If I have to name one film that makes a strong case for the existence of Director’s Cuts, it would be Ridley Scott’s 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven. The theatrical cut felt like a lackluster and half-baked attempt. The Director’s Cut, however, is a much superior film and it’s a pity that they didn’t release this version in theaters. No film deserved the Director’s Cut more than this one. I consider it one of Scott’s best films and would even place it alongside The Duelists, Alien, Blade Runner and American Gangster. This new version comes with an additional 45 minutes of footage and is a significant improvement over the other. It’s more coherent, the characters are more fleshed out and some of the sub-plots make more sense. There is an overall expansion of scope and certain scenes carry more emotional heft. Nothing that’s been included in this version feels unnecessary and the final result is something that’s completely different from what audiences saw in the theaters.
The film opens in 1184 France during the time of The Crusades and follows a village blacksmith named Balian (Orlando Bloom) who is mourning the death of his wife, who committed suicide after the death of their child. His brother, a priest (Michael Sheen at his hateful best), lets him know that his presence in the village won’t be tolerated by its inhabitants anymore considering the fact that his wife is a sinner. This leads a violent confrontation which ends with Balian killing him. While he is trying to flee, he is rescued by Sir Godfrey (Liam Neeson) a knight who discovers that Balian is his illegitimate son. Balian finally makes his way to Jerusalem and meets up with King Baldwin (Edward Norton) who is the present ruler. But the king doesn’t have much time left as he is suffering from leprosy and keeps his face concealed behind a mask. Baldwin entrusts him with the duty of protecting the city after his death. Balian becomes involved in an affair with Baldwin’s sister Sybilla (Eva Green), who is married to a knight named Guy de Lusignan (Martin Csokas). And I have to say, Scott really knows how to do romance well.
Balian gets himself involved in the political machinations and struggles to maintain a peaceful relationship with the Saracens (a generic term for Muslims during that time), lead by Prince Saladin. What I loved most about the film is the fact that Scott never tried to portray the Muslims in a negative light. There are bad guys on both sides and it’s their presence that makes matters worse. You can’t call Saladin an antagonist because he cares more about Jerusalem than the Christians do. He is a character you actually root for. Muslims are hoping for peaceful relations as much as the Christians. There is a reason why Scott has a big fan following in the Middle East. It’s because of the sympathetic Muslim characters that appear in this film. In fact, the one actor who stands out the most (apart from Norton, of course) is Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud who plays the Muslim ruler Saladin. Norton can do more behind a mask than what some actors can without one. And I would be remiss if I did not mention the fine contributions from Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, David Thewlis, Eva Green, Michael Sheen, Alexander Siddig and Brendan Gleason.
On close inspection, I found KoH to be a much better film than Scott’s previous historical epic, the Oscar-winning Gladiator. And by saying this, I don’t intend it as an attack on that film. I watched it when I was in my teens and enjoyed it very much. This was the film that everyone was talking about in school at the time. I thought Russell Crowe’s Maximus was one of the most badass characters ever to have appeared on the silver screen. And I’ll also admit that I was amazed by the spectacularly choreographed battle scenes and the rousing background score by Hans Zimmer. That stunning climax alone is worth the price of admission. And even though Joaquin Phoenix was not as strong an actor as he is now, he played the character of Commodus so well that you really want to get inside the screen and punch him in the face. However, I didn’t think it’s not the kind of film that I would like to watch more than twice. I was happy to learn that Roger Ebert shared my views on both films.
To being with, it didn’t have much of a story. To me, it felt like a remake of Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus with the addition of a revenge angle. (In fact, I thought Spartacus was a better film about gladiators than this one.) However, the story of KoH has more depth and holds more significance in the present climate. And, let’s be honest, we have seen better performances from Russell Crowe than the one we’ve seen in Gladiator. But that doesn’t mean Orlando Bloom is a better actor. In fact, it’s because of his presence that the film falls short of being a masterpiece. If there is one flaw in the film, it’s his casting. I wish Scott could’ve cast someone else in the part of Balian, one perfect example being Leonardo DiCaprio. But to be fair to Bloom, I would argue that at least he is not as bad as Hayden Christensen in Revenge of the Sith. Gladiator had two strong actors (three if you include Richard Harris) but KoH has the five, and their presence more than compensates for Bloom’s. I must also add that the film doesn’t lack in terms of historical accuracy either.
I end this article with my favorite quote from the film, which is spoken by David Thwelis’ character:
“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’ve 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 – what God desires – is here [points to his head] and here [pointing to his heart] and by what you decide to do every day you will be a good man…or not.”