Various directors take very differing stances when it comes to the ongoing threat of executive meddling. This, of course, is when the studio moneymen stop what you’re doing and tell you that what you’ve made will simply not cut it at the box office, that key demographics that their marketing department has been stringently working on (usually in the form of charts) will dislike your movie. If you’re Terry Gilliam, you’ll go to war with said studio and prove that you have the significant integrity (read massive cojones) to work yourself into the ground to make sure nobody interferes with your baby. If you’re David Fincher, you’ll probably go home as loudly and publicly as you can manage.
But if you’re Ridley Scott, one of the most celebrated directors of his generations, chances are you’ll work up a long term strategy which perversely actually redeems the studio policy in term of financial gain while taking a hit in the critical stakes. The master of the later year Director’s Cut managed to rescue Blade Runner with a second incarnation, probably the most famous example of a “what you might have seen” redo. For a far more dramatic lift in quality resultant of a compromise, you need to zip forward more than ten years to Scott’s retrospectively triumphant return to the historical epic genre. Sadly, this gamble didn’t quite pay off as well.
The growing levels of audience dissent and dissatisfaction with the legendary Mr. Scott stem from the fact that, for many of them, the Tyneside visionary hasn’t made a great film since Gladiator some thirteen years ago. The reasonable American Gangster and Matchstick Men are arguably the only sparks in a drowsy dirge of a recent resume that includes the disappointments of Hannibal, Body of Lies, Robin Hood and the unrealized potential of Prometheus. What a lot of people miss, however, is that the choppy and insubstantial Crusade set action flick Kingdom of Heaven was reborn long after its lukewarm cinematic release as an epic drama that instantly vindicates Scott’s qualifications for grand-scale moviemaking. The DVD release of the incredible three hour director’s cut, following a small and unadvertised theatrical release in L.A., provides one of the few truly inspirational examples of some justice being done.
Given a far longer running time and narrative scope, the Director’s Cut immediately sets about injected some depth into a story that, while visually astonishing, ultimately failed to deliver on an emotional or intellectual level. The main plot is the same, following Orlando Bloom’s unemotive Frankish blacksmith as overcomes the suicide of his wife by following illegitimate father Liam Neeson to the middle east as part of the latest crusade. Little more than a peasant in his hometown, Bloom’s Balian de Ibelin benefits from his daddy’s significant connections as a highly esteemed knight and baron to rub shoulders with the elite of Jerusalem. However, his arrival coincides with the touch paper of conflict being lit by politicking and extremist stupidity on the part of the film’s villains; the knight’s templar. Conscientious Saracen leader Salah al-Din (Ghassan Massoud) faces pressure to retake the holy city in the name of Islam, while ambitious lord Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) craves a war to confirm the supremacy of Christianity and reinforce his stranglehold on the cradle of civilization. When things do finally erupt into ugly conflict, Balian is naturally caught in the middle of it and chance places him into a pivotal role.
The more creditable elements of the original film, namely the visuals, action and superb support from a dynamic cast, are reinforced by newfound ambition and patient devotion to storytelling as William Monaghan’s script fulfills its potential. As well as adding numerous intriguing new scenes the Director’s cut also restores a subplot involving the son of Eva Green’s Queen Sibylla, an important young mite who tragically falls foul of leprosy, culminating in Sibylla’s breakdown in the later parts of the film and acting as the catalyst for Guy’s ascension into a position of absolute power. The early feud between Balian and his half-brother priest Michael Sheen is given further attention, making a greater deal of sense, while a brilliant sword fight between Guy and Balian in the aftermath of the siege of Jerusalem ends the arc of their conflict and provides a more appropriate send off for the moustache twirling lord. Simply put, there is a greater sense of purpose and a balance about the piece as a whole, and any viewer who loves rather than loathes a huge running time is in for an aesthetic and intellectual treat.
