Wednesday, February 07, 2007

"I once fought for two days with an arrow through my testicle"

Balian: You go to certain death.
Hospitaller: All death is certain.

The world of Directors Cuts opened up by the DVD revolution has brought us many questionable riches. Studios seem to mainly regard the label as a marketing tool, and so mediocre films with no particular value are issued twice on DVD to maximise sales - once in their theatrical versions, then again in versions with cut scenes, often amounting to only a few minutes of screentime, restored. Did anybody really feel that Underworld needed a Directors Cut? It reached the stage a few years ago when Directors were planning two versions of their film during production - the theatrical version and later DVD Directors Cut.

But there are certain films that demand to be seen in versions untouched by Studio interference. Indeed, since the 1930s, cineastes have dreamt of seeing Von Stroheim's Greed in the version he intended the World to see. Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons is another example. Certain directors seem to have attracted studio interference throughout their careers, meaning that their filmographies are complicated lists of "definitive" and "alternate" cuts. Welles would probably be chief among them, with the likes of Sam Peckinpah and Michael Cimino also getting a mention. But Ridley Scott, the argument over which version of Bladerunner is better aside, would not really feature. He has long been a successful, powerful director, influential enough to justify lengthy running times on his films despite the odd commercial failure like 1492 : Conquest of Paradise or White Squall. Which is why the butchering of Kingdom of Heaven by 20th Century fox seems so strange. Before its release, Kingdom of Heaven seemed like the one cast-iron guaranteed success the post-Braveheart boom in Period Epics would produce. It dealt with the Crusades, never really the subject of a major Hollywood film before. It featured a strong cast topped off by a rising young star in its lead. And it was directed by Scott, who had delivered the best and most successful modern Epic only a few years earlier in the form of Gladiator. But Fox worried about the running time and chopped out 45 minutes, including at least two plot-lines, rendering the theatrical release just about incoherent. The film was a Box Office flop, and alongside the failure of Oliver Stone's similarly muddled Alexander, it put an end to the new Epic.

But of course, the DVD Directors Cut was released last year after a short run in a single American Cinema. In this case, the Directors Cut seems not just a marketing opportunity but a necessity. Every copy of the theatrical cut should now be destroyed, because this version makes its existence utterly pointless. Not to say that Kingdom of Heaven is now a great film,because its flaws remain fundamentally the same. Chiefly, Orlando Bloom. He has never been better than in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, when he was required mainly to seem unearthly and beautiful - Legolas doesn't really have any personality in the realistic sense. He is a heroic ideal, and Bloom, blessed with his good looks, could manage that without difficulty. But in every other film he seems one-noted and cardboard. In the Pirates of the Caribbean films, both he and Keira Knightly are required to be little more than models. They look generically pretty and let the likes of Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush chew the scenery all around them. In Elizabethtown, Bloom seems hopelessly out of his depth in portraying grief and the onset of maturity. He is a cipher ; the audience assumes he should be feeling a certain way, but he gives little sign of it on that strangely inexpressive face. In a film like Kingdom of Heaven, where he is required to handle big emotions, he is again blank-faced. His single expression is a sort of empty smoulder - he seems to have walked off the set of an aftershave commercial. His character, Balian, is driven through the film by a search for his faith, yet Bloom gives little sign of this.

It is a pity, because he is surrounded by a truly classy cast of mainly European supporting actors, most of whom seem totally at home in the Medievel world Scott creates. Liam Neeson, David Thewlis, Jeremy Irons, Kevin McKidd, Martin Csokas and Brendan Gleeson all have big masculine presences, and Bloom seems dwarfed by all of them in his shared scenes. Eva Green suffers beautifully, and Edward Norton offers a somehow Brando-esque but very effective voice performance as the masked Leper-King, Baldwin.
Some of the plotting remains slightly weak even in this version. Balian's arrival in the Holy Land comes about by shipwreck, of which he is the only survivor, an arbitrary element repeated in HBO's Rome. But characters who suddenly disappeared and had unaccountable motivation for their actions in the theatrical version here make sense. The political machinations of the various factions within Jerusalem before the climactic siege, which seemed dull and overlong in the theatrical version, here are given enough context to work and indeed, to seem integral. William Monaghan, who wrote the dazzling dialogue for The Departed, shows that he can do the same for a vastly different world here, though there are a few clunky exchanges. This version also seems far more ambitious thematically - it is an exploration of ideology and of the difference between religion and faith. Its contemporary resonances, dealing as it does with a battle in the Middle East between Christian and Muslim forces, are unavoidable and well-handled. It is fair-handed, with Saladin, the Commander of the Saracens, played by the charismatic Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud, emerging as one of the best and most likeable characters, while many of the Christians are plainly rabid animals using their religion as justification for slaughter.

