The financial and awards success of Gladiator must have made his next historical war epic Kingdom of Heaven look like a sure bet to investors. Swordplay! Huge battles! Flaming arrows and catapults! Thousands of extras slaughtering each other in grisly combat! The formula sure worked the last time. Sadly, the picture debuted to some scathing reviews and fizzled at the box office. Most of the negative reaction centered on charges that the film was confusing and felt overly compressed. It was well publicized at the time that Scott had overshot the movie and was forced to chop out a huge chunk of footage for the 145-minute theatrical release. Those viewers who bothered to see it complained that the story was hard to follow and the character arcs weren't believable, and those who didn't see it decided to wait for the inevitable "Director's Cut". Sure enough, a three-hour extended edition of the movie was eventually released to home video and garnered generally favorable, sometimes even enthusiastic, notices. It's amazing the power of DVD.
Orlando Bloom stars as Balian, a small village blacksmith whose wife has committed suicide and thus, as Christian dogma has it, must spend eternity banished to Hell. Culpable for sins of his own, Balian winds up on a journey to Jerusalem, not out of any particular desire to convert or kill the "infidel" Muslims, but rather in the hope that participating in a Holy Crusade will cleanse his soul and redeem his wife's. Once there, he becomes entangled in a complicated political struggle between the leprous King Baldwin (Edward Norton, hidden behind a steel mask the entire movie) who maintains an uneasy peace with the Muslim leader Saladin, and the ruthless Sir Guy de Lusignan who has ambitions to succeed the dying king and lead the Knights Templar in battle to wipe out the Muslims. This culminates in the tremendous siege on the city of Jerusalem, its fortifications weakening under the assault.
No doubt about it, Kingdom of Heaven is a vastly better, more intelligent and artistically worthy endeavor than the painfully stupid Gladiator. It's a movie with great ambitions, terrific performances from a large cast, and some truly phenomenal filmmaking chops. Most of its historical accuracy is dubious at best (even the most rudimentary of internet research will show that King Baldwin IV wasn't quite as magnanimous as depicted here, and the real Balian of Ibelin was a far cry from Bloom's sensitive young heartthrob), but its intentions feel right. Most interesting (though undoubtedly too filtered through a modern perspective) is its revisionist interpretation of the Crusade as less a war of religious zealotry than a straight-up power play for land and political influence. The movie tries to play fair by showing both sides of the conflict, taking great pains to de-villainize the Muslims, even though real Christians at the time would not have been nearly as respectful as these fictionalized Baldwin and Balian are.
Still, the movie has problems. Even at its expanded Director's Cut length, many scenes feel condensed and some details of the plot remain confusing. Most problematic is the character of Balian, whose growth from poor village blacksmith to Baron of Ibelin, knight, and eventually savior of Jerusalem is much too unrealistically expedited, even with the added development in this version of the movie. After just a single lesson, Balian becomes a master swordsman able to defeat more experienced foes. During the battle of Jerusalem, he's revealed from out of nowhere to be a keen military strategist and great leader of men, delivering inspirational speeches and single-handedly saving the city from thousands of attackers. He takes the name of a real historical figure, but as played here the character would best function as an observer to history, present in the company of important men during monumental events, less an active participant. The movie's insistence on turning him into a great hero, well frankly it's just ridiculous. I don't fault Bloom, who does his best to carry the movie, but he's wildly miscast, a lovable puppy dog when the story requires a real man with a stronger screen presence. It's a shame Clive Owen was wasted in King Arthur, when he would have been better suited for this historical epic. Even so, the script could use some serious reworking.
What it comes down to is that Ridley Scott's aesthetic sense once again overrides the better narrative needs of his movies. Kingdom of Heaven is splendid to look at in its production design, photography, and actors, but needs a little more discipline in the fundamentals of story. It's certainly one of his better recent films, perhaps the best thing he's made since Blade Runner, yet falls short of the masterpiece it wants to be.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Blu-ray discs are only playable in a compatible Blu-ray player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in an HD DVD player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
This is a very nice-looking disc, one of the best live action productions available on Blu-ray to date. The movie has a "steely" photographic style with rich contrasts, often filtered in a cool blue with specific colors that pop out vibrantly. The picture is razor sharp, with a terrific sense of fine object detail and depth. During the battle scenes, it feels like you can see the sweat and dirt on each one of the thousands of extras in the deep background. Say what you will about his other merits as a filmmaker, Ridley Scott sure knows how to make his movies look beautiful, and High Definition certainly becomes this title.
There are a few flaws, however. As the movie fades in from the opening title credit, some posterization is plainly visible, a problem that recurs during other slow fades. Low-amplitude edge ringing is also present during sharp contrasts repeatedly throughout the movie, lending some scenes a harsh "digital" texture. Fortunately, both issues are relatively minor and rarely distracting.
The Kingdom of Heaven Blu-ray disc is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over a Blu-ray player's analog Component Video outputs.
This is a big budget production with a rousing soundtrack. The battle scenes are incredibly loud and aggressive, filling the soundstage with clanging swords, swooshing arrows, and tromping horse hooves from every direction. Sound effects are crisply delivered and bass response is deep yet clean. Musical fidelity is also very good. For some reason, there seems to be a minor dip in audio quality during the huge siege of Jerusalem, which becomes a murky cacophony of noise. The smaller duel afterwards is more impressive; you can feel every sword clang reverberate in your chest. Nit-picks aside, this is a fine mix and well delivered even in the lossy DTS core alone. I can only imagine how good the full Master Audio extension must sound.
Subs & Dubs: