Kingdom of Heaven (Director's Cut) Review

Director's Cut or not, my thoughts on Kingdom Of Heaven haven't changed a great deal with these added forty-seven minutes. By the slightest of margins, this DC does make Kingdom Of Heaven a better film but not a considerably different one. Therefore, I begin this review by reprinting the text from my original look at the two-disc version released in 2005. If you would like to jump straight to the next section, a review of the additions made to this version of the film, please click here.

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 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. 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.



Director's Cut

With an additional forty-seven minutes in this cut, one is tempted, given Ridley Scott's history with Director's Cuts, to say that the Kingdom Of Heaven DC is an entirely different film. After all, it was Scott's DC for Blade Runner that popularised the re-editing of a film long after its theatrical release, as well as the idea that a film can be changed significantly via a slight re-editing. However, the meaning of Kingdom Of Heaven was never as open to question as Blade Runner and what we have here is a film that's better structured, has a set of characters that now seem more believable and who act in accordance with not only who they are but also their histories, which can now be shown in this longer cut.

What we have now in this Q is proof of a director who clearly had a grand vision of the Crusades and of a story that justifies the expense of realising that. Much as I was impressed by Kingdom Of Heaven the first time around, this is clearly the better film with Scott now taking his time to establish both Godfrey and Balian's characters whilst they are still in France. Where the Theatrical Cut might have suggested that the priest who ordered Balian's wife's head to be chopped off before her burial was Balian's brother, it is now obvious, as are the reasons why Balian joined the Crusades. Later, the character of Sibylla, who always seemed underdeveloped in the Theatrical Cut, is given much more of a story, which better explains her actions in Jerusalem, what happens to her son and how she ends the film in what we might now describe as being in shock. The Theatrical Cut left one feeling that she was an odd combination of a love interest combined with the madness of a Lady Macbeth but this Director's Cut clears all that up and leaves Sibylla having one of the stronger stories in the film. There are additional scenes here and there that are used to better define the acts of the Christians - note how one avoids saying Christian acts - as well as specifically those of King Baldwin, who's given more time to impose himself upon the film.

However, perhaps the most important addition to this Director's Cut is in now seeing a conclusion to the various confrontations between Guy de Lusignan and Balian. The Theatrical Cut didn't really suggest that their bitter relationship was concluded in any manner at all - I can't seem to remember any scene in the Theatrical Cut that featured Guy after he was paraded on the back of an ass before the fortified city of Jerusalem - but Scott has added a final sword fight between the two. Although perhaps slight when compared to the grand visuals of the best battles in the film, this one scene adds so much to the film by now showing it concluding in the manner that one might expect of the film. And strangely, though its 191-minutes might seem very long on paper, this Director's Cut doesn't necessarily feel any longer. Certainly it feels a much less cramped film but with it now in better shape to carry William Monahan's script, Kingdom Of Heaven DC doesn't feel more languorous a film with three-quarters-of-an-hour of extra footage.

However, it is largely the same film and one leaves this version of the film with much the same thoughts one had after a viewing of any of the Extended Editions of the Lord Of The Rings films. Longer, certainly more epic and, having been given the scope for the better development of its characters, a more rewarding experience but not one that would convince anyone who didn't really enjoy the Theatrical Cut that they're going to witness an entirely new film. For those who liked or were impressed with the original version of this film, this Director's Cut simply offers a much more complete version of the film but not, however, one that is substantially different.



Transfer

This is still a superb-looking film on this four-disc Director's Cut release, two of which are given over to the film. Look hard enough and there is a little noise in some of the more frenetic scenes but typically, this is of a remarkably high standard with Scott's marvellous visuals being handled by a DVD that was obviously produced with a great deal of care and attention. On a big television or, I would imagine, a projector, this is a visual experience that carries the viewer with it, as much in the incredible battles as in the darkened throne rooms of Jerusalem. There is some slight loss of detail in the backgrounds, particularly in the early part of the film in France where Scott appears to want to cast an early-morning and late-evening gloom about the proceedings but this is never quite as obvious as it is on many other recent releases and is largely a great-looking film throughout.

Of course, such a remarkable looking film deserves an equally good soundtrack, preferably a DTS track and, in that respect, Kingdom Of Heaven DC doesn't disappoint. With clear use of the rear channels and the front left/right pair give the film presence, listening to this film is a hugely enjoyable experience from the Overture that opens the film to the music that plays over the end credits. As might be expected, the dialogue is presented through the front channel and is clear throughout with very little distortion, hardly any in fact, no matter how loud the film gets. And Kingdom Of Heaven does, particularly during the siege of Jerusalem, get very loud. However, there are also some lovely little touches in its quieter moments, leaving this sounding wonderful throughout.



