Ridley Scott Month 4 – Kingdom of Heaven

Most of the time, when you’ve got an extended cut or the Director’s Cut of a movie, there isn’t a huge level of difference in terms of quality. The Lord of the Rings movies are fantastic even if you watch the theatrical versions. The Rogue edit of Days of Future Past really just adds Rogue to the movie and reorganizes a few of the “future” death scenes, but otherwise it’s just as good either way. The extended cut of Gladiator adds some great character development scenes, but the theatrical cut is still a masterpiece.

Every now and then, you’ll get a substantially different movie with the director’s cut, be it 2003’s Daredevil, which cuts down the romantic subplot that didn’t really work to emphasize the movies stronger, darker elements, or Once Upon A Time in America, where the theatrical cut not only removed a bunch of vital scenes, but completely reorganized the movie into chronological order, which hurt many aspects of the storytelling. The Wolverine’s Unleashed Cut, while still flawed, is noticeably better than the theatrical cut. Heaven’s Gate may be the first example of a Director’s Cut significantly improving a movie where the theatrical cut was a complete disaster, both critically and commercially. Most people tend to agree that the “Final Cut” of Blade Runner, the only true Director’s Cut of the movie, is also the best version. Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven is one of these films.

Because the difference between the theatrical and the director’s cut is more interesting to talk about than the movie’s development, we’ll focus more on that. Kingdom of Heaven is an epic historical film set mainly around Jerusalem, around the time of the second crusade. Most of the characters in the movie are based on real people, even if some of their involvement with the movie’s events are changed for dramatic purposes. It also follows the actual historical events fairly closely, even if it was criticized by some historians for reducing the brutality of Saladin’s forces … even if Saladin himself was considered to be a good man even by the Crusaders.

The movie stars Orlando Bloom as Balian of Ibelin, a nobleman of French descent who led Jerusalem’s defense against Saladin’s forces. Eva Green plays Sibylla, sister to King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem (played by Edward Norton), also known as the Leper King. Jeremy Irons plays Raymond III of Tripoli, a major figure in Jerusalem’s defenses at the time, and also helped keep law and order. Marton Csokas plays Guy of Lusignan, Sibylla’s husband, who takes the throne of Jerusalem after Baldwin IV’s death, through his marriage of Sibylla. Brendan Gleeson plays Raynald of Chatillon, who played a large part in instigating the war with Saladin’s forces that would eventually see the fall of Jerusalem. Ghasson Massoud plays Saladin, leader of the Muslim forces, while Alexander Siddig plays Imad ad-Din al-Isfahani, one of his main leaders. Last but not least, Liam Neeson plays Barisan of Ibelin, Balian’s father, who helped retake Jerusalem during the first crusade in real life.

There are differences with the characters and their historical counterparts, but we’ll get to that towards the end of this post.

Most of the filming took place in Morocco, where Scott previously filmed both Gladiator and Black Hawk Down. One interesting side-note is that the Moroccan government sent hundreds of soldiers to protect the crew from any extremist attacks, and the soldiers also acted as extras in several battle scenes. The soundtrack actively goes for a very different feel than Gladiator’s more epic soundtrack. Harry Gregson-Williams’ score aims more for a classical style of music, with a touch of renaissance style choruses, Muslim sacred chants, and subtle uses of modern rock/pop influences. It enhances the overall visual style of the movie that focuses on large landscapes, set design, and capturing the dramatic side of the story rather than its epic scope.

When Kingdom of Heaven first released, it received very mixed reception. The cast was generally praised, especially Norton’s performance as the Leper King. His performance was considered by many to be “phenomenal”, and very different from anything else he’d done to that point. Massoud’s performance as Saladin was also highly praised, described by the New York Times review as “cool as a tall glass of water.” Irons, Green and Gleeson’s performances were also highly praised. Bloom’s reception was more lukewarm, with Boston Globe’s review stating that he’s “not actively bad as Balian of Ibelin … seems like a man holding the fort for a genuine star who never arrives.” But overall, the movie received very mixed reviews, earning a 39% on Rotten Tomatoes with an average score of 5.6/10. Roger Ebert was among the few critics who gave the theatrical cut a very positive review, saying that it’s message was deeper than Gladiator.

It also failed to make a profit, earning $218 million on a $130 million budget.

The movie did earn a handful of awards, including Gregson-Williams for his soundtrack at the Hollywood Film Awards and Satellite Awards, while the Visual Effects Society Awards gave the film the Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects award.

