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Kingdom of Heaven: Sorting Fact from Fiction

Published May 9, 2005 in Movie News
By Richard Field | Images property of 20th Century Fox
Kingdom of Heaven Kingdom of Heaven
Kingdom of Heaven is the first big-budget, period movie of 2005. Ridley Scott is undeniably one of today’s best film directors at delivering spectacular, riveting entertainment. But how much of the story of Kingdom of Heaven is actual historical fact? Even when we are entertained, we’re always curious—“Did that really happen?” As the author of the upcoming novel, Richard and Saladin, my research has given me an intimate familiarity with this period. As I sort out fact from fiction, I am not trying to be derogatory about the film. I agree with Liam Neeson, one of the stars of the movie, who observed that sometimes a greater truth emerges from artistic license. My aim here is simply to answer the question—“Did that really happen?”—without making any other judgments.

The greatest deviations from the historical record revolve around three characters. These are their actual stories:

Kingdom of Heaven: The Characters

Kingdom of Heaven Orlando Bloom is Balian of Ibelin
Balian of Ibelin: Balian of Ibelin did oversee the defense of Jerusalem, and was the Christian leader who surrendered Jerusalem to Saladin in October of 1187. But he did not come from Europe in 1184. He was older than the character depicted in the movie. His family had lived in “Outremer” (the French term for the areas “outside of Europe” in the Holy Land) for multiple generations, and was part of a Christian faction favoring peaceful relations with Muslims.

Balian’s presence in Jerusalem at the time of Saladin’s siege was a convergence of circumstances, not a calculated choice. As Saladin consolidated his capture of the coastal city of Ascalon, and prepared to turn inland toward Jerusalem, Balian contacted Saladin asking for safe conduct to Jerusalem. He wanted to take his wife and children out of the city to Tyre. Saladin knew Jerusalem was devoid of competent military leadership. His advisers warned him not to grant Balian’s request as Balian was a knight, competent to lead the defense of Jerusalem. Saladin allowed Balian safe passage to Jerusalem, but only after Balian swore an oath to stay in Jerusalem for no more than one night. By Balian’s account, when he arrived, the people demanded he command the defense of the city, and refused to let him leave. He asked Saladin for permission to violate his oath. Not only did Saladin release Balian from his oath, but sent a squad of soldiers to escort Balian’s wife and children out of Jerusalem to Tyre.

It is true that in the course of Balian’s defense of the city he conferred knighthood on every possible Christian male resident, out of desperation. Saladin enjoyed overwhelming military superiority because of the destruction of most of the Christian army about three months before at the Battle of Hattin. Before leaving Ascalon, Saladin offered the Christian leaders in Jerusalem a generous proposition. They would be allowed to hunt and forage in the area until the following Pentecost, unmolested by Saladin’s troops. In exchange, the Christians would agree to surrender peacefully if by that time no rescue was coming. The Christians refused any terms. So Saladin vowed to take Jerusalem by storm, as Christians had in 1099.

Saladin was on the verge of keeping that vow when Balian asked for terms. Balian told Saladin that Christians were prepared to massacre all their Muslim prisoners and destroy the Muslim holy places in the city if Saladin insisted on storming Jerusalem. Saladin chose to save lives, Muslim and Christian, rather than keep his vow. The people were to ransom themselves to avoid slavery. When wealthy Christians left the city without offering ransom money to help poor refugees who could not pay, Saladin released many of the poor Christians without collecting their ransoms. So though Balian’s role in the peaceful surrender of Jerusalem was laudable, achievable by Balian’s skilled diplomacy and reputation with Saladin as an honorable Christian, it was not as achieved as the result of a stalemate.

Queen Sibylla: Queen Sibylla married Guy of Lusignan in 1180. Nobles of that time considered that as a probable future Queen of Jerusalem, she had married beneath her. She stayed married to Guy until her death during the siege of Acre, a few years after the events in “Kingdom of Heaven.” There is no record of any romance between Sibylla and Balian.

Guy of Lusignan
: Guy of Lusignan became King of Jerusalem, but not in the way depicted in the film. Kingdom of Heaven begins in 1184. Baldwin IV (the leper king), depicted as king almost up to the capture of Jerusalem by Saladin, actually died in 1185. He was succeeded by Baldwin V, Baldwin IV’s young nephew. The regent appointed was Raymond of Tripoli, another one of the peaceful faction of Christians in Outremer. Raymond negotiated a four-year truce with Saladin. In 1186, after Baldwin V died at the age of nine, Guy took the throne in 1186, through some complicated and duplicitous maneuvering. Guy’s claim to the throne was asserted through his wife.

The chronicles from the period show Guy to be a weak-willed, vacillating leader, not competent to handle the challenges of his position. Just before the Battle of Hattin (portrayed in “Kingdom of Heaven,” though not named specifically), Guy was at first persuaded not to move out from the Christian fortresses to contest Saladin’s siege of Tiberias. But Reynald of Chatillon and the Master of the Knights Templar persuaded Guy that he must meet the provocation or be considered an ineffectual coward. So Guy ordered the march to Tiberias, without adequate water sources, and the Christian army was utterly destroyed in the trap Saladin set at the Battle of Hattin on July 4, 1187.

