the British Isles as well as an interview with Kevin Reynolds. Alas no for it is a short feature on the upcoming Tristan & Isolde that has been directed by Reynolds and stars Sophia Myles (Thunderbirds) and James Franco (Spiderman).
Interactive Production Grid (83m05s): Within any other release, we would understand this to be a Making Of documentary. Here, though, it is structured within a grid that allows the viewer to Play All or subdivide the contents of the documentary by Directing, Cast and Crew and again into Pre-Production, Production and Post-Production, this is an exhaustive set of nine documentaries detailing the making of Kingdom Of Heaven. At times, it all feels like there is too much information that has been included but pick through everything here - and there is a lot - and it is difficult to find anything that is obviously missing.
History vs Hollywood (42m58s): Brought over from A&E, this is, as the title suggests, a documentary questioning the events of the Crusades in light of those in the film. The show doesn't, however, ask many difficult questions and is simply content to cut footage from Kingdom Of Heaven between footage of experts on the subject. Where, though, intellectual heavyweights may have given the documentary some substance, it doesn't tread far from using such lightweights as Tony Perrottet, author of the terribly-titled Route 66 A.D.
MovieReal (44m31s): Again, this A&E production covers much the same ground as Kingdom Of Heaven but does so with a slightly different selection of experts, footage and cast members. This documentary does, however, question the actions of the Crusaders more than its predecessor and suggests, in rather less time, that those who fought with a belief that God with them in battle may not have expressed a belief in Christianity through their actions.
Internet Documentaries: Being a series of four short featurettes, this will not attract anyone's attentions for very long. Titled Ridley Scott: Creating Worlds (2m31s), Orlando Bloom: Adventure of a Lifetime (2m06s), Production Design (2m13s) and Creating Character Through Wardrobe (2m07s), these web documentaries only touch upon
Theatrical Trailer (2m28s): As you would expect, this looks wonderful but lacks imagination, being no more than a series of highlights from the film.
And yet there's no commentary. Despite there being a choice between a one-disc version of the film on DVD and this two-disc Special Edition, there's no commentary. Ridley Scott has always appeared to be a willing contributor to DVD releases of his films but the lack of a commentary does rather suggest that a further edition of this film may be forthcoming.
That said, there's little wrong with the version of the film that is presented here and after a couple of viewings of the film, I feel it's a better film than Gladiator. It may be that I have more of an interest in the Crusades than ancient Rome but it feels that Kingdom Of Heaven asks greater questions of itself than did Gladiator. Granted it's not a particularly artful film - it keeps too close an eye on the multiplexes for that - but amongst the battles, the romance and the settlement of a future for the Holy Land, the smaller questions over personal faith are what sustains it.
As Excalibur comes down to the relationship between the land and its king, so too does Kingdom Of Heaven and when those who defend Jerusalem lose their faith, they also lose the city. There are fascinating stories in this film and although it is unfortunate that the story of Balian and Sibylla is not one of them, those of Godfrey, Saladin, Tiberias and Hospitaler are almost enough.