DVD Review – ‘Kingdom of Heaven: The Director’s Cut’

     May 22, 2006

Six months after its Oscar qualifying run in Los Angeles which yielded a grand total of zero nominations, Kingdom of Heaven: The Director’s Cut is at last arriving to DVD as a superbly produced four disc special edition where, if there’s any justice, a groundswell of support from viewers will vault the film to its rightful perch as one of the finest medieval epics of all time, and the most historically responsible cinematic examination of the Crusades to date.

Unfortunately, that’s going to take some doing.

The first hurdle will be the toughest to clear, and that’s convincing consumers burned by the undernourished – in terms of character and story – theatrical version to give up an additional 194 minutes of their time to the movie in an age where the idea of a “Director’s Cut” has been traduced by studios belching out allegedly improved incarnations of, for instance, The New Guy, Miss Congeniality or Elektra. Clearly, audiences found little appetizing about Kingdom of Heaven the first time around why return to or, in most cases, watch for the first time a sword-and-sandals saga from the guy who did Gladiator when it doesn’t even have the additional cachet of Academy Awards nominations to recommend it? Though I’ve been doing my meager part for the resuscitation of the film here on Collider (and, thanks to the screening we hosted last April, the gospel has been spread by the estimable duo of Bill Hunt or The Digital Bits and Todd Gilchrist of IGN), it’s proven incredibly difficult to interest even fellow critics to bother with the Director’s Cut because they regard the theatrical cut as unsalvageable (an untenable position, to be sure, but one I’ve encountered repeatedly).

Undoubtedly, 20th Century Fox did spectacularly wrong by Kingdom of Heaven when they insisted on the excision of a major character arc (that of Sybilla’s young son who is briefly crowned King), which, in turn, led to further trimming to retain some semblance of narrative coherence. As Dody Dorn notes in the excellent feature length production documentary, The Path to Redemption, the studio was crassly turning a delicately nuanced epic into an action film that ends with the protagonist, Balian (Orlando Bloom), battling toward a hard-won surrender, a concept that couldn’t be more anathema to the general American public. Bereft of the context and character development necessary to make this (hopefully) palatable to a country that largely equates surrender with quitting (which dredges up uncomfortable memories of Korea, Vietnam, and the 2002 MLB All-Star Game), Balian’s strategy came off as admirable but anticlimactic given the film’s conventional structure even if we agreed with the gesture, we couldn’t help but feel disappointed because action films of this nature are supposed to have rousing endings.

“Triumph” is one way to describe Ridley Scott’s restored cut of Kingdom of Heaven “masterpiece” is another. “Essential”, however, nails it best, since the film espouses the importance of conducting oneself in an honorable, practical and compassionate manner that could accurately be described as “Christian” or “Muslim”, while depicting the misery and destruction that dependably washes up in the wake of fanaticism. In The Path to Redemption, William Monahan refers to the picture as “good-hearted”, which it is, but this was obscured early in the production by a wildly inaccurate New York Times article that claimed the screenplay depicted Muslims as backwards, bloodthirsty and, generally, evil. Later, upon the film’s theatrical release, a columnist in the Reverend Sun Myung Moon-owned The Washington Times alleged that Kingdom of Heaven was anti-Christian.

Anyone capable of such arriving at such assessments is a fool, and that is why Kingdom of Heaven is so terribly essential. It is, as Scott says, attempting to heal the wound that tore open when rival Christian and Muslim factions spoiled for war to decide sole ideological possession of Jerusalem – a folly of supreme arrogance that has been the source of so much hatred and bloodshed. Obviously, no one film is ever going to cauterize this wound, but the attempt – which takes historical liberties while remaining true to the spirit of the conflict – could still be shown in schools and churches, and at least inspire a little dialogue, which might eventually lead the way to some kind of rapprochement. Movies of this nature, particularly those developed within the studio system, are in woefully short supply, so when something like as powerful and even-handed as Kingdom of Heaven comes along, you want to share it with everyone.

And now that street date has come. Though Charles de Lauzirika already covered the entire development, production and post-production process quite capably with the 2005’s Kingdom of Heaven two-disc release, with The Path to Redemption, he has somehow covered the same ground without repeating himself by going into finer detail with certain elements (the scuttled Tripoli gets a thorough and fascinating going over), while working in some wonderfully candid on-set moments (watch in awe as Ridley Scott calmly deals with a gang of choreography-botching archers when any other director would’ve resorted to histrionics). This is anything but a boilerplate making-of documentary it’s a uniquely unfettered look at the mounting of an epic that makes the whole ordeal feel tangible if still completely daunting. No filmmaker has opened up his process to viewer scrutiny as exhaustively as Scott, and Lauzirika, who’s done great work for the director before with the Alien Quadrilogy and the Deluxe Edition of Black Hawk Down, has outdone himself with a startlingly lucid accounting of the man’s particular genius.

While The Path to Redemption is the four-disc set’s main course, there are plenty of other choice bits to be found. The film, which is now presented as a road show (with an overture and intermission), is complemented by three commentary tracks. The first features Scott, Monahan and Orlando Bloom, and mostly avoids feeling redundant alongside The Path to Redemption thanks to Ridley’s sneaky sense of humor. The second track combines executive producer Lisa Ellzey, visual effects supervisor Wesley Sewell and first AD Adam Somner, and offers decent nuts-and-bolts insight, though the third track with editor Dody Dorn is far more indispensable in this regard. And there’s a trivia track titled “The Enginer’s Guide” that you can switch on when you decide to watch the film a fifth or sixth time. Yes, it’s excessive, but it’s there and edifying for people who prefer that kind of thing.

Interspersed throughout the two supplemental discs are some terrific featurettes that augment the main documentary for those seeking more detail. The overview and production art for Tripoli is especially enticing hopefully, Scott and Monahan will return to that project at some point in the relatively near future (both men are pretty jammed up with work at present). The most fascinating featurette is the Interactive Sound Design Suite, which offers up different tracks for certain scenes to give viewers a sense of how carefully sound gets layered into a film. I’m not usually a fan of interactive featurettes on DVDs, but this one is actually pretty user friendly and genuinely informative.

All in all, it’s not surprising that one of 2005’s best films might just have spawned the best DVD of 2006.

And if you want to be a cheapskate, we’ve got five copies of Kingdom of Heaven: The Director’s Cut to give away. Just email Frosty at this here address, and you could have yourself four discs of Ridley Scott bliss.

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