Thursday, September 30, 2010
Kingdom of Heaven: The Director's Cut (2005)
The lights came up, and the movie was over. I was sure I had seen something extraordinary—maybe even a masterpiece. I looked around and saw no audience members who shared my enthusiasm. Everybody seemed relieved to finally be exiting the theater. I turned to my sister and my father, who had both fallen asleep and were just now waking up. “Adam”, my father grumbled, “That was a snoozer.”
I was fourteen years old, and I was certain that Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven was a great film. Surely it was going to make my top ten list of the best films of the year. But by the end of 2005, Kingdom of Heaven had only just barely made my year-end list: I knew, deep down, that it wasn’t quite the perfect achievement I had claimed it to be in those opening weeks of May. Being so young at the time, I couldn’t quite place what the film was lacking, but there was something seriously wrong with it. Something was… missing.
It is past instances like this that make me thankful to know that Ridley Scott is a filmmaker who still believes in director’s cuts. When I acquired the Kingdom of Heaven Director’s Cut Box Set the next year, I could hardly believe my own joy. Everything that was previously wrong with the film was made right. The plot holes had been filled in. The characters were richer. The screenplay was stronger. Here, at last, was the masterpiece I sensed was buried under all that invasive fire and brimstone: not since Blade Runner had Scott made a film this great. And not since D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1917) had a Hollywood epic so powerfully stressed a message of tolerance between the free nations of the world.
Kingdom of Heaven is anchored by a first-rate screenplay by William Monahan, who later won an Oscar for his screenplay for Scorsese’s The Departed but has yet to equal the insightful triumphs of his Kingdom of Heaven script. He was selected for the job after Scott attempted to get one of Monahan’s older scripts—a Napoleon biopic—off the ground; when that project fell through, Scott, knowing Monahan’s expansive knowledge of European history, brought him onboard to write a script about Scott’s favorite subject: the Crusades. The result was one of the most historically proficient screenplays ever written for a major Hollywood film, resulting in a movie that was just about everything else as well: well-directed, well-acted, well-looking, well-sounding. Scott and Monahan would reteam again in 2008 for the spy thriller Body of Lies—a lesser artistic success. Lightning, it seems, rarely ever strikes twice.
The film’s hero is Balian (Orlando Bloom), a blacksmith and a man of discipline. Over the doorway of his tool shed reads the slogan, "What man is a man who does not make the world better?" He has just been released from an insane asylum, still recovering from the suicide of his young wife in the wake of their newborn son’s stillborn death. His half-brother (Michael Sheen), a priest, is a ruthless schemer who presides over the wife’s burial, but not before stealing her cross necklace and condemning her body: “She was a suicide,” he reminds the gravediggers. “Cut off her head.” Balian, furious, plunges a hot blade into his brother and throws him onto a burning furnace. A once-innocent blacksmith who has lost his faith, Balian has let his emotions get the better of him and has become, in the process, a murderer.
For the rest of the film, Balian will be trying to atone for this horrific crime. The first man who ushers him into the quest to redeem himself of his sins is Sir Godfrey (Liam Neeson), a baron of the isolated property of Ibelin who may, in fact, be Balian’s long-lost father. Balian wants desperately to cleanse himself of his sins and the sins of his deceased wife, and Godfrey has a solution: journey to Jerusalem, the holy land, and serve the king. “What could a king ask of a man like me?” a frightened Balian asks. “A better world than has ever been seen,” Godfrey responds. “A kingdom of conscience. A kingdom of heaven… where there is peace between Christian and Muslim.” On the night of his death, an ailing Godfrey swears Balian to the oath he will abide by in Jerusalem: “Be without fear in the face of your enemies. Be brave and upright that God may love thee. Speak the truth always, even if it leads to your death. Safeguard the helpless, and do no wrong. That is your oath.” He even slaps Balian hard across the face so that he will remember it.
