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15 Years Later: Kingdom of Heaven

7 May 20 words: Ashley Carter

With the film set to mark its 15th anniversary, Ashley Carter looks back at the legacy of Ridley Scott’s overlooked historical epic Kingdom of Heaven...

Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Orlando Bloom, Eva Green, Ghassan Massoud
Running time: 194 minutes

I distinctly remember seeing Kingdom of Heaven for the first time. As a fresh-faced eighteen-year-old about to embark on a history degree at university, a new historical epic about the Crusades from Ridley Scott ensured I was nothing short of giddy as I entered the cinema, long-suffering girlfriend (now wife) in tow. I’d seen the pulsating trailer more times than I could remember, and the posters were plastered on every bus and billboard around town. It had been a long five years since Gladiator, but Ridley Scott was finally back with another barn-storming historical epic.

But as the final credits rolled in that Croydon cinema, my sense of disappointment was only bettered by my abject sense of confusion. Not only was the film woefully lacklustre, it didn’t even make sense. It was disjointed, rushed, and tonally all over the place. As we trudged out, heads bowed in frustration, I asked if I’d fallen asleep at some point, and just couldn’t remember. Sadly, I had been awake for the entire thing.

But I’m nothing if not a glutton for punishment, so when Scott released his Director’s Cut toward the end of 2005, I eagerly snapped up a copy. Suddenly, everything made sense. Gone was the baffling, truncated plot I’d experienced in the butchered theatrical release, replaced by an extra hour of content that helped complete what is now, in my opinion at least, one of Scott’s finest films. Whereas Director’s Cuts generally tend to just throw a few new treats in for the obsessive viewer, Scott’s portrayed an entirely different Kingdom of Heaven.

It was 20th Century Fox, the studio behind the film, who made the decision to hack almost an hour of plot from Scott’s original edit to facilitate a more audience-friendly 144-minute running time. By leaving in the historical epic ‘greatest hits’ (bombastic battle scenes, rousing speeches and grand-scale set pieces) they made the mistake of tearing out the soul, and therefore the overall point, of Scott’s planned film: the spiritual implications of the Crusades, and the codes of honour that shaped the men fighting over them. By removing that, the studio tore the very heart out of Kingdom of Heaven, rendering everything they left behind meaningless.

Set in 1184, the film takes place in a fascinating crossroads in world history. Jerusalem exists in a relative time of peace, held by the Christian descendants of knights who initially captured the Holy Land during the blood-soaked First Crusade. Despite the inherent tensions, an ongoing truce between King Baldwin (the Christian king dying of leprosy) and Saladin, the First Sultan of Damascus is holding, bound by the mutual respect, pragmatism and understanding between the two men.

As well as a cynical view of religion, empire and the follies of warfare in general, it’s a humanistic exploration of pragmatism, duty and dignity on both sides of the conflict

It is during this time that a Crusader Knight and Lord of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) returns to France in order to find his bastard son, Balian (Orlando Bloom), who has just buried his wife after she committed suicide. As an outcast in his community, Balian flees with the group after murdering his Priest brother (Michael Sheen), and his newfound father is mortally wounded in the subsequent battle to escape. Ibelin lives long enough to make Balian a Knight, however, and sends him on his way to the Holy Land, where he soon becomes embroiled in the centre of a deadly struggle for power in the Jerusalem court.

The strength of the film comes in its sprawling meditative view of the complexities of ownership of Jerusalem, as well as the rich arrangement of characters and factions at play. As well as Neeson as Ibelin, Scott’s cast is faultless: Edward Norton, though never seen owing to the metal mask his character wears, is a superb choice as the leprous King Baldwin; Jeremy Irons is the weary, grizzled Tiberias; Brendan Gleeson as the troublesome, war-hungry Reynald de Chatillon; David Thewlis as the mysterious Hospitaler; Marton Csokas as the antagonist Guy de Lusignan; Eva Green as the tragic Sibylla; Alexander Siddig as the noble, level-headed Imad and the brilliantly cast Ghassan Massoud as the great Saladin. Even supporting roles from Sheen, Kevin McKidd and Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau are note-perfect. Sadly, when it comes to the cast, the only weak point comes from the very foundation in which the entire film is built on: its lead. The decision to give Orlando Bloom a role that requires range far more than he is capable of almost sinks the film before it has even set sail, but it’s credit to the surrounding cast that he is carried through. Swap him out for a 2005 pre-Batman Christian Bale, and we’re talking an almost-perfect historical epic.

With a tapestry that rich, and historical subject matter so complex, the decision to rip an hour’s worth of material from the running time becomes even more misguided. Characters’ act out of turn and major plot points are removed entirely, meaning that entire set pieces are propelled forward without any sensible explanation. After Baldwin’s death, the young son of his sister Sibylla is placed on the throne, before it is discovered that he too has leprosy. She kills him out of mercy, not willing to see him wither away like her brother, throwing the kingdom into political chaos and driving herself wild with grief in the process. It’s a sequence of events that drives the motives of many of the main characters in the third act, infusing her character with a Shakespearean level of melancholic tragedy. Not only was this taken out of the theatrical edit, but her character doesn’t even have a son. What was a delicately assembled, balanced look at the spiritual battle for Jerusalem was tactlessly morphed into a by-the-numbers swords-and-sandals battle fest that is ostensibly a formulaic rags-to-riches story about Balian. It’s little wonder that Ridley Scott disowned the theatrical release, and Eva Green refused to partake in the film’s promotional tour.

Scott rightly drew praise from Muslim commentators for his layered approach to the presentation of both Saladin and the Islamic quest to recapture Jerusalem. While many of the complexities of his and King Baldwin’s quest to build a golden kingdom of conscience are lost in the theatrical release, the film never tips into the civilised Christian versus barbaric Muslim territory we’ve come to expect from many lesser epic films. In fact, the only real barbarism comes from the Christian soldiers baying for war, attacking unarmed Muslim traders in order to provoke a full-scale conflict.

So if you’ve only ever been subjected to the original theatrical release of Kingdom of Heaven, you’re right to be hesitant. But give the Director’s Cut a go – it’s well worth the 190-minutes you’ll need to invest in it. As well as a cynical view of religion, empire and the follies of warfare in general, it’s a humanistic exploration of pragmatism, duty and dignity on both sides of the conflict, seen by some as a damning indictment of George W. Bush’s own Middle East warmongering at the time it was released. Additionally, Bloom’s Balian mercifully becomes just another part of the overall presentation of the failed attempt to build paradise. It might not follow historical accuracy to the letter, and has more than a few elements of schmaltz (almost all due to Mr. Bloom), but it’s a perfect balm to the monstrosity that came out in cinemas in 2005, and one of, if not the, best film Ridley Scott ever made.

Did you know? When journalist Robert Fisk watched the film in Beirut, Muslim viewers stood and applauded during a scene in which Saladin places a fallen cross back on top of a table after it had fallen during the siege.

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