Guy was taken into custody, and held by Saladin for a year. He eventually began a siege at Acre which culminated when Richard the Lionheart arrived from England to finalize the capture of the coastal fortress by Christians in 1192. But the Christians of Outremer never accepted Guy as a desirable king after the Christian disaster at Hattin. Even though Guy of Lusignan was a vassal of Richard, and Richard initially supported him, Richard realized the Kingdom of Jerusalem needed a stronger king. Richard agreed not to contest Conrad of Montferrat as King of Jerusalem, and Guy and his family were given Cyprus, where they ruled for another 300 years.

Kingdom of Heaven: Characters with Merit

Kingdom of Heaven Ghassan Massoud is Saladin
Saladin: Saladin’s appearance in Kingdom of Heaven is true to the tradition of Saladin as a warrior for Islam, but also as an extraordinarily compassionate man for his times. Within the time constraints of a modern motion picture, it was probably not possible to elaborate on Saladin’s extraordinary qualities, qualities that make him a revered figure even today. Saladin was honored as a model of “chivalry,” even by Christians of his era. His generosity with the western Christians in Jerusalem, described previously, is only one of the many stories from the period describing his magnanimous, yes, even chivalrous nature. In addition to that, Saladin was a Kurd. Not an Arab, or a Turk, but a Kurd—the same Kurds Sadaam Hussein tried to wipe off the face of the earth, who are an integral part of the new Iraqi government today.

Reynald of Chatillon: Reynald of Chatillon may have been even more of a rogue than depicted in “Kingdom of Heaven.” As the movie dramatizes, he raided Muslim caravans during the truce with Saladin. He taunted Muslim prisoners—“let Allah save you now”—as he slaughtered them. Guy could not control him, and refused to act against him when he violated the truce with Saladin. Reynald was undoubtedly conditioned by his long years as a prisoner in Syrian captivity, from 1160-1175. Chronicles differ on the exact details, but Saladin did personally execute Reynald after the Battle of Hattin. It is a Muslim tradition that a prisoner is safe from harm if a Muslim offers the prisoner hospitality. The chronicles confirm the story of Saladin giving water to Guy, then angrily clarifying that even though Guy had shared the water with Reynald, Saladin was not offering hospitality to the doomed scoundrel.

“Tiberius”: “Tiberius” is a completely fictional character. No one named Tiberius is recorded as playing any substantive role in these events.

Richard the Lionheart: The episode at the end of Kingdom of Heaven involving Richard the Lionheart is entirely invented. Richard first landed at Acre. Ibelin was well south of Richard’s arrival, down near Ascalon, an area Richard did not visit until he had been in Outremer for many months. It is correct that Balian did not participate with Richard in his military actions (now called the “Third Crusade.”). But that is because Balian was aligned with Conrad of Montferrat, a rival to Richard’s vassal Guy of Lusignan for the throne of Jerusalem. In fact, Balian conducted separate negotiations with Saladin on Conrad’s behalf before Conrad was designated as King of Jerusalem.

Kingdom of Heaven: The Details and Facts

Kingdom of Heaven captured some of the historical details magnificently. The flurries of arrows (the ones without flames), with the speed and impact so vivid, was undoubtedly realistic as to what it might have felt like to be under attack by skilled archers. It is also true, however, that heavily armored knights would have had less trouble with them. Some chronicles described knights as riding with arrows harmlessly stuck in their armor, looking like overgrown pincushions.

The depiction of Sicily as a starting place for departures to Outremer, and as a location filled with Muslim subjects under a Christian ruler, is absolutely accurate. In fact, the Latin Christians were a minority there, ruling over Muslims and eastern Orthodox Christians. And King William of Sicily sent ship after ship to Tyre after the Christian defeat at Hattin, supplying the struggling Christian forces by sea while the call went out to Europe for a rescue.

The hazards of sea travel across the Mediterranean are also true to the era. Richard the Lionheart dealt with stormy seas and shipwrecks both going to and coming from the eastern Mediterranean coast. The geography of Balian’s landing on the coast is, however, difficult to follow.

The depiction of Lord Balian’s subjects at Ibelin as being Jews and Muslims is also well- supported by history. Western Europeans were overlords in their territories, but they were a definite minority. From the time of the “First Crusade” to the end of the last “crusader states,” there was a constant concern about a shortage of Western manpower to control and govern these conquered territories.

For that reason, second and third generation western Europeans understood the need for peaceful relations with Muslims. It was newer arrivals, sworn to fight Muslims whether hostilities were declared or not, who brought fanaticism to the region, sometimes dragging the more experienced Christians from the area along. The conflict between these two Christian factions is one of the most accurately portrayed elements of “Kingdom of Heaven.”

Saladin’s offer of his physicians to King Baldwin at Kerak is a true-to-character depiction of Saladin’s generous nature. This also demonstrates Saladin’s correct view that at this time in history, the Muslims were the more advanced civilization in medicine and in other science and technology. (Though Saladin did besiege Kerak, the scenes in Kingdom of Heaven appear to be out of the true historical chronology. Kerak was well southeast of Jerusalem, on the opposite side of the Dead Sea from the city, removed by some distance from most of these events.)

For page two-- Kingdom of Heaven: The Fiction, click the lower right.

For the trailers, movie stills, and synopsis, go to the Kingdom of Heaven Movie Page

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Richard Field
Sources: Images property of 20th Century Fox

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