Does Balian deserve such good fortune? No one can deny that he has a strong heart—but nagging away at our thoughts throughout the film is the fact that this man murdered his brother in cold blood. When local knights, led by Godfrey’s own nephew, come to arrest Balian for his crime, Godfrey protects his son, even with the knowledge that he is a criminal and that the knights have every right to capture or kill him. The sequence that follows is the film’s goriest battle scene, in which one man has his cranium split in two and another man is able to keep on fighting with an arrow lodged straight into his throat. Balian expresses guilt over being a fugitive, but, as Godfrey helpfully reminds him, “it was not that they had no right to take you—it was the way they asked.” Indeed, the knights who come to arrest Balian commit an injustice of their own simply by the means in which they invade Godfrey’s encampment in the woods; the first man they kill is a knight whose only crime was picking up a flower. But Godfrey’s chastising of the arresting knights for “the way they asked” could probably serve as a metaphor for the two warring sides in the battle for Jerusalem. It’s not that neither the Christians nor the Muslims have any right over the holy city; it’s the way they go about making their claims.
That’s really what Scott’s film is examining as the heart of the problem in the contemporary Christian/Islam conflict: extremism. Every prejudiced Christian and Muslim in Kingdom of Heaven tries to make excuses by insisting that "God wills it." And were it not for power whores like Guy de Lusignan (Martin Csokas) and genocidal maniacs like Reynald of Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson), the Christians who are ruling Jerusalem by the time of Balian’s arrival would have better relations with their Saracen enemies. The leper king Baldwin (Edward Norton) wants peace desperately, as does his chief aide Tiberias (Jeremy Irons), but both men are outspoken in their pacifist beliefs. They see in Balian a young leader with the potential to keep on leading their cause; and Balian’s atheism makes his tolerance of the two sparring religions all the more easier. In a conversation over a game of chess, King Baldwin explains to Balian his own rhetoric of tolerance: “When you stand before God, you cannot say, ‘But I was told by others to do thus,’ or that virtue was not convenient at the time… this will not suffice. Remember that.” Balian takes this to heart.
But just how pacifist can one be during the Crusades? Notice that after he kills his brother, Balian starts to hold a disdainful view of capital punishment, even when those around him continue to practice it. Upon surviving a shipwreck on the overseas journey to Jerusalem (in some kind of bizarre cosmic joke, he is the only survivor of the shipwreck), Balian encounters conflict with two vicious Saracen bandits in the desert. He kills one of them in self-defense, but spares Nesir (Alexander Siddig) because he does not fight back; they meet again a couple more times in the film, and when the Saracens win a victory, Nesir returns the favor and has Balian spared. Balian encounters another capital punishment dilemma in the Jerusalem city square, where racist Knights Templars are hanged from the gallows; although Balian does not sympathize with them, he frowns at the way they are being punished: “So, they are dying… for what the pope would command them to do?” As Balian quickly figures out, there is a big problem with refusing to endorse capital punishment: it may be a dishonorable form of justice, but it does dispense of pesky enemies much faster in a period as slow and barbaric as the Crusades.
After all, certainly Godfrey was not above capital punishment; in the aftermath of the gory battle in the woods, Godfrey’s knights strike one of their prisoners in the back of the head with a hook. Nor, for that matter, is Saladin (an incredible Ghassan Massoud), who gets his revenge on Reynald of Chatillon first by slitting his throat, and then (in the director’s cut) by cutting his head off. Even King Baldwin and Tiberias are prepared to execute their enemies if necessary. They despise Guy de Lusignan’s right-wing military so much they begin seriously considering taking right-wing action against Guy himself: they offer Balian the chance to replace Guy as commander-in-chief and marry his beautiful wife Sibylla (Eva Green), whom Balian is already having an affair with (to Guy’s knowledge, although Guy isn’t exactly offended—he gets to ravage his maidens every night and couldn’t care less about his wife). But when Tiberias reveals that, as a consequence of Balian’s military promotion, Guy will be executed—along with any knights who do not swear allegiance to Balian’s rule—Balian shakes his head. “I cannot be the cause of that,” he says. Even despite the fact that Guy himself would probably kill Balian if he had the chance, and even despite Sibylla’s own angry declaration that Balian will someday “wish you had done a little evil to do a greater good,” Balian is repulsed by the idea of having his enemies executed: not only is it dishonorable, but it would also spoil his own mission to be forgiven of his sins.
