Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom Of Heaven” (2005)

The cinematic landscape is littered with the ruins of would-be classics, embarked upon by well-intentioned filmmakers who nevertheless couldn’t rise to the task.  As much as we like to attribute a technical or industrial quality to the act of filmmaking, we tend to forget its volatile and unpredictable nature as an artistic medium.  Indeed, each film is a strange alchemy of vision, taste, and ego that’s nearly impossible to quantify, let alone rely upon — the same creative ingredients that won an Oscar yesterday may yield today’s box office bomb.  For all his unassailable talents as a director, even the most cursory glances at Sir Ridley Scott’s canon demonstrates that he is no stranger to failure. What sets him apart is his ability to re-write the fate of his films; having popularized the idea of the “Director’s Cut” with BLADE RUNNER (1982), Scott has learned to wield this tool like a weapon against the studio overlords who unwittingly conspire against his legacy.  It remains one of the most fascinating quirks of Scott’s career that this pragmatic journeyman of the studio tradition would also routinely shame fussy executives with the full potency of his unmanipulated vision.  Nowhere is this trait more evident than in Scott’s medieval epic, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005) — a lavishly-mounted effort that overcame a catastrophic theatrical release with a director’s cut that re-positioned this apparent failure as one of the finest films in the venerated director’s oeuvre.  

Interestingly enough, the opportunity to make KINGDOM OF HEAVEN rose from the ashes of another failed project: TRIPOLI.  Similarly-styled as a sweeping historical epic, TRIPOLI had already endured a troubled development history that saw Twentieth Century Fox pull the plug no less than twice prior.  The third iteration of TRIPOLI got as far as pre-production, with Scott and company scouting locations in far flung locales while commissioning the construction of elaborate sets.  Despite the considerable costs already imposed, executives at Fox ultimately deemed it better to simply cut their losses by killing Scott’s long-gestating passion project for a third and final time.  TRIPOLI was finally, ultimately, officially, dead—  but all was not lost. Around this same time, TRIPOLI’s screenwriter, William Monahan, finished another script about The Siege of Jerusalem during the Crusades of the late 12th century.  Scott — who himself had been knighted in 2003 for his contributions to English film history — had always wanted to make a movie set in The Crusades but had not yet found the right story.  He had even developed a project some years ago titled, simply, KNIGHT, but hadn’t progressed beyond the commissioning of some conceptual art for it.  Here, now, was a story that Scott could really sink his teeth into, and he subsequently marshaled the momentum of his TRIPOLI team’s efforts into the production of KINGDOM OF HEAVEN.  Just as fellow director Stanley Kubrick threw all the research and passion for his failed NAPOLEON project into 1975’s BARRY LYNDON, so too would Scott create KINGDOM OF HEAVEN as his own consolation prize for TRIPOLI’s collapse.  He would be aided in this quest by Executive Producers Lisa Ellzey, Terry Needham, and GLADIATOR’s Branko Lustig, prompting speculation around the industry that Scott was about to deliver the second coming of his Oscar-winning 2000 epic.  To those inside Scott’s creative circle, however, it became quickly apparent that KINGDOM OF HEAVEN was destined to leave a much more complicated legacy.  

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Billed alternatively as both an action-adventure and a historical epic, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN assumes the time-honored Hero’s Quest plot structure, serving as something of a road movie that tracks protagonist Balian de Iberia’s journey from obscure French blacksmith to commander of the Christian armies in Jerusalem.  The story begins in 1184, where, after his wife’s tragic suicide, the young widower has resigned himself to a meager subsistence forging swords for distant battles. Having previously worked with Scott in a minor role in 2001’s BLACK HAWK DOWN, Orlando Bloom seizes the opportunity of his first major leading role by assuming the guise of a soulful and sensitive man who nevertheless possesses a fierce determination and courage.  The source of said courage is a mystery to him, as Scott’s Director’s Cut reveals his only relatives in the village to be a conniving uncle and Michael Sheen’s duplicitous half-brother who masquerades as a pious man of God.  Imagine Balian’s surprise when he discovers his true lineage as the son of a revered knight named Godfrey de Ibelin, who informs Balian of this fact when he rides through town on the way to The Holy Land. As Godfrey, Liam Neeson’s paternal wisdom and worldliness projects the perfect aura to inspire Balian to leave his home and claim his true destiny.  Impaled by an arrow during a scuffle with the authorities outside town, Godfrey lasts just long enough to escort Balian to the coastal town of Messina and train him in the ways of the sword; his final act being the bestowal of knighthood on his young heir.

