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.