Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.
Ridley Scott has been directing films since the late ’70s. He’s responsible for some amazing films that have spanned the length of this career. He can’t be pigeonholed into just one “type” of film. He’s directed sci fi, horror, fantasy, feminist theory, military, sword-and-sandal, suspense—the list could go on and on. You get a certain style when you watch one of his films. Even on those that are considered his lesser films, he’s not only trying to tell an engaging story but also one full of subtext. Today I want to share one of his pictures that bombed at the box office but is definitely worthy of a second look, or, for many of you, a first look: 2005’s Kingdom of Heaven.
Set in 1184, the plot follows a blacksmith, Balian Ibelin (Orlando Bloom), who decides to follow his father to the Holy Land and defend the King of Jerusalem and protect the helpless, in part because of some backstory about him feeling he has to atone for some things in his past. Of course, this pilgrimage also takes place during the Crusades. There are some epic battle scenes, a sweeping story, and also great scene work from a widely talented cast, including Liam Neeson, Eva Green, Brendan Gleeson, Jeremy Irons, and Edward Norton.
I would also like to give a shout out to an underutilized actor who plays his role as an aid to the Sultan Saladin with a relish and a twinkle in his eye. You might know him as Dr. Julian Bashir on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, or more recently as Prince Doran on Game of Thrones, but Alexander Siddig is so fun to watch in his few scenes. If the movie had fared better, a pseudo-sequel following his character would have been a lot of fun.
Orlando Bloom is the least interesting character to watch, but he’s supposed to be. He has the standard hero story. What make Kingdom of Heaven unique are the setting and time period. Balien has to be a good man trying to do what’s right, and he has to be opposed by other men who are supposedly good but in reality aren’t. He was coming right off Return of the King and Pirates of the Caribbean when he made this, and I think there was some Bloom fatigue at the time. He’s perfectly acceptable as the lead, but all the actors I listed above have the showier roles and are perfect for them.
The plot uses a lot of historical characters and moments, but deviates quite a bit from accuracy to tell a focused story. On its initial release, it was heavily chopped up due to test-audience reaction and Fox executives wanting a shorter film. It was an epic that wasn’t allowed to be epic. Trimming the film from its original 190 minutes down to 144, the edits cut out key contextual and motivating scenes. It also didn’t help that this was just a few years after the 9/11 attacks and at the height of the War on Terror, during which many Muslims were targeted not because they were terrorists, but because they were “others.” In that climate, this film had the audacity (note the sarcasm) to treat Muslims like people and point out the religious zealotry on both sides, with an extra push for some shady Christians in the film. At the time, many Americans did not want to sympathize with Muslims or be told that there are also radical Christians. With the recent state of politics in our country, I don’t know if we have gotten better or worse, but I have to give Scott credit for tackling this subject at the time he did and for the stance he took.
Kingdom of Heaven is a hidden gem in the Ridley Scott oeuvre that deserves a chance to find its audience. I would definitely recommend the director’s cut, since it tells a much more coherent story and provides a lot more motivational exposition for quite a few characters. It’s visually stunning and has a narrative depth that in my humble opinion is much stronger than Scott’s big Oscar picture from five years earlier, Gladiator. So if you like that film, definitely give Kingdom of Heaven a shot. I think you’ll be happy with how much you like it, and you might even want to read up on that time period—I know I did.
This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.
If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.