Most people who have criticisms of the film find a similar complaint with both cuts: the casting of Orlando Bloom. Myself, I still believe that this is Bloom’s best performance to date. I admit that I’ve been fond of him ever since my childhood, upon seeing his early work in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and in Scott’s own Black Hawk Down (he played the soldier who falls 40 feet from a helicopter just before entering combat). But after that, Bloom entered a brief mid-career limbo and delivered awful performances in Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean flicks and, particularly, in Wolfgang Petersen’s abysmal Troy: after those films, I was ready to write Bloom off as a has-been. In my opinion, Kingdom of Heaven resurrected Bloom’s talent as an actor. I can even go so far as to compare his performance to Omar Sharif in Doctor Zhivago. Like Sharif, Bloom spends more time in Kingdom of Heaven observing than he does emoting: as a result, his performance, although not Academy Award material, leaves a highly visual impression. The performance relies on Bloom’s ability to look upon the events that unfold in the film and react appropriately to them. Thus, of all the faces we remember from the film (excepting King Baldwin’s silver mask), we remember his the most.
The success of Eva Green’s performance depends entirely on which cut of the film you’re watching. The Sibylla character is little more than a thankless romantic female lead in the original cut, but it’s in the director’s cut where Green’s portrayal of the character truly begins to shine: Scott reveals, in a crucially important subplot (why, oh why, was it deleted from the theatrical cut?), that Sibylla has a young son from a previous marriage. This boy is to be successor to the throne; but after Baldwin dies and the boy is crowned king, it is discovered that he shares his uncle’s leprosy disease. In the film’s saddest scene, a melancholy Sibylla lullabies her son to sleep and then poisons him, thus ridding the city of its new king and, inadvertently, having the corrupt Guy installed in his place. This was the first film I ever saw Eva Green in, before seeing her in the film she made prior to it (Bertolucci’s The Dreamers) and the film she made after it (Casino Royale); but upon seeing her in Kingdom of Heaven, I knew right away that she would be an actress to keep an eye on.
The rest of the supporting cast is just as invaluable. I remember Martin Csokas as the elf Celeborn in Lord of the Rings, and I vaguely recall him as the head villain in John Woo’s Mission: Impossible II, but this was the first time I had really noticed him. Brendan Gleeson’s performance as Reynald of Chatillon is a continuation of his admirable track record as a character actor: he is both menacing and humorous, as in a scene where he is locked up in jail and climbs up his cell door, obnoxiously roaring out his own name to an apathetic guard. Liam Neeson makes for the perfect father figure for Bloom’s Balian, and one hopes that Neeson will continue to collaborate with Scott on future projects. In his portrayal of the faceless King Baldwin, Edward Norton seems to be attempting a Brando-esque dialect with his voice—a technique I noted in my amateur review during the film’s initial release. Ghassan Massoud and Alexander Siddig have such immense screen presence as the Saracens that I hope to keep seeing them in more films to come.
More great supporting performances. Jeremy Irons, as he is in every other one of his films, is a scene-stealer; as Tiberias, he accurately reflects the conflicting beliefs of a democratic leader who cannot lead in a city where Christendom is both at war with Islam and at war with itself. “God be with you,” he wishes to Balian before heading off for Cyprus and leaving Balian to defend the holy city alone. “He’s no longer with me.” Jon Finch, whom you may remember as an English actor from the 1970’s who starred in Hitchcock’s Frenzy and in the title role of Polanski’s Macbeth, has a brief role as a conservative bishop who shares Guy and Reynald’s hatred of the Saracens, and cries “blasphemy!” when Balian claims that Jerusalem is a city for all races and all religions. And David Thewlis mysteriously comes and goes throughout the movie as Hospitaler, one of Godfrey's knights and one of Balian's mentors; there is a fleeting moment when, during the battle sequence in the woods, he taps Balian on the head with his sword, officially "knighting" him, so to speak. I love, too, the way he exits the picture, as he parts ways with Balian before riding out to certain death: "All death is certain. I shall tell your father what I've seen you become."
