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Kingdom of Heaven: What Parts Are Real?

My expectations upon entering the theater for Kingdom of Heaven were legion. As a movie buff, I had high hopes for another Ridley Scott film. As a historian of the Islamic world, I couldn’t wait to see the portrayal of the great Salah al-Din. As a history professor who likes to send his students to write papers on such historical movies, the chariot wreck that Oliver Stone had managed to make out of Alexander was still fresh in my mind. And as a Christian (albeit of the non-Catholic variety), I fully expected yet another two-dimensional bashing of my medieval co-religionists (may my Lutheran credentials not be revoked for saying that).

Well, Scott made a better movie than Stone, but in doing so sacrificed a great deal of historical accuracy and believability on the altar of wishful thinking.

The first level on which the film has problems is that of cinematographical reality. After being shipwrecked on the coast of Israel, Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom)—who had left his job as a blacksmith in France after a visit from his previously-unknown Crusader nobleman father and set out for Outremer (as the French called their overseas dominions in the Middle East)—walks through Sahara-like sand dunes en route to the holy city. While Morocco, where Scott filmed, contains such landscapes the coast of Israel or Lebanon does not. And what, other than Peter Jackson envy, could have prompted Scott to come up with a Jerusalem topography that seems to be trying to rival Minas Tirith in Lord of the Rings? Anyone who’s ever been to Jerusalem knows that it is slightly hilly at most, not mountainous.

At the next level, that of historical dependability, this film also leaves much to be desired. Knowing full well that a historically accurate movie can be bad—can anyone say Alexander again?—why was it necessary to alter events and characters to such a huge degree? The most prominent example is Bloom’s character Balian. A nobleman by such a name was a Crusader, and indeed led the defense of Jerusalem in the face of Salah al-Din’s army’s besiegement. But there are no indications that he had to be persuaded to come to the Holy Land by his long-lost Crusader father, or that he was ever shipwrecked in the process of doing so. In fact, his family seems to have come to the Holy Land with the First Crusade in 1099. Balian was married to one Maria Comnena, the widow of Amalric I, and never involved with Sibylla (sister of Baldwin IV, the leper king of Jerusalem)—as the film would have us believe. Wasn’t the real (or at least the recorded) story of Balian compelling enough?

And what about the plight, and role, of the Orthodox Christians in the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem? History records that the Patriarch Heraclius was at Balian’s side, organizing the city’s defenses. We get no indication in the movie that there are any Christians except colonizing Catholics from western Europe. I am going to give Scott a pass on most of his plot holes, but I will mention the ones large enough to ride a Percheron through. Balian, after one sword-fighting lesson from dad and his knights, is transformed into such a swordsman that he kills the first “Saracen” that he encounters (at an oasis in one of those aforementioned sand dunes). Not only that, but Balian also knows how to lead a cavalry charge of armored knights and how to map out fields of fire in preparation for defending Jerusalem. Who knew blacksmith training was so eclectic? And of course when he takes up residence at his father’s estate on the edge of the desert, he instructs his workers to actually dig for water—which of course they find. Amazing how no one had thought of that for 80 years or so.

But to paraphrase Diry Harry from Sudden Impact: “no, it’s not the wrong geography or the fictional characters or the plot foibles that get to me….what really, really makes me sick is that nobody, and I mean NOBODY, in the 12th century was giving speechs about religious tolerance.” Which is what Balian does when Salah al-Din shows up “with 200,000 men” (actually it was maybe 40,000, but who’s counting?). Of course, he was one of the few knights left after the crushing of the Kingdom’s army by Salah al-Din at Hattin in 1187, which in turn had been prompted by the brutality of Reynauld de Chatillion—a bit that Scott got right—and the military hubris of the Templars and their leader Guy de Lusignan (ostensibly King, by virtue of being married to Sibylla). Salah al-Din, the great Kurdish Sunni leader, had taken over both Egypt and Syria and so his realm surrounded that of the Crusaders. For many years he tolerated their existence, however (perhaps not least because he had his own inter-Muslim problems, such as the attempts by the “Assassins”—who were radical Shi`ites—to kill him). But when Reynauld attacked a caravan and killed his sister, Salah al-Din moved. After wiping out the Kingdom of Jerusalem’s forces at Hattin, Salah al-Din besieged the city. Balian, both in reality and the movie, led the heroic defense until finally surrendering the city to the Muslim forces. But does anyone really believe that Balian rallied the Christians by giving a 21st-century-style exhortation about the equal religious value of the Dome of the Rock, Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Temple of Solomon? He also sermonized that it was the people, not the holy sites, that really mattered. If that were the case, tens of thousands of western European Catholics would never have traveled thousands of miles to take Jerusalem in the first place. As much as Ridley Scott—or we—would like Muslims and Christians (and Jews) in the Holy Land to “just get along” today, what purpose does it serve to retroject this kinder and gentler monotheism 800 years into the past and pretend it motivated folks then?

That said, there are some very good aspects to this movie: the depictions of how “orientalized” the Crusaders had become; the battles (which I think compare favorably to The Lord of the Rings, especially in that they look more real); the return of Alexander Siddig (Dr. Bashir of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) as Nasir, one of the Muslim commanders; and perhaps most impressive, Salah al-Din’s portrayal by Ghassan Massoud. Would that a Muslim leader of his stature were around today, instead of epigones like Bin Ladin and al-Zarqawi. Kingdom of Heaven seems to be saying that the clash of civlizations between the West and Islam will only begin to end when a new Balian and a new Salah al-Din emerge. But it is the Islamic world, not Western Christendom, that riots at perceived (now indeed known to be false) slights to its holy book today. One might observe that the Muslim world is much more in need of a Salah al-Din than the West is of a Balian.