Ever saw a movie or television program and thought you had inside knowledge about a historical event, or how to cure a disease, or perhaps even how to perform a romantic seduction? Reality is not always as complimentary as it appears in film, and often films betray history by not clearly portraying the facts as they are known. Creative liberties help a story breath at the cost of understanding the reality of a historical moment, or any other incidents. For the scope of this paper, I will summarize and review Director Ridley Scott’s film “Kingdom of Heaven”, plus compare the story line to the true facts concerning the historical moments captured in this story.
The story begins at the burial of a woman who we quickly learn is the main protagonist’s, Bailan, wife who committed suicide. There is evidence to believe the woman became full of grief over the loss of a child before taking her life as Bailan holds baby clothes in grief. He is eventually approached by Baron Godfrey as his father, who insists he travel with him. Bailan decides to join his long lost father on a journey to Jerusalem with the intentions of finding redemption for his dead wife and himself. Godfrey dies during an attack and his son continues in his footsteps as a knight who swears to protect the King of Jerusalem. Bailan travels to Jerusalem surviving a terrible sea storm, and a fight in the desert by a man of Arab descent. He eventually lets go of the captor he acquires during the fight, and the man promises him to never forget this good deed.
Bailan continues to Jerusalem and makes himself acquainted with the political scene. The King Baldwin IV is a leper, the sister of the King is named Princess Sibylla, and she is unhappily married to Guy de Lusignan. There are extreme tensions between the religions that all agree Jerusalem is a holy city; Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The current King Baldwin IV has maintained a positive relationship with the Islamic world but it is the intentions of Guy De Lusignan to change that at the time of the King’s death (as he will succeed him). Eventually an affair between Bailan and Princess Sibylla also occurs. It also becomes apparent that the son of Princess Sibylla will also have leprosy like his uncle one day; so the princess poisons her son, and shortens his life.
Eventually, King Baldwin does die and is succeeded by Guy de Lusignan who uses his ally Raynald, to try and break apart the peace and relations held with the Islamic world. The Islamic leader, Saladin, eventually destroy the crusaders army and offer to allow the Christians to leave as they take over Jerusalem. Bailan finds Sibylla and they join hands together as they leave for a new life in which they both have denounced their former positions.
The movie does a fantastic job of shedding some light on the fact that Jerusalem has been a heavy source of conflict for the major religions for thousands of years, and not just recently. It also exposes audiences to the look of that time, and the way that such different cultures intermingled with each other in the holy land. The story also breathes to life the Crusaders, and the story of their conflicts in the Holy land that seem to be a source of great animosity by terrorist groups even today. Also, the language of the story gives viewers insight into the ideas of that historical period. For instance, the fear of hell and the sin that presumable gets people there is very real. It is real enough for a man to completely change his lifestyle and pursue redemption.
It is a writer’s job to take a story, try to read in between the lines, and put details there that may not be readily apparent. Yet sometimes creative liberties can be taken pretty far, and entire mythologies can be created without any logical evidence for such ideas. Some of this is true in the story of “Kingdom of Heaven”. According to Proach, in real life, Bailan did not in fact have an affair with Sibylla, instead, it was his older brother Baldwin who was known for this love affair with her (2014). Also, in real life Bailan was actually born in Palestine and not in Europe as was implied by the surroundings in the opening scenes of the film (Proach 2014). Proach also includes that Bailan’s actual wife was Queen Maria Comnena who gave birth to four of his children. The details of Bailan’s wife in the movie are contrary showing a woman who commits suicide after giving birth once. Much of the film also portrayed Bailan as an agnostic but in reality Bailan was a devout Christian (Proach 2014).
Also, the Muslims are portrayed as meek and peace loving in the film against the charged Christians. This is not completely accurate because there were several instances of peace between the Muslims and Christians between the times of First Crusade and the Fall of Jerusalem (Proach 2014).
There are many holes in this story that are not realistic including Bailan’s sudden ability to become a skilled swordsman after only having been knighted for a small amount of time, and the topography of the region is not accurately displayed throughout the film (because they chose to film in Morocco) (Furnish 2005). According to Furnish, no one at the time of Bailan and Salah al-Din was in the business of giving speeches about religious tolerance, which occurs in a scene within the movie (2005).
The film was also accurate in many ways as it displays how “Orientalized” the Crusaders have become as is apparent in their displays of ornate jewelry, and women wearing henna (Furnish 2005). Bailan knighted several men due to the lack of knights around, he then did defend Jersualem, the Christian army was in fact crushed during the Battle of Hattin in July 1187; and Salah al-Din did allow the Christians to leave peaceably (Proach 2014).
“Kingdom of Heaven” does a great job of telling a story that is entertaining at the cost of greatly retelling history in a way that can mislead the unknowing viewer looking for historical insight. Hollywood has done a great job of piecing together an half-truth that will show a bit into this historical time period, and does a great job of executing the story through cinematography. The message that is left with viewers if one that shows that the current conflicts in the Holy Land are nothing new, and it has in fact been a hot bed of conflict for as far as it can be remembered. The story, although not historically accurate, is a beautiful redemptive, coming of age type, love story that most viewers will be able to find a part of themselves in and find comfort. They will also be able to walk away with a handful of straight facts about the conflicts of the period. Perhaps in the future, another director/producer will take the true story and bring it to the screen to give those studying this time period a better resource for educational purposes.
- Scott, R., Lu, A. L., & Xun, L. E. (Writers). (2005). Kingdom of Heaven [Video file].
- Proach, D. (2014). Kingdom of Heaven: Fact vs. Myth. Retrieved November 16, 2016, from
- Furnish, T. R. (2005). Kingdom of Heaven: What Parts Are Real? Retrieved November 16, 2016, from http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/11933