Ridley Scott’s video introduction to the Director’s Cut of Kingdom of Heaven claims it is more than a merely extended version of the film. The Director’s Cut represents his intentions, and is “the best version” of the film. The most significant restoration he singles out is a subplot involving Princess Sibylla’s son. This version is long, yes, but always engrossing and interesting. It’s incredible that this much material was shot for one movie. It must have been clear from the length of the script that much of it was going to have be cut, but the expense and dedication was there to shoot more than was needed in order to be able to shape the story later in the editing room. I might have lost my patience with a three-and-a-half hour long movie in the theater, but it’s perfect for home viewing.
Kingdom of Heaven opens in France in 1184. At the time, Jews, Christians, and Muslims were sharing Jerusalem not quite in peace, but in relative stability. The wise King Baldwin IV and the cynical but basically decent Tiberias (Jeremy Irons) are barely preserving the fragile stalemate. By and large, Muslim characters are presented as more sane and civilized than the Christians. Interestingly, Jews are mentioned but are absent from the proceedings – evidently to this Dork Reporter unschooled in the relevant history, they had little political power at the time. Indeed, Christian holy men come across the worst of all. Early in the film, a preacher in a ramshackle European layover camp along the route to the Holy Land proclaims to prospective Crusaders that “To kill an infidel, the Pope has said, is not murder. It is the path to heaven.” Later, as the Christian army is about to be overrun by the Muslim army, one priest advises everyone to “Convert to Islam. Repent later.”
Balian de Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) is a widowed French blacksmith swept up in vast historical events. Bloom’s performance as the real-life historical figure isn’t bad, exactly, but he’s deadly dull. He is certainly earnest and handsome, but without the sympathetic starpower of a true leading man. Balian is a largely passive man caught up in key moments of history by the arbitrary whims of birth and luck, not unlike Forrest Gump. A plot not driven by the actions of the protagonist could be seen as a sign of bad screenwriting, but I’m prepared to accept the basic arc if it means it can hold such an interesting core concept together.
Balian discovers he is the illegitimate son to the Knight of Jerusalem Godfrey de Ibelin (Liam Neeson). He inherits the mantle and is launched on a journey that makes him a knight, friend and counselor to the wise King Baldwin (Edward Norton), lover of his beautiful sister Princess Sibylla (Eva Green), and leader of the doomed defense of Jerusalem. But what’s most implausible is his sudden emergence as a master swordsman, military strategist, architect of fortresses, civil engineer of irrigation systems, and honorable lord who treats his subjects fairly. True, he is established early on as an “enginer” who despairs have having fought in meaningless conflicts and designed war machines for the slaughter of innocents. But it is absurd for this largely uneducated man to wield such knowledge and wisdom.
Moreover, Balian arguably causes more harm than good. His pride in being a good knight (as per his father’s dying instruction) leads to the slaughter of an entire army and to an evil man becoming king of Jerusalem. His piety doesn’t stop him from sleeping with a married princess, but he later hypocritically decides sleeping with her is no longer morally acceptable when her husband Guy of Lusignan (Marton Csokas) becomes king. And what kind of man would kick Eva Green out of bed?
The villainous Guy is cartoonishly fey and sneering, and probably not coincidentally the most obviously French of all the characters (perhaps for the best, few other cast members attempt to affect French accents). It is suggested that he knows his son has leprosy, and callously banks on him dying and thus allowing him to be king. But what exactly does he want? If power, he gets it. So why then spark a holy war? The filmmakers’ intentions may have been to draw an analog to Bush’s misadventures in the Middle East, but Guy doesn’t seem to be the pious sort who believes it is his duty as a Christian to purge the Holy Land of infidel Muslims.
Special mention must go to Edward Norton, excellent as King Baldwin IV, whose advanced leprosy left him a faceless man in an iron mask. I don’t mean this praise as a backhanded slight to Norton; he expertly conveys intelligence and wisdom through his voice and body language alone.
Interestingly for a Hollywood epic, Kingdom of Heaven actually features very few of the grand battles usually required for the genre. The tension-and-release structure of William Monahan’s screenplay is almost musical. After a long buildup, the first conflict is curtailed before it begins. King Baldwin cannily negotiates for peace by personally showing up despite his advanced (and known to the enemy) illness; also, his reputation as in intelligent man precedes him. The second battle happens mostly off-screen. Finally, very late in the film, we see the spectacular defense of Jerusalem against the Muslim army. Other directors might not have been able to resist wowing us with spectacular battles for so long, but Scott and Monahan’s interests are admirably elsewhere: in the characters.
On release in 2005, Kingdom of Heaven was lumped in with Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy, only insofar as they were both historical epics. It’s a doubly unfair comparison in that Troy, a far inferior film, is set hundreds of years earlier and based on a work of literature. Kingdom of Heaven was interpreted as a direct commentary on US incursions in the Middle East, not least because one of George W. Bush’s most breathtaking gaffes (in a presidency full of them) was to cast his war on terror as a “crusade.” If he ever screens Kingdom of Heaven, perhaps he will gain a little perspective and be inspired to read up on the long, complicated three-way religious conflict in The Middle East.