However, the theatrical cut was never Scott’s intended cut of the film. The theatrical cut is 144 minutes – slightly over 2 hours if you remove the credits.  The original intended release, later released as the Director’s Cut, is 194 minutes. The main problem here is that 20th Century Fox, the distribution company behind the movie, got cold feet after negative early test screenings. They forced Ridley Scott to cut 50 minutes from the movie. The end result saw major subplots removed, including the complete removal of Sibylla’s son, which has a major effect on her character motivations. It saw a number of other important development scenes removed, and also cuts down on the bloody violence, which severely limits Scott’s intended focus on the horrors of war. It even causes a minor historical inaccuracy that’s fixed in the Director’s Cut.

Unlike Blade Runner and The Fellowship of the Ring, in which I’ve never seen the theatrical versions, I have seen the theatrical cut of Kingdom of Heaven. I watched it years ago in a group with people from my home church. I thought it was ok at the time, but was quite underwhelmed. When I heard about the extended cut however, I had to check it out, and I’m glad I did. The theatrical cut is basically a 2-hour trailer for the Director’s Cut, which is the real movie. It doesn’t change the overall story, but the added character development makes for a much more cohesive film. It changes from a mediocre swords and sandals action movie to a genuinely epic masterpiece. It may even be my overall favourite Ridley Scott movie.

This video does a great job at summing up the most important differences, but I’ll explore some of the others below.

The removal of Sibylla’s son is easily the worst part of the theatrical cut. It makes her character seem selfish and short-sighted, to the point where Green publically complained about how the theatrical cut butchered her character. Even Bloom’s performance works better with the additional subplots and character background information. Instead of looking like an inconsistent character who murders a local priest at the start of the movie with little provocation, but seems to prefer non-violent approaches elsewhere, he was pushed to the breaking point by a dishonest and immoral priest who also happened to be his half-brother. The extended cut also looks deeper into Balian’s engineering skills, which plays a major part in the final defense of Jerusalem.

Although their characters benefit the most from the director’s cut, plenty of others are improved as well. Neeson’s character develops a much better relationship with Balian in the director’s cut. Guy’s own subplot as a jerk king feels far more complete in the director’s cut, especially his rivalry with Balian, culminating in a duel after the battle of Jerusalem that’s completely absent in the theatrical cut. It’s a satisfying conclusion to the biggest personal rivalry in the film, one that feels tacked on in the theatrical cut. Even the adulterous relationship between Balian and Sibylla feels rushed in the theatrical cut, as if it’s only added in for sexiness, yet their relationship builds up slowly in the extended cut.

This is a good point to start talking about historical inaccuracies. One major one is the relationship between the real life Sibylla and her husband, Guy. In the movie, they clearly hate each other, and the only reason Sibylla sticks with Guy is to protect her son (again, completely absent in the theatrical cut). In real life, they were dedicated to each other, and she truly believed in Guy’s campaign against Saladin. In the movie, Balian started off as a French blacksmith, whereas in real life he was always a prominent lord in the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

While Rayland definitely helped instigate the war in the movie, his role was downplayed in order to make Guy more of a villain. On that note, while Rayland is portrayed as Guy’s right hand man in the movie, in real life they didn’t get along. As for the depiction of religion in the movie, the reception among historians is a bit mixed. For the most part, this movie does a good job at showing the difference between moderate believers and extremists, but it really only focuses on the Christian side of that difference. On both sides, the brutality of the violence is downplayed, but more so on the Muslim side. Scott defended this choice by seeing the movie as a contemporary look at the history to make the movie more accessible to modern audiences. I would actually agree that it’s overall the smarter way to portray the war for an epic movie.

For one, in the movie, Rayland is executed for murdering Saladin’s sister. In real life, he was executed for refusing to convert to Islam, a common practice at the time. Some historians argue that the movie diminishes certain Christian beliefs. Some Crusader historians, including Jonathan Riley-Smith, described the film as “dangerous to Arab relations”, calling the film “Osama bin Laden’s version of history”, which he argued could “fuel the Islamic fundamentalists.” Thomas F. Madden took it further, saying,

“Given events in the modern world it is lamentable that there is so large a gulf between what professional historians know about the Crusades and what the general population believes. This movie only widens that gulf.”

Others, like Paul Halsall, defended Scott, saying “historians can’t criticize filmmakers for having to make the decisions they have to make … Scott is not writing a history textbook.”

One of the special features in the Director’s Cut takes a look at the historical accuracy, with a number of historians defending the film’s approach, while also focusing on what is historically accurate. One such historian, Dr. Nancy Caciola, said “I, as a professional, have spent too much time with medieval people, so to speak, in the texts that I read; and quite honestly there are very few of them that if I met in the flesh I feel that I would be very fond of.”

