The term “director’s cut” sounds like it should carry with it some sense of grand artistic weight, a kind of “Hollywood be damned, this is the film I wanted” gravity. It’s a label that seems to shout “This is what real cinema is like before the suits get hold of it, man!” But what it often actually means is “Hey, I got to put in a little more nipple” or “Now With More Blood!”
Some filmmakers really do embrace the Director’s Cut as an opportunity to break significant new ground, though, and Ridley Scott has long been among them, as anyone obsessed with the minutiae of all five versions of Blade Runner will tell you. Like George Lucas and Peter Jackson, Scott’s never been shy about tinkering with his films well after their theatrical release, and in at least one case, that tinkering’s produced a dramatically improved work.
The theatrical cut of Kingdom of Heaven, Scott’s epic depiction of the last days of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, is a stony, inert historical drama scattered with strong visuals and topped off with a beautifully executed battle. But by restoring 45 minutes of footage to the film, including an entire subplot and some significant backstory, Scott produced a director’s cut that makes Kingdom of Heaven an epic to rival his Oscar-winning Gladiator.
Even at its Director’s Cut length of more than three hours, the philosophical heart of the film is not subtle. Scott’s hero, Balian (Orlando Bloom, playing a real historical figure), discovers he’s the bastard son of a Crusader baron (Liam Neeson) and heads to the Holy Land on a quest of atonement. Once there, he immediately makes for the site of Christ’s crucifixion and finds that, perched on the sacred mountaintop, he feels nothing. Later, he shows his warrior-priest friend (David Thewlis) how to create the illusion of the Biblical burning bush using nothing but a rock and the right plant. Still later, he asks the legendary Muslim ruler Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) “What is Jerusalem worth?” The Sultan first says “Nothing” and begins to walk away. Then he turns, smiles, and says “Everything.” The film opens with a shot of a group of knights riding through a snowy French landscape with a massive stone cross in the foreground. In the world of Kingdom of Heaven, religion is a cold but unmovable master, a framework for manipulation and war that all men serve even when they don’t believe it.
Scott’s somewhat heavy-handed agnosticism doesn’t mar the “virtue is its own reward” conclusions Balian arrives at, though, particularly when the film is allowed to explore its characters to the extent that the Director’s Cut does. As the reluctant hero who morphs into the resigned savior, Bloom delivers what might be his finest performance, but the true richness of the film lies in the people who teach him the lessons he must learn. Kingdom of Heaven sports one of the most talented supporting casts you’re ever likely to see, and if Bloom looks diminished in the film, it’s only because he’s surrounded by giants.
Neeson was born to play a mentor figure, and he’s succeeded in the film by Jeremy Irons, who is flawless as the gruff, scarred Marshall of Jerusalem. Edward Norton never shows his face, but transfixes as the masked leper King of Jerusalem Baldwin IV in a performance that should be a highlight of his career. Marton Csokas and Brendan Gleeson are wonderfully villainous as a pair of Templar knights who demand, and eventually get, a war with Saladin. Massoud, almost unknown to Western audiences, delivers a performance so powerful that it makes you want him to star in a big-budget Saladin movie all his own. And then there’s Eva Green, the tormented future queen of Jerusalem, who in the Director’s Cut becomes much more than a romantic figure. In this version of the film, she’s one of its strongest characters.
Those of you playing along at home know that everything listed above amounts to a lot of plot, character, and structure to get through, and the theatrical cut just can’t manage it. What the director’s cut does, in the grand tradition of classic historical epics featuring things like musical intermissions (something Scott added to this film in a limited theatrical run of this cut), is not just give room for all of these characters to grow, but give room for the viewer to get lost in this world.
Films like Kingdom of Heaven are supposed to feel luxurious and bigger than the cinema screen, and the director’s cut not only achieves that, but brushes in plenty of detail over the bland desert landscape of the original. In an age when a single novel can be stretched into multiple movies, sometimes it’s good to remember that some films need to be this big, and in its director’s cut form, Kingdom of Heaven is worth every single minute.
Matthew Jackson is a freelance pop culture writer/nerd-for-hire and Contributing Editor at Blastr.com. Find him on Twitter at @awalrusdarkly.