DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: KINGDOM OF HEAVEN

Wednesday, 23 July 2008


Kingdom of Heaven Dir Cut (2005) dir. Ridley Scott
Starring: Orlando Bloom, Liam Neeson, Eva Green, David Thewlis, Jeremy Irons


In 2005 Ridley Scott directed one of his biggest films he’s ever been involved with – film about the Crusades and the Christian fight with the Muslims for control of Jerusalem. The film was cut down to 145mins from an original length of three + hours. Theatrically the film was a very big flop, which came as a total surprise, considering the man had just come off three successful films in five years – “Gladiator”, “Hannibal” and “Blackhawk Down”.

But in hindsight Scott’s Kurasawa-influenced Middle Eastern epic never even had a chance to succeed at the box office – no matter how long it is, it’s an anti-dramatic film, without the genre-satisfying heroism of its competitors, “Gladiator”, “Braveheart” or “300”. It’s a shame because in many ways, “Kingdom of Heaven” is more complex and intriguing character and political study. But is character and politics enough for a film about medieval knights and the crusades?

The hero of the film is Balian (Orlando Bloom), a blacksmith who becomes knighted by his absentee father (Liam Neeson) and travels to Jerusalem to cleanse his soul after the suicide of his wife.When he arrives in Jerusalem, he discovers he has inherited several acres of land, which are occupied by a peaceful mix of Christians and Muslims. But the peace is threatened by the Muslim armies at the gates and the warmongering Christian military from within.

Balian doesn’t have the chutzpah of Maximus in Gladiator. He’s a humble, reluctant knight, who resembles the virtues of Jesus – a selfless man, who fights not for land, title, or even women, instead for the peace of his people. He doesn’t even care that his people live in their home Jerusalem. And in the big finale, Balian actually surrenders and gives up the land to the Muslim army.

In any other epic Balian’s surrender would be seen as uncourageous, or selling out, but for Balian, there’s more honour in saving the lives of his people and their families, than dying for one’s beliefs.

Of course the Holy Land is still being fought over almost 1000 years later. Balian lives a secular life and attitude, and though he fights in the name of God and wears the cross, he’s pragmatic about his religion – which is perhaps not reflective of the times, but certainly reflecting a modern attitude.

In 2007, the fully realized 196 mins version was released on DVD with an unprecedented 45 mins of added material. The film is certainly a better film. The key additions include more time spent in France with revelations about Balian’s father and his half-brother, and lengthy chunks of material devoted to Balian’s relationship with Sybille (Eva Green).

Both additions I welcomed. More quality time with Liam Neeson in France deepens Balian’s decision-making in Jerusalem, and I could always use some more quality time with Eva Green. She is simply stunning in the film. I don’t know if her now trademark smoky eye shadow was in style in 1150, but who cares. Seriously though, her character additions fit in well with the theme of the corruption of power. In the Director’s Cut her character is more sinister than the theatrical, and which provides one of the most unexpected twists which has Balian rejecting her advances and offer of kingdomship. I can see why her dramatic downfall was cut out of the picture – it’s even more audience-unfriendly than our hero surrendering to the enemy. Her advances to Balian are rejected, and she kills her own child because he is a leper.

Despite the welcomed changes, it's still no masterpiece.

Pacing is a still a major problem. Mr. Scott is in love with his flickering candle-lights and flowing flags and gorgeous picturesque frames. But there's a consistent and unnecessary slowness, which never ramps up in intensity - even during the battle scenes. There's also a familiarity to the material. The epic battles are technically proficient it in depiction of medieval war, but it's little different than the army vs. army sequences in the LOTR movies, "Braveheart", "Gladiator", "Troy" and others. And Harry Gregson-Williams turns in a score of recycled choir chanting and indistinctive orchestral melodies.

In “300”, “Braveheart” and “Gladiator” each of their heroes died honourably in combat. Is Balian cowardly? Not at all. In fact, he makes the most sophisticated and morally complex decisions of any of the above-mentioned films – but it results in an audience-unfriendly but neverless thoughtful conclusion. Unlike other Ridley Scott movies, this one is a true 'Director's Cut', which results in a different and better film than the original, unfortunately it still doesn't rise far enough to become one of his 'great' films. Enjoy.

Other related postings:
The Multiple Visions of Ridley Scott

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