When one thinks back to Ridley Scott’s many great films, it can be tricky to simply cull them down to a top-tier: Alien; Blade Runner; The Duellists; Thelma & Louise; Gladiator; The Martian. There are just so many. Yet one that almost never gets its due is the criminally overlooked Kingdom of Heaven, a masterclass of grandiose epic storytelling that is every bit as layered and emotionally complex as all of the above pictures. Perhaps even more so.
Trust us, if you’ve only seen the theatrical cut of Kingdom of Heaven, you basically haven’t seen it at all.
Indeed, 20th Century Fox made the calculated choice in 2005 to have their thrice Oscar nominated director cut his sprawling meditation on Crusades, codes of honor, and how their auras still linger today down to a paltry 144 minutes. While that is still on the lengthy side for a modern action movie, the emphasis was just that: the gore and glory that comes with medieval battle sequences. This also, in essence, robbed a very spiritual movie of its soul.
Consequently, the Kingdom of Heaven many have viewed is the barebones (read: boring) version of its events. The director’s cut, meanwhile, likely stands as the most striking improvement from a film edit to date. Whereas typical “Ultimate,” “Director,” or “Extended” cuts are tedious expansions of the same film, with all the excess plodding therein, the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven is a noticeably different film. And at 190 minutes, it’s a great one too.
Set in 1184 in the relative time of peace that existed in Christendom between the Second and Third Crusade, Kingdom of Heaven opens on a fascinating historical hotspot. For 85 years, Jerusalem has been held by the Christian descendants of knights who conquered the Holy Land in a river of blood during the First Crusade. If this in hindsight seems like an untenable position and a short blip in world history, keep in mind that Jerusalem has remained in modern Israeli hands for a shorter period of time thus far. Surprisingly though, a state of détente has emerged between the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the First Sultan of Damascus, Saladin (Ghassan Massoud).
It is in this context that a Crusader knight and Lord of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) returns to France to reclaim his bastard son, Balian (Orlando Bloom). He raises the boy up to the rank of knight and soon-to-be heir of his dusty lands. But most importantly, he puts him in the center of a bloody game of thrones in the Jerusalem court where a Leper King named Baldwin (Edward Norton) attempts to keep a peace in his final days before his disease claims his life.
The strength of Kingdom of Heaven is pooled from its tapestry narrative that is mostly abandoned in the theatrical cut. Admittedly, the film is not a masterpiece due to the unwise casting of Orlando Bloom as Balian. While Bloom gives likely the best performance of his career in the movie, he is still never more than adequately serviceable, which keeps the picture from rising to its grandest possible potential. And when one edits it down to simply being Balian’s rags-to-riches story, the final cut becomes quite problematic.
But in its richer full presentation, Kingdom of Heaven is more than one knight’s journey; it’s a golden kingdom’s fall from grace. And it is told with a stunning ensemble cast. Surrounding Bloom is a shifting repertoire of amazing character actors doing amazing character work, including Neeson, Jeremy Irons, David Thewlis, Michael Sheen, Brendan Gleeson, Alexander Siddig, and Marton Csokas. But the two most important players are Edward Norton and Eva Green as the royal brother and sister Baldwin and Sibylla.
There was in fact a historic King Baldwin IV, who despite his leprosy was able to defeat Saladin in the field of battle and managed a short-lived peace with the Muslims in his borders. However, Scott and screenwriter William Monahan take great artistic license by turning him into a tragic Philosopher King who could usher in generations of stability and open tolerance if he would only live so long. Constantly hidden behind gold and silver masks, their Baldwin is a political specter meant to be every bit as lamented as the Phantom of the Opera. And with the challenge of these masks, Norton gives one of his most nuanced performances, projecting regal authority, fierce intelligence, and doomed humanity via mere body language and vocal inflections.
But it is sister who truly haunts. Relatively fresh off her star making turn in The Dreamers, the French Green was an enigma to most Western audiences in 2005, and if they eventually saw the Director’s Cut, they’d have been rewarded with a heartbreaking turn that is equal measures Lady Macbeth and Ophelia. Through her first marriage, she has a son who will one day be king, and due to her hatred for her second husband who also wants to rule, she seduces and perhaps falls for Balian—urging him to take her hand and her husband’s life.
There is a pragmatism to her sensuality and a utilitarian quality to her ethics (or lack thereof). Yet she is a mother most determined to protect her son and her kingdom, at least until she would damn the latter. What choice did she have after discovering that her son has the same vile disease of leprosy that slowly disintegrated her brother’s body over a decade? To save her son the same misery, she’d rather poison him like a medieval Medea, and deliver her people into the hands of a vainglorious and warmongering husband, than watch her son fade away.
It is a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions that robs her of her sanity, but infuses the movie with a level of melancholic grace and warmth that is still chilling as Green’s eyes slowly deaden following her son’s demise. For the record, this also was completely removed from the theatrical cut. In fact, she doesn’t even have a son in the version that saw theatrical distribution. (It’s not a wonder why Green declined to do the promotional tour for the film.)
Couple these performing heights with some of the most painterly and exquisite compositions in Scott’s oeuvre, and you have a breathtaking film filled with staggering cinematography. Indeed, the visual affectations Scott achieves with John Mathieson as his DP at times resemble Caravaggio paintings with their richness of earthy colors.
This is all in service to a narrative that takes a modern sensibility at Holy Wars and the idea of duty-bound honor. The picture is very much a product of its time. Released during the dawn of the second term of President George W. Bush, it is a scathing indictment of Middle East misadventures, with the most warmongering characters on both sides of the equation being the true antagonists. In order to achieve this perspective, it can play fast and loose with historical facts, but there is something highly sophisticated about a Hollywood movie in which the antagonists are on all sides and nowhere. Baldwin IV and Saladin, and later Balian and Saladin in the film’s third act during the Siege of Jerusalem, are depicted as honorable and pensive leaders. They are men of reason surrounded by hawks that push them toward oblivion–and to the point where warring armies fighting over a collapsed wall look like maggots crawling over a chunk of meat from a God’s eye view.
It is a cynical view of religion and empire building, but it is human in its consideration of pragmatism and dignity on both sides of an unholy conflict. It is also correct in noting that Saladin agreed to end his siege of Jerusalem without slaughtering every man, woman, and child in the Christian-held city, the way the first Crusaders did to its Saracen citizens in 1099 (granted, the film omits that only the rich were allowed to pay a ransom to avoid slavery). It also finds a sense of spiritual godliness in its characters that averts the skepticism that would at first appear omnipresent for a film from an agnostic like Scott.
Dealing with love, infanticidal euthanasia, losing one’s religion, and the political machinations through which endless wars are borne, Kingdom of Heaven is a dense and layered work that is gorgeous to look at in nearly every frame. It is one of the finest films in Ridley Scott’s career and a movie that more than deserves a second consideration. You can thank us later.