The reluctant hero soon departs for Jerusalem, where he quickly becomes entangled in the affairs of King Baldwin and his sister, Princess Sibylla.  Played by Ed Norton in an uncredited performance, King Baldwin is a young ruler whose leprosy forces his face to be perpetually veiled behind an enigmatic chrome mask— one of the film’s most striking and memorable conceits.  His is a fair and just rule, always grappling with the philosophical implications of his power, and he becomes one of the first to recognize both Balian’s keen intellect and his potential as an engineer and military tactician.  His sister, Sybilla, on the other hand, recognizes both his charisma and his potential as a lover— one that can better fulfill her needs than her current husband, the egomaniacal and boastful Guy de Lusignan (Martin Csokas). Eva Green fulfills her role as the Princess of Jerusalem with a regal, statuesque elegance, benefitting (particularly in Scott’s Director’s Cut) from her director’s unique sensitivity to richly-developed heroines.  Sybilla possesses agency and vision; no small feat during a time when all women were relegated to the margins of society, only able to perform the most domestic of societal functions. Even her motherhood is a source of strength, evidenced in the Director’s Cut with a subplot that sees her deal with one of the most awful caregiving choices imaginable. Befitting its epic aspirations, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN also boasts committed performances by a world-class supporting cast that includes David Thewlis as an enigmatic mentor/Crusader known only as Hospitaler, Jeremy Irons as a gruff authority figure who grows more and more disillusioned with the horrific butchery committed in God’s name, Brendan Gleeson as Guy’s bloodthirsty and Dionysian lieutenant, Alexander Siddig as a humane enemy combatant, and Ghasson Massoud as the elegant and just Saladin, commander to a massive Muslim army that seeks to retake Jerusalem from the Christians.  These compelling characters all feed back into Balian, who quickly rises through the ranks in a time of great crisis to take command of the Christian Army, tasked with defending the Holy City and its inhabitants from a seemingly-unstoppable enemy with nothing to lose.

As is to be expected from an epic of this caliber, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN boasts impeccable production value, particularly when it comes to the contribution of his GLADIATOR collaborators, cinematographer John Mathieson and production designer Arthur Max.  Both have gone on to become key recurring contributors to Scott’s subsequent filmography, helping him to shape and redefine his visual aesthetic during this reinvigorated career period.  The lavish Technicolor epics of the mid-twentieth century — David Lean’s 1962 classic, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, in particular — cast a long shadow over KINGDOM OF HEAVEN’s approach, which begins with a lush 35mm film image framed in the appropriate 2.35:1 aspect ratio.  Mathieson‘s high-contrast cinematography makes full use of cutting-edge digital imaging technology to push the film’s predominantly-blue & orange color palette to extremes.  Indeed, scenes set in cold, wintery France are almost monochromatic in their use of a heavy cobalt color cast, drowning out most other colors save for deliberate little details like the gleaming crimson ruby lodged in the hilt of Godfrey’s sword.  Once the film moves to Messina, the overall color temperature takes on a neutral balance, allowing for a natural transition to the dusky oranges that define sun-dappled Jerusalem and its surrounding deserts. Scott’s atmospheric signatures are ever-present, populating his mise-en-scene with evocative visual flourishes like smoke, lens flares, billowing snow, intimate candlelight, and dramatic gradient skies.  The camerawork follows suit, blending old-school classical sweeps with relatively new techniques like varying shutter speeds, stylized slow motion and elegant Steadicam moves.

As KINGDOM OF HEAVEN’s production designer, Arthur Max holds arguably the most un-enviable position on set.  If it wasn’t enough to be tasked with recreating the 12th Century from scratch, he also has to contend with a director whose own background in production design results in an unflagging eye for demanding detail.  Thankfully, Max and Scott have formed something of a symbiotic working relationship, feeding off each other’s creative energies to construct some of the most immersive environments in all of modern cinema. KINGDOM OF HEAVEN benefits from Scott and Max’s practical, inventive approach as well as their familiarity with the film’s far-flung shooting locales in Spain and Morocco.  The latter country in particular has come to be a key resource in Scott’s recent filmography, with his prior shoots for GLADIATOR and BLACK HAWK DOWN allowing for the fostering of a productive friendship with King Mohamed VI.  The monarch was reportedly all too happy to provide his military’s assistance in filling out the warrior ranks during KINGDOM OF HEAVEN’s grueling shoot, as well as furnishing any necessary equipment (1).  One compelling example would find Max working with local artisans to construct the Muslim army’s siege towers, which were hand-built using only the authentic, pre-industrial methods available to them in the 12th century (1).  The film’s staggering recreation of medieval Jerusalem is the result of cutting-edge computer imagery blending with the kind of practical set approach that stems from seasoned experience at this scale. Only a section of Jerusalem’s defensive wall was built, allowing the production team to seamlessly plant a highly-detailed digital environment behind it.  Scott & Max stretched crucial production dollars by recycling certain sets no less than four times, an approach bolstered by Scott’s familiarity with both his Moroccan and Spanish locations— some of which he’d used previously as far back as 1942: CONQUEST OF PARADISE (1992).  Far from simply conveying the appropriate period look, these locations were well-chosen for existing architecture that combines western medieval styles and those of eastern antiquity to further reinforce the clash between the Christian and Muslim creeds.

