Director Ridley Scott has a new movie coming out, Exodus: Gods and Kings, so for once I’m, if not ahead of the game, at least timely. In doing some research, I discovered that a previous movie of Scott’s, Kingdom of Heaven (2005) starring Orlando Bloom, showed to mixed reviews. After previews, it had been cut, a little here, a little there, to make it shorter and more appealing. It didn’t work. Apparently the Director’s Cut DVD version is actually longer (by almost an hour) than the original theatre cut and was better received. But there are several different versions available so the censor rating may vary. I have the 144 min. version which has several pretty gory scenes outside of the battlefield despite it’s 13+ rating. I couldn’t remember ever hearing of it so I thought I’d take a peek.
The Kingdom of Heaven is less a history of the Crusades than a personal journey for Balian (Orlando Bloom), a French blacksmith (claimed by a lord recently returned from the Holy Land as his son and heir) to find purpose and meaning for his life. Young Balian, who has recently lost his wife and child, becomes his squire, then a knight, and then a lord when his father dies. It is a movie less about action and more about living a life of honour although there is plenty of action in it despite it being a period of peace between the 2nd and 3rd crusades. While the King of Jerusalem, Baldwin IV (who suffered from leprosy and keeps his face hidden behind a gold mask throughout the film) played by Edward Norton strives to maintain the peace between the two factions, the Knights Templar headed by Raynald of Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson) continually harass and bait the Muslim army under Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) in an attempt to provoke war.
The history is played with a bit although much of it is sound and there are theories around the net (Roger Ebert for one) that the timing of this film, when tensions between Muslims and Christians were high, was a rather brave thing, perhaps resulting in the poor box office showing. Many critics felt that it was simply a historic epic that favoured neither Muslims nor Christians and I think I’d agree with that.
Much of the filming was done in Spain and Morocco and the photography is beautifully done, sweeping middle east vistas, despite the crew being harried by sandstorms, and for the epic battle scenes, the Moroccan government sent more than 1500 soldiers as cavalry extras.
I enjoyed the music immensely. Often, I’m unaware of the music in a movie, I get so caught up in what’s happening; it may, and usually does, affect me but I don’t always notice it. But in this case it grabbed my attention simply because it is so varied and unusual. The score is a mixture of medieval, middle eastern, classical, and modern (by Harry Gregson-Williams) music and blends beautifully with the diverse settings, their beauty, the pageantry, and the action.
One of the neat things about seeing the DVD rather than going to the cinema is that there are added features you get to view. My version is a 2-disc set and parts of it are excellent. On disc 1, which has the whole movie in widescreen panorama, there is a feature called The Pilgrim’s Guide which is a text commentary. It had some interesting notes about the times but often went by too quickly and eventually I turned it off as I found it too distracting even though I watched it during my second viewing. Also on disc 1 there is a brief film about the making of Tristan and Isolde which puzzled me. (It isn’t listed on the DVD case as part of the content, either.)
However, on disc 2 there is a wealth of interesting material. There is an Interactive Production Grid where you can choose the viewpoint of either the director, crew, or cast discussing either the preproduction, production, or postproduction activities. Listening to them talk about the sets, locations, costumes, and the director, you got a sense of what it was like for them and saw their enthusiasm for all the various aspects of production. There is also an A & E production called Movie Real: Kingdom of Heaven which explores the history of the times, the reality of the armour, castles, diseases, and, of course, the religion. Historians look at the crusaders, their philosophy, the violence, and the church’s role in channelling the violence to war with non-Christians. From the History Channel is History vs. Hollywood: Kingdom of Heaven with interviews with Scott and the main characters, Bloom, Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, Eva Green (Sybilla), and an up-close look at the castle used in the movie, swords actually used in the Middle Ages, and experts to look at the movie from an historical perspective. Then, there are Internet
Featurettes — Creating Worlds, The Adventure of a Lifetime, Production Design, and Costume Design — all very interesting and a long trailer that is excellent.
After reading about the different versions online, I would recommend seeing the longer Director’s Cut because it is supposed to have a smoother, more continuous story line and the additional material sounds wonderful. The acting is excellent in this movie and the siege weapons are authentic. Eva Green is beautiful, charming and captivating in her role as Sybilla, the princess sister of Baldwin IV and Jeremy Irons is totally believable as Tiberias, King of Tripoli (actually Raymond III but the name was changed for the movie to avoid confusion with Raynald of Chatillon), a supporter of Baldwin and Balian. It is a great adventure and not meant to be totally historically accurate; if you watch it with that in mind, I’m sure you’ll enjoy The Kingdom of Heaven. * * * *