Spoilers ahead for Kingdom of Heaven.
In 2005, Ridley Scott released Kingdom of Heaven, his first historical action movie since the Oscar-winning Gladiator. Set during the Crusades, Kingdom of Heaven film follows Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom), a man grieving the death of his wife and on the run for murdering a corrupt priest (Michael Sheen). Balian reunites with his lost father Barisan (Liam Neeson) and the two head to Jerusalem to try to keep the peace between King Baldwin IV (Edward Norton), a dying leper, and the sultan Saladin (Ghassan Massoud). However, on the journey, Barisan dies and Balian is left to try and defend King Baldwin while also falling for the King’s sister Sibylla (Eva Green), whose husband Guy de Lusigan (Marton Csokas) looks to break the fragile truce with the Muslims. When the King dies, the truce is broken, and the Templar force is decimated. Balian is left to defend the city against Saladin’s forces. The two ultimately come to a truce where Balian and his people are allowed to leave in peace in exchange for ceding Jerusalem to Saladin. Balian returns home with Sibylla having found a measure of peace although once back in France, he encounters new Crusaders hoping to retake the Holy Land.
As far as action movies go, it’s not a terrible plot, but it’s not really the totality of the story Scott intended to tell. Due to test screenings and studio fears, Scott took out 45 minutes from what was planned as a historical epic. Instead, 20th Century Fox saw it as a summer blockbuster with Oscar potential similar to Gladiator. They opened the film in the first week of May (just like Gladiator), but the film did not receive the same reception. The film only received 39% on Rotten Tomatoes with the critic consensus being “Although it’s an objective and handsomely presented take on the Crusades, Kingdom of Heaven lacks depth,” and the box office was also fairly weak. The film only pulled in $47 million domestic, although it did manage to take in $218 million worldwide. Nevertheless, that paled in comparison to the $460 million worldwide that Gladiator had made just five years earlier.
Luckily for Scott and for audiences, Kingdom of Heaven arrived during the DVD boom. He was able to release a director’s cut of the movie in December 2005 at the Laemmle Fairfax Theatre in Los Angeles, California and then release that on a four-disc box set in May 2006 complete with overture and intermission. The Director’s Cut plays like a completely different movie with details that deepen and expand the characters to make Kingdom of Heaven more than a series of historical events, but a film about the conflict between free will and God’s will. The film is different right from the beginning as the film takes time to develop the conflict between the Priest and Balian so it doesn’t seem like Balian is just some hothead who murdered the Priest for insulting his wife’s memory.
These deeper relationships and characters permeate the entirety of the Director’s Cut with just about every lead being provided with more nuance and shading so that Kingdom of Heaven stops being a blockbuster action movie, but more of a character drama that happens to have some large set pieces. As for the action scenes, they also work better as the ambush scene is bloodier and heightens the stakes and dangers that Balian is about to face. It also further hammers home the constant theme of disruption and turning expectations on their head. Screenwriter William Monahan (who would go on to win an Oscar for The Departed) takes the hero’s journey and keeps upending it so that there’s really no safe place for Balian. What Balian has to learn isn’t really heroism (he’s always depicted as a fairly decent guy), but how to cope with his grief in a world where death surrounds him.
The captivating questions at the center of the Director’s Cut just aren’t really present in the theatrical version. There’s a whole subplot with Sibylla and her son that hammers home the random cruelty of the world and how we can hope to find peace when we can be affected by the deepest loss at any time. These character stakes match up well with the fight over Jerusalem, a manmade conflict of pointless suffering over land that is both Holy and yet, as God’s will is depicted in the movie, fickle and unpredictable. Power over Jerusalem transfers hands and the fight continues. In the theatrical version, that’s a neat story about military history. In the Director’s Cut, it serves as a metaphor for life and the paradox of fighting for peace. There are plenty of minor ways in which the Director’s Cut is just a richer experience, but it’s all in service to illuminating themes and ideas that the theatrical version didn’t have the time or capability to pursue.
But the Director’s Cut shouldn’t languish as some neat curiosity in Scott’s filmography. It is unquestionably one of the best films Scott has ever made even though it never got a wide theatrical release. While some Director’s Cuts are nifty “what ifs” with some deleted footage put back in, the Director’s Cut of Kingdom of Heaven changes the entire complexion and meaning of the movie. It’s transformative in a way that extended versions rarely are. To compare Scott to Scott, watching the extended edition of Gladiator is all well and good, but it’s still pretty much the same movie but with a bit more stuff thrown in. The Director’s Cut of Kingdom of Heaven fundamentally changes our understanding of the main characters and the larger themes with which the film is grappling. The movie’s ambition exceeds Gladiator‘s by far, but receives less popular attention due to its poor theatrical release.
Kingdom of Heaven isn’t a perfect movie, but it does have one of the best Director’s Cuts ever made because of how it re-crafts the movie not for spectacle or fun additions but entire subplots and character developments that make it a richer story and worthy of being a historical epic. If you haven’t seen the Director’s Cut, now is the time to sit back and enjoy all 3 hours and 14 minutes of Scott’s true vision for Kingdom of Heaven, a movie that remains visually stunning and impeccably crafted but at its longer runtime becomes more substantive and thoughtful about man’s propensity for violence and the difficulty of finding peace.