How Kingdom of Heaven Justifies the Existence of the Director’s Cut

The director’s cut is probably one of the worst things to come out of the age of DVD’s. There’s a reason the editing room exists; if the director is allowed to leave in everything he or she wants, the result is most often an overblown, overindulgent mess. Have you seen the director’s cut of Lord of the Rings? I mean, that’s actually a real question, because I haven’t. However, since the theatrical releases were so tedious I gave up after one and a half (I know that’s a controversial position; we can argue another time), I imagine the director’s cut must have been nigh unbearable.

Yet Kingdom of Heaven represents a rare case where the director’s cut is not only superior to the theatrical release, but is actually necessary for the film to have any worth at all. The theatrical release is a scattered hodgepodge of Orlando Bloom running around with a sword for no particular reason. That’s it. Seriously, the plot makes literally no sense, and it doesn’t even have the excuse of good characterization, because the studio made Ridley Scott cut all of that out, too. To be fair, the longer version flirts with a four hour running time, and it’s also a lot more complex and intellectually demanding than the shorter version suggested Kingdom of Heaven had any right to be. One senses that all the studio wanted was Orlando Bloom running around with a sword (because that was why Pirates of the Caribbean was successful, right?), and in that regard, it was necessary to cut the movie.

But in doing so, they butchered a nuanced, thoughtful depiction of the Crusades that elegantly balances its historical context against contemporary considerations, and manages to tell a pretty well-put together character story at that. It doesn’t go the easy route of black and white morality, and, somewhat more importantly from a narrative standpoint, the director’s cut puts back in scenes that are necessary for the film to make any sense. There was actually a plot, and a really interesting one, about characters I cared about and things that mattered. Furthermore, the director’s cut added a sense of theatricality to the proceedings, with an overture, an intermission – I half-expected to see Baz Luhrman’s red curtain pop up at some point.

Look, the director’s cut can’t fix everything. As usual, Orlando Bloom could be replaced with a piece of cardboard and no one would notice. Except in the director’s cut, at least, he’s a piece of cardboard with a backstory and motivations, and these are compelling enough to fill in the spaces his “acting” leaves blank. Besides, Liam Neeson and Jeremy Irons more than make up for Bloom in terms of talent and fun (between this, Star Wars, and Eragon, I have a theory that Neeson and Irons like showing up in substandard mainstream fare just to screw with everyone).  And moreover, the added backstory managed to somewhat justify Bloom’s trademark stoicism, to the point where it was still a flaw of the performer, but it was made to work within the context of the film (though I have to note that Edward Norton wore a mask the entire movie and still managed to emote more than Bloom. Eh, at least he’s pretty).

I would still probably recommend the theatrical release to some extent, because I firmly believe that there is a time and a place for dumb action movies, and that when you’re in that time and place, there’s no point fighting it. But the director’s cut reveals that Kingdom of Heaven is so, so, so much more than that. The action’s still there, but now it’s founded on solid plot and character and intellectual purpose. The short version is inoffensive but aimless; putting all of the important stuff back in reveals what a good movie this actually is.

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4 responses to “How Kingdom of Heaven Justifies the Existence of the Director’s Cut

  1. This is such an nice point of view, and I totally agree with it. The extended version of Kingdom of Heaven is almost a completely different movie. Eva Green’s character in particular really suffered from the cuts in the theatrical version. It’s kind of funny but I didn’t realize that was Edward Norton at all, guess it’s my fault for not looking at the cast list.

    Thanks for this article, I do think the whole extended version/directors cut thing can have merit. The longer versions of the LOTR movies do add some stuff that is worth viewing. But if you couldn’t get through the second one don’t bother with the longer cuts.

    There are a few movies I think really benefited from a director’s cut. For example Blade Runner. It isn’t longer in any appreciable way, but the changes really add subtly and nuance to the story. Aliens, did you know Ripley had a daughter? Underworld, you know those massive plot holes the extended cut fixes most of them. Those aren’t my way of saying your wrong, just the opposite in fact. I’ve seen several pointless extended versions.

    But then I have to look at something like the Daredevil or Fantastic Four extended cuts, and I have the distinct feeling the studios interfered with the editing process. The longer versions aren’t masterpieces by any stretch, but they are definitely superior the the theatrical cuts.

    Ridley Scott gave an interview at one point, or it was on a special feature somewhere, where he stated that the theatrical cuts of his films are his director’s cut. The extra stuff he puts on dvd’s are just alternate versions. It makes me wonder if maybe he has to look at a film after taking a bit of time apart from it to edit it properly.

    Again thanks for this article, it’s something that I’ve brought up to my friends as well.

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    • I have heard that, with Kingdom of Heaven in particular, it was executive meddling that made the theatrical cut so choppy, and I’ve read elsewhere that it’s sort of a characteristic of Ridley Scott that his movies tend to benefit from the director’s cut. I think you’re right – there are absolutely effective and ineffective director’s cuts. I’d just be interested to find out though (because this is something I genuinely don’t know) whether there are many movies where the extended and theatrical versions are so fundamentally different. Because honestly, I don’t even think of the two cuts of Kingdom of Heaven as the same movie.

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  2. For the most most theatrical cuts are kind of a gimmick. You get a couple of extra scenes, and that’s about it. There are some, and I’ve seen quite of few of them, that really go for broke and give us something altogether different. Ridley Scott is the worst offender I can think of, but James Cameron has a few examples as well. Alien and The Abyss both have totally different directors cuts. The changes in those cuts alter those movies rather fundamentally.

    Then there is something like Superman 2. Richard Donner was fired, or quit depending on the story, from the production while filming was still ongoing. The new director took things in a radically different direction than what Donner had intended. The result was still awesome, but a little uneven in places. A few years ago, Donner was allowed to finally finish the film, using footage that’s been in a can for thirty years, and the results were a completely different movie. I’ve only seen this alternate cut once. But it was separated from the original that I had trouble appreciating it.

    I suspect that most of these directors cuts, especially the so-called Unrated Editions, are mostly an excuse for the studios to put out a second disc of a movie to make more money.

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