Extras

Disc One/Two

Introduction By Ridley Scott: Anyone who bought or watched the extended edition of Gladiator or who remembers reading Michael Mackenzie's or my reviews of the same set will remember Ridley Scott's rather ambivalent introduction to the film, which memorably ended with him saying of the film, "[it] has a lot of scenes in it that were removed during editing and might be worth seeing." This time around, Scott is much more vocal about his preference for this version of Kingdom Of Heaven, giving his reasons for preferring it and why he confidently states this being the best version of the film.

Commentaries: There are three included here, two of which are edited together from contributors who were recorded separately. The first features Ridley Scott, writer William Monahan and Orlando Bloom with it being obvious from its opening minutes that the three men were watching the film separately as their contributions were being taped. As ever, Scott offers a good commentary - so much so, it makes one wonder just what he's recorded or will record for the forthcoming Blade Runner set - and has always been equally happy with others, as with Russell Crowe on Gladiator, or on his own, as with Alien. His contributions, more than those of Monahan and Bloom, keep the track moving along swiftly and are a mix of the informative, which Scott does best, and of a clear love of the material.

The second track features Executive Producer Lisa Ellzey, visual effects supervisor Wes Sewell and first assistant director Adam Somner and is something of a mixed back. Veering between the more technical contributions of Somner and the high-level, behind-the-scenes chatter of Ellzey, who was there from the beginning of the production, this track never really finds a common thread, sounding as though these three were included on a single track when their individual contributions were felt not to have passed muster. The final commentary is from editor Dody Dorn is an odd one. At her best, there's plenty of scene-specific contributions, particularly as regards what's new in this version of the film but she does tend to talk herself into corners that may well be of some importance to her but which is sure to leave listeners baffled. There's one particular discussion that she has with herself regarding artistry and her contribution to a film being considered as art that was as confusing the second and third time I listened to it as it was the first time. I'm not entirely sure she reached a conclusion with herself. All three commentaries are subtitled.

The Engineer's Guide: Renamed and extended from The Pilgrim's Guide on the Theatrical Cut of the film - it's much clearer on this cut that Balian has a background in the engineering of the heavy machinery of war and is, therefore, less of a pilgrim in this cut - this trivia track is fine if you enjoy them but this doesn't add very much to one's enjoyment of the film. Much of what's here is taken from Scott's commentary, from the features on the second and third discs and from the kind of general knowledge that one ought to have on the Crusades, leaving it a rather pointless extra. After all, in the three hours it would take to watch this track, you could have read a book on the Crusades and viewed all of the material on the last two discs in this set, leaving this somewhat redundant.

Disc Three

It's fitting that such an epic film comes with a suitably epic making-of on the DVD, with its six parts combining to produce a very complete picture of the making of Kingdom Of Heaven. It begins, fittingly, with Development, a five-part section that opens with Good Intentions (16m41s), a feature that describes Scott's interest in making a film on the Crusades, the writing of the script by William Monahan and the letter sent to Fox by Scott saying that Kingdom Of Heaven was to be his next film. What follows is an overview and gallery for Tripoli, the film that Scott intended to follow Gladiator with, which was also to star Russell Crowe before Fox called a halt to its production. But with a crew and writer set, this then describes how Scott used both to lead into Kingdom Of Heaven with a script by Monahan, the First Draft Screenplay of which is included here. What follows are Story Notes, a set of scribbled questions and suggestions written by Ridley Scott and Lisa Ellzey during the production of a final script, as well as a Gallery of images from the scouting for locations.

The second part of the documentary, Faith And Courage (19m57s) continues its look at the production of the film, this time concerning itself with the design of the production and the casting of the film, with much time given over to how Orlando Bloom found his way into the film. This is followed by Cast Rehearsals (13m25s) and by Colours Of The Crusades (32m15s) that carry on from the main feature by looking at the first readthroughs of the script and at the design of the costumes, armour, weaponry and heraldry. A Production Design Primer brings the production out to the scouting for locations, with Ridley Scott instructing his team to go out and marvel at the size of the places where Kingdom Of Heaven will be filmed and to imagine them filled with warriors. The various pieces of video footage and still images offers an impression of the onset of filming but not a great deal more. There are also three image galleries in this section, Ridleygrams, Production Design and Costume Design.

The last section on disc one begins with Pilgrimage Begins (19m35s), which tracks the production as it moves to Spain and begins filming. There, Scott shot the early scenes, which were actually set in France, as well as those in the royal palace in Jerusalem and this fairly complete making-of looks at the problems experienced by the production whilst in Spain, the night shoots and the problems of producing snow and how Orlando Bloom-fever overtook the young women of Spain. As we leave this disc, so too do the cast and crew, this time for Morocco and the bulk of the production. However, before we, the viewers, get there, we have Creative Accuracy (26m40s), a short feature on the history of the Crusades and how well Scott portrays them and the era in which they occurred. The answer, you won't be surprised to learn on a DVD that accompanies Scott's film, is very well. Finally on the third disc in the set, there are two galleries, one for Storyboards and the other for Unit Photography.

