Be without fear in the face of your enemies. Be brave and upright that God may love thee. Speak the truth always, even if it leads to your death. Safeguard the helpless and do no wrong. That is your oath.
I first saw Ridley Scott's Crusades epic shortly after it first came out back in 2005 and came away somewhat underwhelmed. While I felt that it was a good movie, it was lacking in many ways - characterization and plot elements were a little sketchy. Unsurprisingly, it turned out that the studio had chopped off lots of the film to make it shorter and more palatable for general audiences. Fortunately, Ridley Scott was provided the opportunity to release his definitive version of the film on DVD, and while I wouldn't call it a masterpiece it's much, much better than the theatrical cut.
Kingdom of Heaven focuses on several characters, but the protagonist is Balian (Orlando Bloom), who is introduced as a blacksmith mourning his wife; she committed suicide after the death of their child. Godfrey Baron of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), a lord from the Holy Lands, arrives in Balian's village and claims Balian as his son (out of wedlock) and rightful heir, and asks him to accompany him back. Balian, who is unwelcome in his village, initially refuses but later commits murder in a fit of rage and joins up with Godfrey and his accompanying Knights with the hope of finding spiritual redemption in Jerusalem. Their party is attacked by men who arrive to arrest Balian, and Godfrey is mortally wounded during the struggle. He Knights Balian and bequeaths the Barony of Ibelin to him. Balian then makes the treacherous journey to Jerusalem, nearly losing his life twice in the process.
The second act of the film introduces the key players and the politics of Jerusalem. Balian finds Ibelin to be dry and barren, and sets to work trying to improve it. He finds the Kingdom divided - King Baldwin (Ed Norton) and Lord Tiberias (Jeremy Irons) struggle to maintain peace between the Christians occupying Jerusalem and the ever growing power of the Muslims led by Salahuddin (Ghassan Massoud), while Guy of Lusignan (Marton Csokas) and Raynald of Châtillon (Brendan Gleeson) try to instigate war against them in the belief that it is 'God's will' for the Christians to prevail (ironically, the hardliners in Salahuddin's camp believe it is 'God's will' for the Muslims to prevail). Guy is married to King Baldwin's sister Sibylla (Eva Green), who has an affair with Balian. Further complicating matters is the fact that King Baldwin is dying as a result of his leprosy, leaving the fate of the Kingdom in the hands of whomever succeeds him. The third act of the film revolves around the battle to defend Jerusalem, with the defenders being led by Balian.
Almost all of what I've described applies to both cuts of the film, but the Director's Cut adds a lot of depth to it, and elevates it from a good one to an excellent one. Backstory, characterization, and one significant subplot are added to the film, which makes it far more complete. 'Kingdom of Heaven' is rich in plot, character, and themes. The story is laced with elements of politics, religion, fanaticism, courage, and honour. The character of Balian is used to some extent as a focal point around which all the other elements of the film revolve - we see mostly from his point of view, and his presence influences those around him. William Monahan's screenplay balances and interweaves the various elements of plot and character into a compelling whole that provides a window into a bygone era. It may not be historically accurate in terms of people and events, and some concepts (such as some character viewpoints) may seem a little too modern to be believable, but taken as a whole the film has an air of verisimilitude about it. The characters are compelling and complex, and unlike in Scott's 'Gladiator' (which I think is a brilliant revenge / action film that had no need for an 'Extended Cut') there's some ambiguity to them.
Balian is a noble and virtuous (to a fault) knight who seeks redemption in the Holy Land and is reluctant to involve himself in the political games of the aristocracy, but he's not squeaky clean - he has blood on his hands and engages in adultery. Orlando Bloom is not the most magnetic leading man, but he's effective in this film because the character is so low key and idealistic, a demeanour perfectly suited to Bloom. He doesn't have to carry the film until the last act where he leads the defence of Jerusalem, which is the only point where his performance doesn't deliver. Godfrey, Balian's father, is a character who hopes to bring some meaning to his weary and bloody life when he brings Balian with him to be his successor, and is willing to break the law to have Balian by his side. Liam Neeson can do the noble mentor figure any day, and he's great as always in this.
King Baldwin is a young but wise ruler who realizes that he maintains an uneasy peace, and is willing to compromise personal honour to maintain it. Edward Norton is barely recognizable and brilliant as the Leper King - he exudes authority and intelligence despite being hidden behind a metal mask. Equally great is Ghassan Massoud as Salahuddin, a brilliant military leader caught between his honour and respect for King Baldwin and his promise to liberate Jerusalem. Massoud is incredibly charismatic and commanding in the role, and the scene where the two Kings meet face to face is a brief but memorable one. Sibylla is a headstrong woman whose relationship with Balian is understandable; she's later thrust into an unenviable position when she becomes Queen, and has to deal with a personal tragedy relating to her son. Eva Green is terrific in the role, going through a transformation in the film and ending up a shattered individual (as an aside, Eva Green has the most endearing 'permanent frown' expression I've ever seen).
The one disappointing portrayal is Marton Csokas as Guy, who is a little over the top in his evil ways, though the script doesn't really give him anything non-evil to do. There are many supporting characters as well - Brendan Gleeson is over the top but clearly playing an insane man in Raynald of Châtillon, David Thewlis is memorable as the pragmatic Hospitaler, and Alexander Siddig is surprisingly commanding as Nasir (a far cry from Doctor Bashir!).
As one would expect from a Ridley Scott film, the visuals are stunning and the action sequences chaotic. There's a lot in the film that is reminiscent of 'The Return of the King', including the siege of Jerusalem, although the action never quite gets to that level of excitement and insanity! As with Gladiator, there are moody contemplative moments for the protagonist, emotions and sentiments are often worn on the sleeve, and the petulant villains sneer, scowl, and glower at every opportunity. The music from Harry Gregson-Williams is complementary and appropriate, if unmemorable. The production values are, unsurprisingly, fantastic and virtually flawless, as are the special effects, which true to form are not used in an overly showy manner by Scott.
This post ended up being longer than I initially intended; I guess the film required a bit more consideration than anticipated. It's excellent and is the only version of 'Kingdom of Heaven' that needs to be seen. Clocking in at over three hours (50 minutes longer than the original cut), it's an epic in every way, and a memorable one. Well worth watching, especially for people who felt the theatrical version was a decent film that could have been better.