The real glory of this film, though, is Ridley Scott's direction. It seems a synthesis of much of what he has done before - the reconstruction of Old Worlds in Gladiator and 1492 and the Duellists is here attempted on an even bigger canvas, and it is achieved more vividly and more beautifullly than in any of those films. The ferocity of the battle-scenes in Gladiator and Black Hawk Down is replicated here, again on a bigger, more beautiful scale. The contrast between the wintery mud and misery of Continental Europe in that era with the exotic melting pot of the Holy Land is brilliantly detailed.

I suspect, however, that even if this version had been released originally in cinemas, it may well have failed commercially. Its flaws are obvious and even its strengths are partially uncommercial - it is more complex and adult than any of the other modern Epics, its conclusions about religion and war too ambiguous for popular acceptance. If Gladiator used a simple revenge story to great effect, Kingdom of Heaven has no such basic structure, its tale of a man searching for faith and redemption far too interior to drive such a big narrative emotionally. The film it most reminds me of is Anthony Mann's The Fall of the Roman Empire (which Gladiator took quite a lot from, incidentally), another Epic with a miscast leading man and a downbeat, complex tone. In tribute to such classic Epics, the DVD Director's Cut of Kingdom of Heaven opens with a two-minute orchestral overture and has a similar theme during its intermission. All of which just made me wish that I had seen it in a Cinema, on a big screen.



Blogger beezer said...

Why don't you, like, apply for a job doing this shit? Or at least get some more links to your site. If I wrote that much about one thing I'd want at least one reader for each word.

I'm not being a dick but there just aren't that many people writing serious film crit stuff like this are there?

1:11 pm  
Blogger David N said...

Well, yeah, I think there are.

Plus: how exactly to get a job writing about this? If I knew how, I would.

2:50 am  
Blogger beezer said...

Fair enough.

I don't read Sight and Sound a lot but judging by the small amount of books that come out collecting decent film crit I'd say there isn't THAT much being done. Plus what if yours is just better than that being done by other folks?

I don't know how people get into film writing. I know how people get into music writing. I'm going to think about whether its the same.

2:41 pm  
Blogger David N said...

I haven't got a clue how people get into things. And I probably don't have the drive for whatever it is anyway. But if it was as simple as "Send samples to this bloke and he'll have a look" then wahay, I'd give that a go.

But it can't be that simple...

4:20 pm  
Blogger beezer said...

No its not, that would be ridiculous but I've seen folks I've known that have little to no skills in writing get from nowhere to being bonafide Pazz and Jop voters, Wire, Rolling Stone, Village Voice, all that shit. Most of them getting there via the internet. I don't know if it can be done the same for film but I got a lot more faith in your skills than I did in theirs.

11:24 pm  
Blogger Mr A. P. Salmond, esq. said...

Darn tootin. This stuff reads like a professional from the get-go. Maybe look into the submission guidelines for the film mags about? Try your hand at a couple of articles on topics you're interested in (and you think others may be) and see if they buy them. A comparative history of the Director's Cut perhaps?

8:00 am  
Blogger Mr A. P. Salmond, esq. said...

Actually, upon reading over your old posts, I don't think you really need to go the populist route that I was thinking with my previous suggestion. Your writing is intelligent and accessible, and could (in my unprofessional opinion) easily sell to any of the film mags currently out there. Get submitting!

8:06 am  

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