KINGDOM OF HEAVEN’s first-rate technical caliber extends into post-production, with returning editor Dody Dorn convincing Scott to embrace the flexibility of a digital intermediate for the very first time in his career (1).  The freedom of DI tools to change one’s mind and experiment while still able to store and track prior variants would prove crucial to the film’s editing process, especially as the inclusion or exclusion of certain key subplots were debated amongst Scott and company nearly all the way up to release.  Indeed, when the decision to assemble a Director’s Cut ultimately came down, Dorn already had a head start on a complete pass that enabled Scott to release this new, far superior cut in the same calendar year as his theatrical version. Harry Gregson-Williams provides a romantic, swashbuckling score to complement KINGDOM OF HEAVEN’s epic visuals, reinforcing the narrative’s religious convictions and medieval setting with a sweeping chorus and exotic orchestration.  Scott’s regular composer, Hans Zimmer, was ultimately unable to participate in KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (despite initially being attached), but his influence can still be heard via Scott’s re-use of “Vide Cor Meum”, an elegant aria co-produced by Zimmer and composed by Patrick Cassidy that was previously used in HANNIBAL (2001).  Whereas the cue was used in that film for a haunting outdoor opera sequence, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN employs it as a beautiful farewell track for King Baldwin’s funeral, his death representing the looming close of Christianity’s hold over the Holy City.

Scott’s best films are consistently the ones where he has wide latitude to create an immersive world from scratch, pulling mountains of inspiration and references from any and all disciplines to build something insanely detailed and seamlessly self-contained.  His historical epics in particular feel as visceral and immediate as our present world due to the palpable presence of dirt, grime, sweat, and blood. Whereas other directors’ period pieces can resemble staid costume pageants or overly-reverential monuments, Scott’s attention to detail — evidenced as early as THE DUELLISTS (1977) and carrying on through today in one unbroken strain — captures nothing less than the unsanitized chaos of a civilization’s conflicts playing out in the present tense.  His most successful efforts in this regard are the ones like KINGDOM OF HEAVEN— films that reinforce the idea that the same human dramas have been playing out for centuries, and continue to shape events on the world stage today.  There’s a reason that Scott’s career found reinvorigation in the years following 9/11; his stated artistic interest in the theme of xenophobia suddenly coincided with a tumultuous zeitgeist that saw racial tensions inflamed between the Middle East and the Western world.  KINGDOM OF HEAVEN is nothing if not Scott’s attempt to bridge the ideological divide between Christian and Muslim cultures, making pointed arguments that we don’t have to keep fighting the battles of our fathers and grandfathers— in Saladin’s words: “I am not those men”.  Understanding, communication, and compassion are key towards resolving these conflicts— qualities that fighters during the Crusades obviously lacked. Balian and Saladin stand out by virtue of their possession of these traits, allowing Balian an honorable defeat in which he ultimately cedes Jerusalem to Saladin’s control in exchange for the safe passage of his people out of the city.  Towards this end, Scott goes to great lengths to depict Saladin and his men as civilized, intelligent, and just, which makes the Christian Crusaders look downright corrupt, boar-ish and greedy by comparison. He makes the effort to cast actual Muslims or Kurds for Saladin’s army, achieving a degree of cultural authenticity that he would admittedly undermine some years later in casting white actors to play ancient Egyptians in EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (2014).  Since no good deed goes unpunished, Scott’s attempts at cultural sensitivity in KINGDOM OF HEAVEN nevertheless met with knee jerk reactions from certain critics who claimed the film “pandered to Osama Bin Laden” (it was later revealed that these critics hadn’t even seen the film or read the screenplay).  

