“God will understand, my lord. And if he doesn’t, then he is not God and we need not worry.”
Following the suicide of his wife, a blacksmith – Balian of Ibelin – receives a visit from his estranged father, a knight in the kingdom of Jerusalem. Balian flees his home to unite with his father and his fellow knights on a trek back to The Holy Land in the hopes of finding himself closer to God. Upon arrival, Balian instead finds a kingdom on the verge of inner political turmoil at the hands of a Prince who is all too bloodthirsty to wage war against the 200,000 strong Muslim army, led by Saladin who himself feels responsible as Muslim leader to regain control of Jerusalem. Despite the current King of Jerusalem’s ability to retain peace through denominational acceptance of all forms of prayer in The Holy Land it’s only a matter of time before he loses his own life and has to pass the reign on to a new, less understandable King.
Why We Love It
Let’s first make something as clear as absolutely possible – the Director’s Cut of Kingdom of Heaven is the only version of this film that should exist. I’m not sure if needless film cutting at the hands of the studio of this magnitude has ever been done before, but the theatrical cut of Kingdom of Heaven is not only inferior, it’s bad – whereas the original Director’s Cut of the film is not only good, it may be amongst the top films Ridley Scott has ever made. So, part of the reason why we love this movie is simply because it exists when it very easily might not have. It’s a crime that the Director’s Cut version of the film did not make it into theaters, but it would have been a monumental loss if this cut had never been able to see the light of day ever.
As to why we love the film on its own merits all the trademarks of superior Ridley Scott filmmaking are here. Great sets, great cinematography, great music, and a great story performed by some great actors (Edward Norton, David Thewlis, Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons…) doing great work and some actors you wouldn’t think capable of great work (Orlando Bloom and former World’s Strongest Man Jouko Ahola) performing on par with the seasoned veterans. There are few things about the film that are not exceptional, but it’s the characters that truly make it memorable.
Finding an abundance of heroes, or protagonists in film to be synonymous with what one would consider to be a great man is challenging – or at least more than you might think. It’s absolutely common to have heroes, and especially secondary characters, have their moral shades of gray or lack of principles to both make them appear more human and allow for growth. There are very few Atticus Finch’s, Mahatma Gandhi’s, or Juror #8’s on this planet and even fewer on the big screen. Kingdom of Heaven probably has no less than two great men per scene and they’re represented on both the Christian and Muslim sides of the story. They’re men that are unconsumed by greed, vengeance, and vanity and uncompromised by a false sense of righteousness in the name of God.
Not perfect men, but men who try not to allow their love of God to conflict with their innate sense of right and wrong; which sometimes appears an insurmountable temptation to do wrong in the name of God and not hiding behind their religion when they do wrong knowingly. They know it’s bad to kill, but worse to believe that it was done because it was God’s will – that there is in fact a difference between what is permissible and what is right; and trying to live your life to do what you should do in the service of man and not what you are allowed to do in the perceived eyes of God.
Some films attempt similar approaches to the portrayals of admirable men to the detriment of the film because they focus on the message too much. They come across as if they’re either on a moral high horse, or feel dishonest. Kingdom of Heaven feels more focused on its telling of the story that the displays of aptitude in moral practice are refreshing and not preachy; even during the moments when men don’t yield to the enticements that the audience might wish that they would.
Moment We Fell in Love
Balian awaits a ship to take to the Holy Land at the port of Messina and Guy de Lusignan (the bloodthirsty prince of the synopsis) formally introduces himself as Balian eats lunch. As Balian eats Guy pecks at him with his riding stick as he talks about the day when the King of Jerusalem will die and the open arms of the Holy Land to all forms of religion will end. Balian gets annoyed by the pecking of the stick and yanks it out of Guy’s hands and sets it next to his plate, then continues to eat his meal. Guy tries to save face and tells Balian to keep it as if he’s not even slightly embarrassed. Balian, not allowing Guy the small satisfaction of walking away with a smidgen of pride, asks how he plans to be able to ride if he has no stick to beat his horse – and then throws the stick back to Guy.
In the grand fashion of classic Hollywood, Kingdom of Heaven – The Director’s Cut is in every way an exceptional epic. If viewing the 4 disc dvd version of the film it opens with an Overture and cuts in the middle with an Intermission, both accompanied with a gorgeous musical score. Sadly, the single-disc blu-ray, while in every way a phenomenal transfer, lacks the Intermission of the standard-def counterpart which does slightly diminish the feel of the experience. It’s the kind of feel you get if you were watching Ben-Hur or Seven Samurai. It’s that feeling of grandeur. Regardless, whether you see the dvd or blu-ray there is probably no greater example in the past 20 years of epic filmmaking (not even the almighty Lord of the Rings trilogy). It has gorgeous photography, a sweeping musical score, an involving storyline that takes its time in establishing the right kind of affection, intrigue, or disdain for the characters so that it can build to its gruesome conflicts.
If the country had been able to see this film in its truest form there would be strong debate as to which of Ridley Scott’s historical epics of the 2000s was his best.