"Kingdom of Heaven" is just the sort of movie you'd hope would be released on Blu-ray: a stylish, highly visual epic that uses the full bag of director Ridley Scott's tricks, including the slow-motion and skip-print style CGI manipulation of violence. More than "Gladiator," this film illustrates Scott's debt to Cecil B. De Mille and Sam Peckinpah. Like the one, he uses a sweeping brush stroke to paint the story of a romanticized individual against a broader canvas of historical events. Like the other, he revels in gritty realism and violence, with the splattering of blood and body parts choreographed so that they become almost lyrical. Then there's Scott's own penchant for using mist, clouds, and falling CGI snowflakes to lend an ethereal quality--all of which look considerably more striking in High Definition.
"Kingdom of Heaven" is a sprawling film that, with the director's cut, now runs 191 minutes instead of 145. And it only feels long around the two-third's mark, when dialogue and courtly intrigue slow the story down somewhat. For the most part, though, the saga of a young blacksmith who becomes the defender of Jerusalem is both visually and narratively compelling.
The action takes place shortly before the Third Crusade (1189-92), which was made famous in literature because of Richard I's involvement and the job that Robin Hood had to do to protect England in his absence. In the so-called Kings Crusade, Richard, Philip II of France, and Frederick I of the Holy Roman Empire answered Pope Gregory VIII's call to recapture Jerusalem from the Muslims, or Saracens as they were then popularly called. "Kingdom of Heaven" opens in France, 1184, and ends with Saladin and the Saracens retaking Jerusalem.
I have to admit that I was half expecting the "Ben-Hur" treatment here, or a Christian whitewashing of an indefensible period in the history of Christianity. Thankfully, Scott isn't out to convert anyone, and he doesn't really even attempt to comment on history. The film is surprisingly neutral, with Muslim leader Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) treated just as sympathetically as Baldwin IV (Edward Norton), the crusader king who ruled Jerusalem.
Scott's focus is on individual drama, and Orlando Bloom holds up his end of the bargain. Bloom is charismatic as Balian, the young blacksmith who's told by returning crusader Godfrey of Ibelin that he's his illegitimate son. Neeson is so wonderful as Godfrey that you wish the script called for more screen time with him and his new son. But fate separates them as they travel back to the Holy Land, leaving Balian to fulfill his father's request: "You are of my house, and you will serve the King of Jerusalem." More than that, he insists that his son he should also be a defender of the people--all people. That includes the Muslims who wish to live in peace, free to worship as they please in Baldwin IV's Jerusalem "if they pay the tax." Or, as the king explains to Balian, "The Jews and the Muslims, all are welcome in Jerusalem, not only because it's expedient, but because they have a right." Yes, it's hard to miss that text-message sent across the centuries, but I didn't say this film was totally apolitical.
Baldwin IV and Balian were actual historical characters, as was Saladin, though it's certain that Scott took liberties with the facts of their lives. Here, Baldwin has leprosy and wears a silver mask to hide his hideous features, but he isn't the most frightening creature in the Holy Land. That dubious honor goes to Guy de Lusignan, leader of the Knights Templar (yep, the same Knights Templar from "The Da Vinci Code"), who wants to wipe out the Muslims. With him is another crusader king, Reynald de Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson), while Tiberius (Jeremy Irons) is Baldwin's faithful advisor and Balian his trusty sword. The other major "player" is Sibylla (Eva Green), sister of the king and Balian's romantic interest. But this isn't a romantic epic, except to the extent that the individual and the hero's journey is celebrated, and so even that doesn't turn out as one might expect.
Some mention must be made of John Matthieson's cinematography, Arthur Max's production design, and Harry Gregson-Williams' music, because I can't imagine this film succeeding without a visual and audio experience that seems right on the money. It's also one of the big reasons why "Kingdom of Heaven" was a much-anticipated entry into the new Blu-ray technology.
When "Kingdom of Heaven" was first released, my colleague, John J. Puccio, complained about graininess--especially in close-ups. Though there's some graininess in soft-focus shots, the close-ups look pretty decent, so the earlier problem must have been in the transfer rather than the source materials. The 1080p HD picture was transferred to Blu-ray using MPEG 2 technology at 24 MBPS, and presented in the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 on a 50GB dual layer disc. Though the color saturation and black levels might not be what people are accustomed to, that seems to have been a director's decision. Scott favors up-angle shots and a kind of bluish tint that, along with the clouds and wisps of incense and other visual devices suggesting "heaven," has an otherworldly quality about it. Overall, I thought the picture was quite good, and a pleasure to watch from scene to scene. It's the kind of disc you're pleased to add to your collection.
Two notes were inserted, one generally reminding owners to consult the hardware manufacturer of your Blu-ray player to make sure you have the latest upgrade, and a specific directed at the Panasonic DMP-BD10 Blu-ray Disc Player saying it's necessary to upgrade the built-in firmware to Version 1.1 or higher and advising customers to visit the Panasonic website before playing the disc. They even give a url: .
The Lossless Audio (DTS HD 5.1 uncompressed master) is also quite good, with plenty of zing in the treble and a robust bass spread across the speakers. Subtitles are in English (CC), Spanish, and French. Some releases offer lesser sound options, but this director's cut wants you to watch pure picture while listening to pure sound. There are no other options.
There are no extras.
When "Troy" came out on DVD, I wrote that it was "as close to old-style Hollywood epics as we've seen in a while." Though it might fall short of classic epics like "Ben-Hur" because of a hard-to-pinpoint lack of emotional resonance, "Kingdom of Heaven" is a much stronger and more interesting epic than "Troy." And in my book, that makes it the reigning champion of recently made epic films.