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Category:    Home > Reviews > Drama > Action > History > Religion > Swords > Kingdom Of Heaven: Director’s Cut (4-DVD-Video set + Blu-ray)

Kingdom Of Heaven: Director’s Cut (4-DVD-Video set + Blu-ray)


Video: B+/A-     Sound: B+/A-     Extras: A     Film: A-



When Kingdom of Heaven, Ridley Scott’s epic about the Crusades and the quest of Balian (Orlando Bloom) to find his place in an existence that God seems to have turned his back on, was released in 2005, the thud it made when it hit theaters might have been mistaken for a slain soldier crashing to the ground.  And there might not have been much difference between the dead soldier and the dead-on-arrival film.  Scott’s second swords-and-sandals film (the first was Gladiator) was slain almost immediately as it charged into theaters, maligned for its poor pacing, bad plot and acting, and overall sense of flailing in the dark.


Nearly as soon as Kingdom of Heaven died an unceremonious death, there was chatter about the cut that made it into theaters wasn’t Scott’s original vision, that he was forced to make unwanted cuts, the original film isn’t really that bad, in fact the film is actually pretty good, and wouldn’t you know it Scott is considering returning to the film for a director’s cut.  This would have sounded familiar to anyone paying attention to film over the past few years after the debacle over the prequel to The Exorcist.  (John Frankenheimer was hired to direct a prequel to the seminal horror film, he died and was replaced by Paul Schrader, producers were unsatisfied with Schrader’s lite-on-gore take, fired him, and replaced him with Renny Harlin who reshot some 90 percent of Schrader’s work and turned in a bloody dud of a film that sunk like a stone in theaters.  Talk then began to swirl about Schrader maybe getting the opportunity to finish his version and how that would be released on DVD and in a small number of theaters.)  This would sound even more familiar to anyone who buys DVDs on a regular basis: Peter Jackson has created almost a peripheral DVD market of extended, bloated director’s cut sets that boast multiple discs, commentaries, cuts of the film, and so on.


Scott was ultimately allowed to complete his cut of Kingdom of Heaven, a 194-minute gargantuan piece of filmmaking unrivaled in scope by anything not called Lord of the Rings.  It received a limited theatrical release before emerging on DVD in May 2006.  But what sets this director’s cut apart from nearly every other such entity (with maybe the exception of the recently released Richard Donner cut of Superman II) is that Scott’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven is a wholly different film from the one that was released to all those multiplexes a year ago.


This new cut of the film is deliberate in its pacing and execution.  The three-hour-plus runtime is daunting, but every minute of that is accounted for by Scott’s ability to always propel the movie forward.  When Balian dwells on a moment or a character, there is some brooding on the past but he’s always looking forward: Should I stay in this small village and live under the thumb of my oppressive half-brother and continue to mourn the death of my wife and unborn child, or should I go with my father to fight in the Crusades?  There is little cinematic retreating here; Scott knows the story he wants to tell and how he wants to tell it, and nothing is going to get in his way.


The sense of “epic” is similarly conveyed in this cut in a way that was missing in 145-minute theatrical cut.  Beginning with an overture, the scope of Kingdom of Heaven in the director’s cut is akin to the Hollywood age of epics that gave films like Lawrence of Arabia and the like to the world.  Scott uses many wide-angle shots to convey not only the danger looming on the horizon when Saladin’s (Ghassan Massoud) army masses to storm Jerusalem but also the openness of the world once Balian leaves his small, claustrophobic village.


Most interesting of all in this cut, though, is Bloom’s ability to act in the director’s cut that he hasn’t shown in most of his previous films.  He’s dirtied up, with a flowing mane and dream-boat facial hair, but he isn’t acting on his looks.  Rather, Bloom in the director’s cut is forced to carry the film.  There is excellent supporting work from Liam Neeson (Balian’s father, Godfrey), Jeremy Irons (Tiberias, head of security in Jerusalem), David Thewlis (Hospitaler, Godfrey’s medical soldier), and Edward Norton (the masked king of Jerusalem, Baldwin).  But Bloom is always the person who is tasked with carrying the film to its conclusion, the way Balian is tasked with carrying the Christian army to victory over Saladin.  And he pulls it off.  Bloom is an introspective, heroic leader with a sense of self and purpose that recalls, at least superficially, Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence.