That’s not to say the film is perfect; it’s hardly an original criticism, but Bloom’s casting as the protagonist is one which represents Kingdom of Heaven’s greatest problem. It can be argued that his dead eyed acting style works perfectly for his part as a man suffering a lesser form of shut-in syndrome due to grief, but in the film’s second half Bloom’s wooden style betrays a lack of charisma needed to properly convey his part as an inspirational leader of men. A climactic moment during the truly epic siege for example, a mass-knighting intended to raise morale to a fever pitch as the beleaguered defenders hold off the overwhelming ranks of Saracen soldiers, doesn’t reach its intended levels of emotion due to Balian being played by an actor lacking the chops to pull it off.
Thankfully, the aforementioned supporting troupe paper over the cracks for much of the film; Jeremy Irons, Massoud, Brendan Gleeson (as the diabolical real-life monster Reynald de Chatillon) and David Thewlis are all on top form, while there is a surprising and memorable outing for Edward Norton as Jerusalem’s softly spoken and masked leper King Baldwin. The inevitable death of the ailing monarch sets the tone for a chaotic and gruesome escalation in violence as all order breaks down. While he is alive, Norton’s superb display of visual acting provides many of the film’s most memorable moments. Eva Green also shines brighter thanks to her new subplot, which she dominates with an emotional and heartbreaking display. What could have been narrative-serving melodrama is instead haunting thanks to Green’s mature and honest handling of the material. The final choice she makes, one that provides much moral and ethical debate, is harrowing but understandable.
Another crux comes in the form of Monaghan’s screenplay. While the sparkling dialogue of The Departed is more commonly associated with the Bostonite scribe, here his take on medieval wordplay is somehow both nourishing and overblown. The handling of quiet conversational scenes is occasionally sublime; in particular, the presence of King Baldwin and Thewlis’ Hospitaler is given extra impact by the philosophical musings they offer. But the constant reliance on ironic echoes, repeated phrases and ‘of the era’ jargon occasionally lapses into repetition and parody. The Director’s Cut emphasizes this greatly, and it is a truly divisive element – there is a huge amount of talking before the actual warring begins, and your taste for such exchanges will probably dictate your ability to enjoy a piece which occasionally seems to resemble a lesser work of William Shakespeare. A conversation between Thewlis and Balian in the desert regarding miracles and the presence of God shows this form of speech at its best however. The same degree of scrutiny should be applied to the film’s somewhat nebulous approach to historical accuracy, and warping real events to form a more traditional movie narrative. Criticizing a historical film’s devotion to truth, particularly one directed by Scott, is a fool’s errand however. The film’s thematic reliance on the subject of religion would be undermined by documentarian ethics after all.
The real star of the show is Scott, however, who draws on all of his experience and know-how to present a startling gem more evocative of the classic era of Hollywood dallying in Historical superfilms than the modern age of CGI carnage. The siege of Jerusalem is one of the finest battle scenes put to film, combining incredible visual scope with tactical logic, a trademark of Gladiator’s highly esteemed killing fields. Equally, every scene is lush in some regard; the wintry canvas of France has a beauty about it in contrast to the desert wastelands of the middle east, the living and breathing canvas of Jerusalem or the stark ugliness of the villainous lair of Castle Kerak. Even minor locations such as the Port of Messina or Ibelin are treated lovingly, meaning the film is in some part a wonderfully cinematographed travel log. Beyond that, the manner in which the action is filmed is both dynamic and fruitful. A key moment in the film’s first half (shortly before intermission) in which King Baldwin and Saladin face off outside Kerak, their armies deployed over their shoulders ready for a pitched land battle, is (in the opinion of this writer) the best shot and most visually memorable scene of Scott’s filmography. With such amazing work put into the sight and sound of the setting, its true justice that the extended cut provides thoughtful sustenance.
The reasoning behind Kingdom of Heaven losing its mojo in initial editing is cynically sound, as 20th Century Fox doubtlessly would have lost out big time on a massive project existing in a time where audience attention spans have worryingly decreased. Were KoH made in the same era as Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago, it undoubtedly would have been seen worldwide in its true form. Sadly, such is not the case, and not enough people have viewed its rebirth to redeem its distinctly average initial release. There has been no repeat of Blade Runner’s reprieve. But for those of you scouring the rough in search of a diamond, Kingdom of Heaven: The Director’s Cut represents a huge gem. This is filmmaking at its finest, and a huge vote of confidence for its beleaguered Director. Just try to ignore the theatrical cut.