Disc Four

This last disc in the set continues the form set by the previous one, breaking down the production into three sections, each of which begins with another chapter in the making-of feature that forms the spine of this bonus material. This first section on the fourth disc - Production: Morocco - opens with Into The Promised Land (31m15s) that is probably the most interesting of the six chapters seeing as how it deals with the political storm that surrounded the film, shown here with quotes from The Daily Telegraph ("[The film] sounds absolute balls. It's rubbish. It's not historically accurate at all...it has nothing to do with reality.", 20 January 2004) and from Professor Khaled Abu el-Fadl in the New York Times, who said, "I believe this movie teaches people to hate Muslims. There is a stereotype of the Muslim as constantly stupid, retarded, backward, unable to think in complex forms...it's really annoying at an intellectual level and it really misinterprets history on many levels." Given how there was such interest in the production of the film, the cast and crew dealt with it well, looking back on it with an understandable sense of disappointment and the contributions from Ridley Scott and Lisa Ellzey are particularly impressive in this context. However, with that out of the way, this chapter in the making-of goes on to show the filming of the siege of Jerusalem and the huge desert shoot that was required. What follows is Mounting The Siege (17m06s), a short feature that looks at the design, planning, filming and post-production on the scenes showing the siege of Jerusalem as well as two galleries, one for Storyboards and the other for Unit Photography.

Part Five of The Path To Redemption documentary - The Burning Bush (37m32s) - is concerned with the post-production on the film and follows Ridley Scott as he wraps the production and enters the editing suite where, over the course of weeks and what may actually be months, he looks bored, frustrated and complains via a voiceover that scenes he'd previously loved now look much too long having viewed them many more times than he'd have preferred. With contributions from Dody Dorn who explains how shots originally filmed for one part of the film can be digitally manipulated to form part of another, this is an interesting chapter in the documentary, particularly when Lisa Ellzey appears to explain something of the Theatrical Cut and the Director's Cut.

Given that this sees the release of a much-extended Director's Cut, you wouldn't think there's a great deal more of Kingdom Of Heaven that's gone unseen but this section includes another half-hour of Deleted Scenes (29m19s) with an optional commentary by Ridley Scott and Dody Dorn who, unlike the three main commentaries, have been recorded together. This part of the set then concludes with a breakdown of the various effects used in the film, in particular with a Sound Design Suite and Visual Effects Breakdown (21m49s), both of which are a mix of video footage, audio effects and commentary on the work required to produce a final cut.

The sixth and last chapter of the bonus material begins with Sins And Absolution (18m24s), that followed the release of Kingdom Of Heaven from Scott's editing rooms and into theatres during May 2005. With recollections from many of the cast and crew, it also follows up on the political storm that occurred earlier in the film's production with quote from positive reviews as well as the negative ones, including that which described it as being, "...basically Osama bin Laden's version of history." Although it's generally regarded as a failure, it's worth noting, as this feature does, that it took $211m worldwide but it's also clear that there's an obvious look of disappointment on the faces of Lisa Ellzey, William Monahan and others involved with the film, which may say more than the figures.

The set concludes with many of the more obvious extras, including a set of Trailers (4x, 6m30s) and TV Spots (50x, 22m30s), a Press Junket Walkthrough (6m19s), a glimpse at the World Premieres (3m43s) and two galleries, one for the Poster Art and another for Publicity Stills of the cast. But finally, there is Promised Land (8m32s), which is a look at what has been added to this Q and how it has, according to those who've contributed to these bonus features, improved it as well as the DVD Credits for this Director's Cut.



Overall

In my review of the DVD release of the Theatrical Cut, I noted the absence of a commentary from Scott, which I took as suggesting that a further edition of this film would be forthcoming. And here it is, now amongst Scott's best films and still much better than the more lauded Gladiator. It's no more artful a film than the Theatrical Cut but it is a grander one and for a film that spans two continents, two of the world's largest religions and the battle for a city that reflects the fight for the souls of men, that was probably Scott's greater concern. In amongst the battles, the romance and a possible settlement of a future for the Holy Land - something that's ongoing to this day - the smaller questions over personal faith are what sustains it. As a film that poses questions about faith, religion and the afterlife, Kingdom Of Heaven is a powerful one.

Film
9 out of 10
Video
9 out of 10
Audio
9 out of 10
Extras
10 out of 10
Overall

TDF SILVER

9

out of 10

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