Jerusalem itself is a wonder to behold in the film: as built by production designer Arthur Max, it’s a piece of work to take your breath away; and when Balian delivers his speech from atop the city in which he orates, “Who has claim? No one has claim. All have claim!” Max’s sets make up a flooring background for both the speech and for the climatic battle sequence finale that follows. Coupled with Harry-Gregson Williams’ poetic, aggressive musical score, and John Mathieson’s bright cinematography—which turns icy blue in the opening winter scenes and blazingly golden in the final battle scenes—Scott’s film is a towering demonstration of great technical elements all coming together to form a beautiful battle epic with a soul of its own.
Most final battle sequences in epic films have no other purpose than to serve as an explosive finish, but is the final battle sequence of Kingdom of Heaven necessary? You bet. Though Balian dislikes endless violence, he realizes that he and the rest of those in Jerusalem have no choice but to fight back against Saladin and his invading Saracens: can they risk a possible massacre? Knowing the atrocities that have been committed against the Saracens in the past, there is no reason why Saladin shouldn’t retaliate against the remaining Christians in the city in exactly the same way—especially since Saladin has reactionary extremists on his own side who egg him on his promise to return the holy city. Therefore, Balian argues that the final battle will not be one for Christendom, but simply for those innocents who will otherwise not survive Saladin’s forces: “We defend this city not to protect these stones, but the people within these walls.”
Yet after the lengthy battle, which involves catapulted balls of fire, toppled towers, burning corpses and breached walls, just when it seems that the Saracens are not only going to win, but are going to slaughter each of the remaining Christians one by one, Balian walks out to Saladin to negotiate terms—which really did happen in the true event. We discover that Saladin is not such an evil man after all: he’ll allow Balian, his knights and the Christian people to leave the city first before the Saracens take over and Jerusalem becomes a Muslim city (and, honestly, why shouldn’t it be?). The agreement between Balian and Saladin ends on a note of mutual understanding, when Balian asks what, really, the city is worth. Saladin’s response: “Nothing. Everything.” There may be no better way of putting it. And when Balian returns home, Richard the Lionhearted (Iain Glen), is riding through town on his way to recover Jerusalem for the Christians. He asks him where he can find Balian the blacksmith, but Balian refuses to give away his identity. He doesn’t want to keep going on killing Muslims. His part in the senseless battle for Jerusalem is done.
How are cinephiles supposed to look back and judge Ridley Scott’s career output in the first decade of the twenty-first century? Scott is a great filmmaker, but the films he churned out in the last ten years were a decidedly mixed bag. Black Hawk Down is the only film, I think, that actually approached the greatness of Kingdom of Heaven, but even that film was bogged down by the limits of Jerry Bruckheimer’s whorishly controlling grip on Scott’s range. Gladiator remains an entertaining film in my eyes, but that the film won Best Picture and not Best Director at the Academy Awards makes me not so much regretful for Scott’s loss as much as it makes me embarrassed that he suffered so much needless awards show fuss over a film that, in my opinion, was not deserving of it. I feel the same way about American Gangster. A Good Year and Body of Lies were both noble but unsatisfying misfires, and I found the recent Robin Hood to be so wretched that I’m almost beginning to wonder if Scott has lost faith in cinema as art (I have yet to see Matchstick Men). In Kingdom of Heaven remains Scott’s artistic integrity. With time, it might even replace Alien and Blade Runner as the single greatest film of his uneven career.
There is a key scene towards the end of Kingdom of Heaven that was not present in the original cut. It is Balian’s last encounter with Guy de Lusignan, who has been publicly embarrassed by the Saracens riding a donkey nude, and has no future left on Jerusalem’s throne. Burning with anger over his loss of power, he threatens Balian one last time, but Balian is quicker in his sword movements and quickly knocks Guy down on his knees. Once again, Balian has the chance to eliminate his adversary dishonorably. He could have executed Guy a long time ago, and he could easily execute him now. But Ridley Scott’s film is a film about tolerance, and Balian is a tolerant man determined to atone for his sins--a man who understands that a man who does not make the world a better place is not a man. Guy de Lusignan, of course, is a pathetic man. But that does not stop Balian from giving him another chance. He will give to this man the chance he never gave to his priest brother, and will continue on giving chances such as these to his adversaries for the rest of his life. “When you rise again, if you rise,” he says to Guy, “rise a knight.”
(This piece is a contribution to Ratnakar Sandasyula's Ridley Scott Blogathon)