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Kingdom of Heaven: Director's Cut

Ridley Scott may credit his multiple-Oscar winner Gladiator (2000) for Hollywood's revival of the sword-and-sandal epic, but Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings cycle is pretty hard to overlook — grossing a few billion dollars in theatrical receipts and DVD sales worldwide, the trilogy is the only genuine rival to Lucasfilm's ultra-lucrative Star Wars properties. And just as George Lucas's heroic saga launched a thousand lesser spaceships in its wake, 21st century Hollywood has developed a fetish for big, shiny iron blades and bearded men soaked in blood and mud. However, the works of fantasy writers have proven less fertile than a couple of semesters of freshman Western Civ — Wolfgang Petersen's Troy (2004), Oliver Stone's Alexander (2004), and Vin Diesel's announced Hannibal (2006) dust off the books for the sake of historical revisionism and the sort of CinemaScope heroics that marked the end of the studio era, when Biblical and historical epics (culminating in Fox's disastrous 1963 Cleopatra) marked the film industry's first line of defense against its hated enemy, Television. Today, Hollywood is waging an uneasy truce with home video and the Internet, which does little to explain the neo-historical revival. But it comes as little surprise that Ridley Scott would return to the ground he helped sow with Kingdom of Heaven (2005), a sometimes-stirring examination of the Crusades and the holy wars that continue to ebb and flow nearly a thousand years later.

Orlando Bloom stars in Kingdom of Heaven as Bailan, a peasant blacksmith in a small 13th century European village. Having recently lost a wife to suicide, Bailan has fallen into local disfavor, but he also finds himself presented with an unexpected opportunity — Godfrey, Baron of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), arrives in the village and tells Bailan that he is his father. He also invites Bailan to join him on his return to the Holy Land, where he may join the Crusade, atone for his sins, and take a place in the nobility. Bailan journeys with Godfrey and his company to the Kingdom of Jerusalem; after Godfrey's death, he becomes the Baron of Ibelin, and also an unwilling participant in the region's political intrigues. A tenuous peace between King Baldwin IV (Edward Norton) and the Kurdish King Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) has allowed the walled Kingdom of Jerusalem to exist in relative tranquillity. However, two of Baldwin's subordinates — Reynald de Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson) and Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) — have command of the Knights of Templars, and they are determined to start a war with Saladin and his Saracen people. Baldwin — aware that Saladin's army at Damascus far outnumbers his own troops — urges restraint. But ultimately he fails to keep the peace, after which the kingdom passes to Lusignan, husband of Baldwin's sister Sibylla (Eva Green). Baldwin previously offered the Kingdom of Jerusalem (along with his sister's hand in marriage) to Bailan, who refused, returning to his estate with the intent to protect his own people. But as Lusignan's war with Saladin spirals out of control, Bailan soon realizes that he's the only one who can keep the Jerusalem and its inhabitants from falling to the Saracen horde.

*          *          *

If 2005 seems like an imprudent year to develop a mega-budget epic on the Crusades — a period of history regarded as a sanctimonious misadventure in the West, and more like a sociological scar in the Middle East — it also is far from unwarranted. Even casual readers of daily headlines will find themselves familiar with Kingdom of Heaven's political landscape, which is riven with opportunism, occupation, and religious claim. The film's script (written by William Monahan) deserves credit in this regard, balancing the widescreen, subwoofer-thumping battles with the machinations of backroom power-brokers, which also made another historical epic, Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth (1998), surprisingly captivating. Each character in Kingdom of Heaven is drawn from history, and while creative reductionism is to be expected for the sake of fiction, Monahan selected a brief, quiet moment of calm from the history books, the occupation after the First and Second Crusades, which ended with the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin. For a sensitive subject, the view is balanced on all sides — Saladin is presented as far more noble than the Latin nobility (save for Baldwin and Bailan), although he too is surrounded by zealots. Meanwhile, Bailan mounts his defense of Jerusalem not for the sake of religious claim, but merely to protect its inhabitants, and also because he simply thinks it's right. One of the film's few weak points is Orlando Bloom, who is a handsome, competent actor, but charisma-challenged when sharing the screen with the likes of Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, and Marton Csokas. He's never quite a tablua rasa, but one is reminded that the best movie stars aren't necessarily the prettiest. Coming off the small double-cross masterpiece Matchstick Men (2002), Ridley Scott seems in his element here, shifting between sumptuous compositions and fierce action that captures the thunder of hooves, crush of bodies, and spray of blood in battle, while CGI embellishments fill the skies with arrows, and later vultures feeding on human carrion. As a Campbellian hero's quest, Kingdom of Heaven is engaging throughout, even if it doesn't answer the larger questions it raises. After the smoke clears, we are simply reminded that the center of the world is still contested to this day by those who claim to know God's will.

Twentieth Century Fox's Kingdom of Heaven: 4-Disc Director's Cut adds 50 minutes of footage that turns the picture, as editor Dodi Dorn suggests, from an action film into an epic, and includes numerous subplots that were dropped due to time constraints. The movie is presented over the first two discs with a beautiful anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) and both DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. The feature is accompanied by an introduction from Ridley Scott and four commentaries, the first with Scott, writer William Monahan, and Orlando Bloom, the second with producer Lisa Ellzey, visual effects supervisor Wesley Sewell, and assistant director Adam Somenr, and the third with editor Dody Dorn, while the fourth is "The Engineer's Guide" trivia track. On Discs Three and Four is the impressive six-part "making-of" documentary "The Path to Redemption" (162 min.), 12 additional featurettes, 30 minutes of deleted scenes with optional commentary by Scott and Dorn, numerous stills galleries (including script pages and storyboards), four trailers, and 50 TV spots. Few DVD sets could be called as definitive or as engrossing. Four-disc digipak with paperboard slipcase.

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