Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Ridley Second Guessing Ridley: Ridley Scott's Director's Cut of Kingdom of Heaven

I was tempted to label this particular post as “Produced and Abandoned,” but I couldn't quite justify a film that cost $130 million to make and grossed $211 million worldwide as being “abandoned.” And yet, on the basis of the theatrical cut which was released in 2005, Ridley Scott's crusader epic, Kingdom of Heaven was, pun intended, sacrificed on the altar of commerce. Released at 145 minutes, the theatrical cut of Kingdom of Heaven is a god-awful mess. Incoherent and simplistic, the film faded from my memory pretty quickly after I saw it on DVD in 2006. In fact, the only things I remember from the film were some good action scenes and two reasonably credible performances: one by Orlando Bloom in the lead; and the other, uncredited, by Ed Norton as King Baldwin (his character is a leper and so we never see his face as it is hidden by a silver mask).

All of which was too bad, since the premise was promising. Balian (Bloom) is a blacksmith in a small French village who one day is approached by Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson). Godfrey reveals to the pauper Balian that he is in fact Godfrey's abandoned bastard son. Godfrey convinces him to join him and his men as they travel to Jerusalem to defend the city they, the crusaders, have held for 100 years. En route, they are set upon and Godfrey is critically wounded. Balian takes over and, after a shipwreck and other travails, arrives in Jerusalem. As the heir to Godfrey, Balian inherits villa and land outside of Jerusalem that appears to be infertile. Using his knowledge of landscape, he and his servants find water and make the property thrive. At the same time in Jerusalem, he is introduced to the ongoing political turmoil of the city. King Baldwin is a Christian king respected by the Muslims and Jews as he has always treated all three religions with equal respect. Behind his back, the Templars and others are plotting to overthrow him and seize the city for themselves. Prime villains here are Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) and Reynald de Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson). Through their villainy, the 100-year long peace between the Christians and the Muslims implodes. The Muslim leader, Saladin (Nasser Memarzia), is an honourable man, and after a great conflict, allows the remaining crusaders and their families, including Balian, to leave Jerusalem unharmed. There's more, but that's the basic premise.

Orlando Bloom as Balian

In 2008, I found myself in Best Buy checking out the DVDs when I came across the 4-disc Director's Cut of the said picture. I would have ignored it, because I figured it retailed at around $40 to $50 (which it does). However, on the tag in front they'd managed to price it at $16 (thinking, I guess, it was the regular version). I asked and they admitted, 'Yup, our mistake. But we will honour that price.' So, for some dumb reason (a bargain is a bargain and it was the Director's Cut) I bought it and, since I didn't like the film, it sat on my shelf until last month.

Watching things like the now-cancelled CBC series Camelot (too bad, because as the season went along it got quite interesting), and HBO's Game of Thrones, I was clearly in the sword-fighting epic mode, so I pulled out the picture and put it on. Plus, like Camelot, the film also starred Eva Green – who is both talented and really pleasing on the eye. When I pulled it off the shelf, I discovered it was still in its original wrapper. I flipped it over and checked out to the running time: 194 minutes. I did a quick search and discovered the time discrepancy with the theatrical cut (49 minutes longer). What the heck? Most director's cuts, if they're not Lord of the Rings, are sometimes only a few minutes longer and in fact sometimes shorter (Scott's Alien, for example). I braced myself for three hours and fourteen minutes of a film I didn't like. Why was I doing this? Curiosity about what exactly got left on the cutting room floor.

In a word: everything.

Eva Green as Sibylla
If I remember clearly, in the theatrical cut, Eva Green's character, Sibylla, only has one purpose: Orlando's sexual liaison. In her early scenes, she's flirtatious, feisty and wilful. She hooks up with Bloom, they do the horizontal cha-cha, and then she disappears from the film for a long stretch. Next time we see her, she's hacking off all her hair and acting crazy. That's about it. That is just one example of the picture's what-the-fuck incoherence. There is more, but that is the one that sticks out in my mind five years after I saw the film.