This new cut of Kingdom of Heaven is truly an improvement over the original release of the film.  The new cut reflects interesting, intelligent, and skilled filmmaking where the original cut was diluted to play better with general audiences and to ensure more showings per day at the multiplex.  But whoever thought cutting Scott’s film from 194 minutes to 145 minutes didn’t account for what such cuts would do to the integrity of the film and its ability to draw audiences.  After all, people stayed away from the hackneyed theatrical cut anyway.


The four-disc DVD release of the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven is reflective of the Jackson-inspired trend of comprehensive insight into a film.  The film itself is spread over discs one and two, with discs three and four housing the bulk of the extras.  The 50 GB Blu-ray version fits all of this onto one single disc!


Spreading the film out in this way allows Scott to convey even more so the epic quality of his cut: besides the aforementioned overture, there is an intermission and an entr’acte.  But this allows gives the visually and aurally powerful film space to look and sound magnificent.  In the 2.35:1 anamorphic presentation, the ancient golds of the sandy Middle East and cold blues of medieval Europe boast beautiful contrasts and pop off the screen.  The battle sequences and other moments where there is a lot, visually, happening on screen are crisp and clean with little noticeable defect.  The MPEG-2 @ 24 MBPS digital High Definition version is even better, though the plethora of digital visual effects holds it back, but the cinematography of John Mathieson, B.S.C., manages to triumph that much more in HD presentation.


On the audio side, the 5.1 Dolby Surround and 5.1 DTS tracks are powerful, both in the large moments and the small ones.  During scenes of war and fighting, the metallic clangs of swords and shields ring through every channel with clarity while arrows thwip from one channel to another creating an engulfing sound experience.  But this also happens in the quieter moments of the film.  During moments when characters are sitting by a babbling brook in the woods, for instance, the trickling water, wind, and forest wildlife sound as good and clear as the louder, more bombastic elements of war.  The Harry Gregson-Williams score integrates well as well.


For the Blu-ray edition, there is a DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio lossless version of the mix that is even better than anything on the standard DVD, and we cannot even play it back yet lossless since no chip is on the market as of this posting.  Since the 70mm 4.1 Dolby magnetic multi-channel mix (now upgraded to DTS 5.1 on the latest DVD edition from the Alien Quadrilogy) on his 1979 classic Alien, Scott’s most ambitious films (Blade Runner, Legend, Gladiator, Hannibal) have some of the most amazing and clever sound mixes around.  These are sound mixes built to last and the combination of both in either format is definitely of demonstration quality for any home theater system.


The extras on this set offer as detailed a look as possible at not only making a film but creating a director’s cut of that film.  On disc one, Scott offers an introduction to the film, and on discs one and two there is a informative, comprehensive commentary track with Scott, Bloom, writer William Monahan, executive producer Lisa Ellzey, visual effects supervisor Wesley Sewell, first assistant director Adam Somner, and editor Dody Dorn.  Additionally, there is a text-only track of production notes and trivia, “The Enginer’s Guide,” also on discs one and two.


An “All-Access 6-Part Feature-Length Documentary” is found on discs three and four that covers the history depicted in the film, script development, pre-production, shooting, editing, the music, and the theatrical release.  Additionally on discs three and four are: 30 minutes of deleted and extended scenes with commentary; featurettes that deal with the film’s historical accuracy, weapons and costumes, the planning of the siege of Jerusalem, and creating the director’s cut; “never-before-seen” cast rehearsals; visual effects breakdowns with commentary; an interactive sound design suite; an early draft of the screenplay with development notes; production design, conceptual art, costume, unit photography, and storyboard galleries; footage from the premiere of the film in London, New York, and Tokyo; domestic and international poster explorations; and trailers and TV spots.


For a film that did very little business upon its initial release, Kingdom of Heaven has been treated pretty well in the home theater arena.  This is indicative of how DVD technology has transformed the business of making movies—ten, or even five, years ago, Ridley Scott would have had to have been content to letting this film die a quick, hopefully somewhat dignified death.  Maybe he could have gone back later and tweaked it, but thanks to DVD Scott has been able to live and breathe Kingdom of Heaven, non-stop and for better or worse, for years.  The fruit of these labors is his director’s cut and his top-notch DVD.



-   Dante A. Ciampaglia & Nicholas Sheffo


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