To be fair, Scott’s two hour and twenty-four minute Theatrical Cut does little to counteract these arguments.  So structured to highlight the film’s myriad fight sequences, this cut bills itself not as a historical epic per se, but as a swashbuckling action/adventure film.  The cuts were demanded by Twentieth Century Fox, who balked at the long running time of Scott’s preferred cut as well as its preference for intellectual sophistication over rousing battles (1).  As a result, the Theatrical Cut thirstily rushes through major story beats in-between recurrent rounds of bloody swordplay, resulting in an uneven pace and an overall sense of “incompleteness”. We get the sense that there is a deeper characterization at play, but we are largely denied the complex social and political dynamics of the time so that Balian’s journey can be better distilled to the rote “Hero’s Quest” narrative archetype.  Even worse, all the effort Scott put into developing the character of Sybilla into a richly-layered and three-dimensional person goes out the window, relegating her screentime to moments defined by their relation to Balian’s story— in other words, she’s either putting the moves on him or she’s staring longingly at him in the distance from behind a curtain or window. The Theatrical Cut would receive a mixed reception from critics, many of whom simply wrote KINGDOM OF HEAVEN off as a colossal misfire at worst, or “Diet GLADIATOR” at best.  A poor domestic box office take reinforced the stale aura around Scott’s Theatrical Cut, earning only $47.4 million against its $130 million production (it fared far better in Europe and elsewhere internationally, becoming a major hit, interestingly enough, in Arabic-speaking countries (2)).  Understandably, this was not the fate that either Scott or Twentieth Century Fox envisioned for KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, and while blame can be laid squarely at the studio’s feet for the film’s initial failure, they do deserve a little credit for recognizing almost immediately that this wrong needed to be rectified.

Whereas many “director’s cuts” see a long-awaited release many years after their respective films’ debuts, Scott’s original vision for KINGDOM OF HEAVEN would be commissioned and released within the same year as the Theatrical Cut.  Clocking in at three hours and nine minutes, the Director’s Cut of KINGDOM OF HEAVEN reverts to its true self as a sweeping historical epic with a sophisticated message.  The extra runtime allows new themes and dense characterization to emerge. We learn more about Balian’s life in France: how he was due to be a father before his wife committed suicide, how Sheen’s Priest character is actually his half-brother, and how Neeson’s Godfrey is both his real father and his uncle.  Sybilla’s character arc is thankfully restored, illuminating a subplot about the discovery of her son’s leprosy and the terrible choice she faces. This makes for a much richer film in the macro, even if it doesn’t necessarily add much to the spine of Balian’s story. Still other sequences, like an evocative “burning bush” scene, imbue KINGDOM OF HEAVEN with a grounded spiritual aura that reinforces its key themes.  There was an immediate impression amongst all involved that Scott’s Director’s Cut was far, far superior to the botched hatchet job that went out to theaters— so much so that Scott would go on to disown the Theatrical Cut entirely (1).  Even Fox realized this, giving the Director’s Cut the privilege of a theatrical release; albeit an extremely limited one that saw it play in one Los Angeles theater for two weeks, without any advertising to promote it.

In the end, this small gesture proved powerful enough to cement KINGDOM OF HEAVEN’s new fate as a misunderstood near-masterpiece.  Critics claimed Scott had created the “most substantial director’s cut of all time”— no small feat, considering how hugely influential Scott’s numerous redos on BLADE RUNNER had previously been.  Subsequent home video releases would see a variant on the Director’s Cut dubbed the Roadshow Version, which simply adds a musical Overture and Intermission in a bid to emulate the Technicolor studio epics of yesteryear.  Having come so perilously close to the oblivion of an archived hard drive in his basement, Scott’s Director’s Cut instead repositions KINGDOM OF HEAVEN as one of the master filmmaker’s crowning achievements, often mentioned in the same breath as GLADIATOR (if not ALIEN and BLADE RUNNER).  Scott may have embarked on this massive cinematic odyssey with nothing to prove, but it nevertheless would cement his reputation as the premiere builder of immersive cinematic worlds and breathtaking historical epics.  Ultimately, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN’s complicated legacy points to the nature of Scott’s own crusade as a filmmaker— the ever-insurmountable struggle to be a true artisan in the face of the increasingly-mechanized juggernaut that is big-budget Hollywood spectacle.

KINGDOM OF HEAVEN is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Twentieth Century Fox.

Credits:

Written by: William Monahan

Produced by: Ridley Scott

Director of Photography: John Mathieson

Production Design by: Arthur Max

Edited by: Dody Dorn

Music by: Harry Gregson-Williams

References:

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