If there is one criticism I’d throw at the movie, it does seem to be biased towards criticizing the Christian side of the war, while downplaying the brutality of the Muslim side of the conflict.  A more balanced approach could have worked better. This in no way harms the overall quality of the film, but it would probably receive less complaints from historians.

Regardless of the historical accuracy aspect of the movie, the director’s cut received an overwhelmingly positive critical reevaluation. Empire magazine called the cut an epic, saying “The added 45 minutes in the director’s cut are like pieces missing from a beautiful but incomplete puzzle.” IGN, which gave the theatrical cut a 5 out of 10, gave the director’s cut DVD 10 out of 10. The now defunct ugo.com web review went so far as to call it “perhaps the most substantial one [director’s cut] of all time.”

Kingdom of Heaven should not be taken too seriously as an accurate portrayal of Christian/Muslim relations in the medieval times, but as a historical epic film, it’s brilliant. The director’s cut of the movie is a masterpiece from start to finish, with deep characters, compelling conflicts and fantastic visuals. It’s the only version of the movie that’s worth watching. If I have one complaint, and it’s not a knock against this movie at all, it’s that the Battle of Hattin is largely glossed over. The movie’s long enough as it is, but the battle was a huge tactical mistake by the Christian forces that ended with their forces being absolutely slaughtered, and that alone deserves some sort of film portrayal.

I truly don’t understand why 20th Century Fox forced this movie to be cut down so much. This wasn’t even close to the first time they butchered a movie with their studio mandates, nor was it the last. Not to mention that the likes of Return of the King, Titanic, and even Scott’s own Gladiator were by no means short movies, yet they all performed very well, and this only came out two years after Return of the King.

Regardless of the reason, this movie is definitely worth watching if you’re into historical epics, or you’re interested in the crusades in general, even if the portrayal of Christian/Muslim relations of the time is a bit soft for the sake of making a good historical drama. I highly recommend this one – just make sure you pretend that the 2-hour theatrical version doesn’t exist.

Next month, I’ll be looking at four hilariously bad movies. I’m not going to announce the movies in advance, because it’s more fun to leave these as surprises. The plan is to take a general look at the world of hilariously bad movies, and I’m going to try to make sure each movie is both a different genre and from a different decade.

About healed1337

I am a relatively new comic book fan writing this blog for other new comic book fans and/or people who are interested in comics but don't know where to start. I've always been interested in writing, to the point where I have a college Creative Writing Certificate and I'm currently a year 2 Journalism student. I also have another blog where I mostly make fun of bad movies - www.healed1337.blogspot.com As for how I got into comics, I've always had a passing interest in superheroes: most notably Batman, Spider-man and the X-Men. Until February of 2011 (I think,) my only experience with any of these franchises came from the movies and video games. Shortly after I bought Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 however, I decided to check out X-23, Wolverine's female clone. I ended up reading her Innocence Lost origin story and enjoyed it. From there, I started reading various X-Men comics and it quickly exploded into my newest hobby. My other interests/hobbies include video games, movies, music, playing sports, my dogs and weird news.
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4 Responses to Ridley Scott Month 4 – Kingdom of Heaven

  1. Paul Bowler says:

    I’ve seen both version of Kingdom of Heaven and the Directors cut is far superior. Historical accuracy aside, its still a sweeping epic, and I think its one of Ridley Scotts better films. I like your point about theatrical cuts and directors cuts and how it changes our view on a film. Its something that applies to so many films now, but clearly illustrates how film is still an evolving medium, and its often studio interference that can make or break a film and sully the directors vision. I really enjoyed The Kingdom of Heaven, its a really good film, and I’d certainly recommend anyone giving the Directors Cut a try.

    Like

    • healed1337 says:

      I didn’t mention it in the blog post, but there are examples of director’s cuts actually harming a film too. Steven Spielberg later admitted that his director’s cut of E.T. was a mistake, and with Star Wars, I really don’t need to say anything about Han Shoots First. The Dumb and Dumber unrated cut stretches out several scenes out too long, and makes the main characters creepy in a couple of extra scenes. And there’s the fact that even Ridley Scott doesn’t like Alien’s Director’s Cut, and it was only done for the quadrilogy pack where all four movies featured an alternate cut.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Paul Bowler says:

        Great point! Director’s cuts can indeed be a dual edged sword, but for the most part I think many have brought so much more to the films. Like you say, when they are done just for commercial reasons, like Star Wars and ET ect, than for genuine artistic reasons, then the result often turns out to just a bland cash-in.

        Like

  2. Pingback: Hollywood Epics 4 – Schindler’s List | healed1337

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