Kingdom of Heaven: Director’s Cut

I reviewed the theatrical cut of Kingdom of Heaven over a year ago, but we recently purchased the extended Director’s Cut (I was too impatient to wait for the Region 2 release, and besides the US version has a much prettier cover. Am shallow.)

The new cut adds back something like 55 minutes of footage to the film. It was a long movie to begin with, and this cut comes in at 191 minutes. Even taking into account the musical Overture and Entre’Acte, that’s a lot of extra film. It’s not just padding. Despite my praise for the original version it was plain that there was a lot missing: the character of Sibylla was sorely underdeveloped and made some apparently illogical decisions over the course of the film, while other elements appeared perfunctory. That was especially true of the film’s early sections where a great deal of character material and narrative transition were excised to propel the film into the Holy Land more quickly.

This edit is a definite improvement. As someone observes on the DVD extra features, the original cut was more of an sword and sandal action-adventure, but this cut is a historical epic. The characters are richer, the ideas explored more fully, and the interwoven plot threads focus less intently on Orlando Bloom to the exclusion of all else. Indeed, at times it’s like watching an entirely different story, as we learn that the priest in the early scenes is Balian’s brother, that Godfrey’s own brother plots against him, and most importantly that Sibylla has a young son who provides the main motivation for her character’s twists and turns throughout the movie. This last addition has a particularly marked impact on the focus and mood of the film, and its absence in the theatrical cut is perplexing.

While the bare bones of the story are unchanged, the additions throw new light on motivations, or highlight parallels between the actions of the Saracens and the Christians. They also emphasise just how secular is the film’s perspective: Balian is essentially an agnostic in a world of religious fervour, weighing both sides in the conflict and finding each wanting. It’s a very even-handed condemnation of murder in the name of God, with both sides shouting “God wills it” as they justify slaying the other. It’s also clear just how heavy are the chains of history that fuel the conflict, almost against the will of many of the participants. Saladin emerges as a thoughtful man trapped by history, just as the Christian King Baldwin fights against the hawks in his own camp. The script is at great pains to distance true holiness from organised religion; its creed is that compassion and honourable behaviour are the most important, and ultimately the most holy, actions of all. As I said last year, I still feel that placing such attitudes in the mouths of historical characters is anachronistic, but I can’t fault the sentiment and the film could hardly be more timely.

While it remains at heart a well-meaning mixture of soap and spectacle rather than a philosophical masterpiece, in its extended form Kingdom of Heaven is a slower, more coherent and more thoughtful film.

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