In the Director's Cut, we discover early that Sibylla has a son who is a vital part of a film-long subplot that gives the film heft and resonance. Sibylla is the half sister of King Baldwin, and since Baldwin is without an heir, her son will become King of Jerusalem when he dies. Guy and Reynald are constantly plotting to overthrow Baldwin, and are mighty unhappy when Sibylla's son takes over from the now-dead king. However, Sibylla does something simultaneously horrifying and merciful that allows Guy to assume the throne. This act leads to her decline and fall, hacking off all her hair and going somewhat crazy. Now it makes sense. There are umpteen other restored scenes that add depth to this film. For example, we learn, through a simple and short flashback at the start, that Balian had a wife who when she miscarried committed suicide meaning the church refused to bury her in consecrated ground. This makes Balian's own despondency at the start of the film make some sense too. Godfrey's part is expanded so that we understand the growing love and respect between father and son.

Almost everything added makes this film if not a masterpiece (there's still problems which I will cover shortly) at least a thoroughly entertaining and worthwhile epic. So what went wrong? Scott reveals all in one sentence during the long and extensive support material. He says: “I've always been a team player.” Meaning, he's always been willing to do whatever he's told and will not defend his pictures. Even during script stage the 'suits' kept harping on and on about the necessity of the 'son subplot.' Scott and screenwriter William Monahan held firm, and the material was kept and shot. During post production, after talented editor Dody Dorn had done her work and they'd brought the film to a bit more than 3 hours, the whole 'do-we-need-the-son-subplot' issue came up again. This time, the suits were worried about the economics of releasing a three hour plus picture. Dorn was told to cut an alternate version hacking out the son. She states in the support material that she was asked earlier by some executive to read the two scripts (Monahan had done a draft that eliminated the boy). Without missing a beat, she said “the one with the boy is better.” No kidding.

Ed Norton as King Baldwin

But then on the support material of the Director's Cut, the defence of the theatrical cut begins with interview comments from executive wank Lisa Ellzey repeatedly representing the accountants’ side. What is so head-shaking about all this is that they all go on and on about the economics of releasing a three hour movie yet they seem to be pretending that the Lord of the Rings movies never happened (the longest one was 201 minutes long). And four of the first five Harry Potter films were longer than Kingdom of Heaven's running time too. To compare epic to epic, David Lean's 1962 Lawrence of Arabia was 216 minutes long. Then they go on about why the film failed theatrically in North America (it took in only about $47 million; the rest was made overseas) blaming the fact that the film was perceived as too pro-Muslim (In the film, the only real villains are the Christians, Guy and Reynald. The Muslims are all portrayed as warriors who maintain their honour throughout.) When I saw the film, I noticed that the only bad guys in the picture were both Christians, but I didn't care. I knew my history, and I knew that Saladin was a respected warrior and leader. What I had a problem with was that the film didn't make any sense because it had been butchered to reach a running time they thought they needed to achieve a solid economic return. This butchery is probably what caused the film to flop. In a last justification, they even attempt to blame the viewers as, essentially, being too stupid to comprehend a too complex film, therefore justifying hacking out the too complex son subplot. I'm not kidding. What the viewer probably thought is this makes no sense and so never recommended it to their friends.

Still, let's not get too praiseworthy about the Director's Cut. The fact that the Christians are the only cartoonish villains in the piece (particularly Gleeson's loony take as Reynald) is problematic. If the film wanted the “balanced view,” as Monahan claims, at least one of the Muslims should have been a bit villainous. Or, the two Christians should have been played as 'blinded by religion' and naive instead craven bastards who will do anything for power. Scott also reinserted an unnecessary final conflict between two characters that is ridiculous and deserved to be left on the cutting room floor.

Scott has a history of being a “team player” and not going to bat for his films. Blade Runner was ruined by his willingness, again at the behest of the suits, to add the asinine narration and the makes-no-sense happy ending. It wasn't until years later that he was able to go back and make his Director's Cut of that film. At least this time he freely admits on the DVD that his plan was to release his Director's Cut of this film, too, because he now had the power to make such a demand. Too bad he didn't have the faith in his own first instincts and fought for the longer version of this film as the theatrical cut. If he had, he might have had a film that people might still remember (and even rewatch) instead of thinking, “that incoherent mess?”

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information. And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel.

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