As a disclaimer, this post will contain spoilers for a twelve-year old film. If Kingdom of Heaven is on your bucket list of movies to watch, please do so before reading.
The film Kingdom of Heaven, directed by Ridley Scott (of Alien and Gladiator fame) and released in 2005, was certainly an ambitious project. The Crusades were a controversial subject regardless of the context of its release; the fact it was made so soon after the 9/11 attacks and in the middle of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan only accentuated that controversy. Furthermore, just like any other historical epic or drama, it would undoubtedly come under massive scrutiny for its inevitable historical inaccuracies from the academic community, which at this time the Crusade historian academic scholarship was at its peak of importance and general popularity. Ridley Scott had a massive challenge on his plate when it came to making this movie and it would require his utmost discretion in order to produce a work that could (a) be representative of the time period it depicts, (b) remain relevant and somewhat analogous to the events we were then living through, and (c) be a thoroughly entertaining film.
Unfortunately, even a director as celebrated and talented as Ridley Scott managed to fail at all three.
The movie takes massive creative liberties with the main character Balian of Ibelin, to the point where he doesn’t remotely resemble his historical namesake; a number of important characters are horribly misrepresented for the sake of the story; and the political situation is simplified so much in order for the movie to hammer home a moral that does not fit with the time period. In short, Kingdom of Heaven‘s historical liberties do the time period such a disservice that the story comes off as flat and lacking any sort of punch.
Despite all that, I consider Kingdom of Heaven as one of my favorite movies.
Don’t get me wrong, all that I mentioned irks me something fierce; however, in this movie I see potential for an excellent film. All we need is a few rewrites to make the film more historically accurate and we would be able to deliver the theme Scott was going for, satisfy the academic and casual history buff community, and give general audiences a better representation of this thoroughly complex and controversial period of history.
The Problematic Premise of Kingdom of Heaven
Taken from Rotten Tomatoes: Kingdom of Heaven is an epic adventure about a common man who finds himself thrust into a decades-long war. A stranger in a strange land, he serves a doomed king, falls in love with an exotic and forbidden queen, and rises to knighthood. Ultimately, he must protect the people of Jerusalem from overwhelming forces – while striving to keep a fragile peace.
The main character is a French blacksmith named Balian; ostracized in his own community because his wife committed suicide, he is more than willing when a visiting lord named Godfrey tells the young blacksmith that he is, in reality, his son and the heir to a lordship in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. On their way to Jerusalem, Godfrey is wounded in an ambush and dies of infection, though not before he knights Balian and names him lord of Ibelin. He finally reaches the Holy Land, discovering it to be a peaceful and cosmopolitan kingdom where Christians and Muslims live in relative harmony
In Jerusalem, Balian quickly gains favor with the “leper-king” Baldwin IV and his sister, Princess Sibylla, while also earning the animosity of Sibylla’s betrothed and commander of the Templars, Guy de Lusignan. Sibylla and Balian fall in love but ultimately, out of loyalty to his vows, refuses to marry Sibylla over Guy. After Baldwin dies and Guy becomes king, he quickly plunges the kingdom into war with Saladin. Losing at the Battle of Hattin, the kingdom is overrun with Saladin’s forces, leaving Balian the only one left able and willing to defend Jersualem. Balian is able to negotiate a surrender with Saladin, earning safe passage for all the Christians living in the city, and he and Sibylla retire to France, never to return to the Holy Land again.
The changes that Ridley Scott has made to the source material was to make the story align with the Joseph Campbell-style “Hero’s Journey”: hero is dissatisfied with normal life, hero is called to adventure, hero discovers something about himself while on the journey that changes him forever while also doing something incredibly heroic, hero returns home with a new understanding of himself and the world. Balian, therefore, was transformed from a middle-aged established and respected lord within the Kingdom of Jerusalem to a disaffected young French commoner who had been called to greatness. The rest of the cast was subsequently transformed into those one would find in a hero’s journey: Sibylla is the love interest, Guy is the antagonistic foil that the hero must overcome, Saladin is a “big bad” looming in the distance, Baldwin IV is a noble and just king that must die, etc. It does the overall setting a disservice because it simplifies the complexities of the era which subsequently simplifies the complexities of our situation. The basic theme is “we need to learn to look past religion and live in harmony”, triumphantly represented when Balian rejects Christianity and Islam in favor of a vaguely modern and secular humanism. That doesn’t work for the time period and is too narrow and ill-defined to work for the modern world, excluding any belief system that is outside of Scott’s own humanist philosophy.
How to Fix the Film
The film only requires one simple change and everything else will follow suit: make it more historically accurate. Balian should be the older established lord, Guy should be the slightly incompetent but ultimately good intentioned husband of Sibylla, he and Sibylla should actually be in love and care for one another, Saladin should be a devout Muslim but also shrewd politician who uses the kingdom’s relative weakness to his advantage.
Here would be my new premise:
Balian of Ibelin is a lord within the Kingdom of Jerusalem who fears for its future. The ailing king Baldwin IV is close to death and Sibylla remains married to Guy de Lusignan, a man that he, the king, and the other lords of Jerusalem want to prevent from ever becoming king. However, despite their best efforts and forced annulment of their marriage, Sibylla’s first act as newly crowned queen of Jerusalem is to name her love Guy as king and regent to her young son, Baldwin V.
Balian is discouraged: he feels that God must have abandoned them and kingdom, because why would he allow such men to take the reins of rulership and lead Jerusalem to ruin. He becomes apathetic, going through the motions of a loyal subject but going no further. He does little to prevent the unhinged Reynald de Chatillon from attacking a Muslim caravan or when the Master of the Templars foolishly attacks a Muslim force many times bigger than his own. While he joins the army to march against Saladin’s invasion and tries to convince the king to take the more prudent approach by not crossing many miles of desert without access to water, to wait for Saladin to come to them. When Guy opts to take the advice of Reynald and the more impetuous camp, he resigns himself to defeat. He and the other lords who had opposed Guy from the beginning flee the battlefield when Saladin starts to cut the Christian army to pieces, capturing Guy, Reynald, and many other lords.
At this point, Balian has become a self-preservationist and decides to collect his family from Jerusalem and return to his castle at Ibelin; his relationship with Saladin is such that he doesn’t fear that the sultan would do him harm. When he reaches Jerusalem, he finds it under siege from Saladin’s army. Desperate to save his family, he begs Saladin to let him in and take his family away. Saladin agrees with the condition that Balian does not take up arms against him. Balian graciously accepts and is allowed in the city. Once he enters, he is accosted by the desperate defense and populace, all of whom are begging him to lead the defense against Saladin. He is reluctant, since all he wants is for him and his family to survive. He is ultimately convinced by his wife, who implores him that he has a duty to protect God’s people. He informs Saladin of his decision and leads a spirited defense of the city. When the two sides reach an impasse, Balian offers terms to surrender the city if Saladin agrees to let the Christians leave unharmed, otherwise he would destroy the holy sites within the city. Saladin, reluctant but urged on by his advisors, comes to terms with Balian and agrees, as long as they are all able to pay.
The film can end with Balian meeting up with Guy de Lusignan, his king’s brothers, and the other surviving lords outside of Tyre, ready to take back their kingdom.
The theme that I would like to try and drive home is our obligation to protect others whenever we can and that we should have their best interests at heart, rather than some grander, abstract, and most likely misguided purpose. Balian goes from desiring to protect his kingdom, to wanting to only protect himself and his family, to resolving to protect the people of Jerusalem. He goes from an abstract sense of duty to his kingdom, which he saw as being God’s, to a concrete sense of protecting the people, which he is more than certain they are God’s. To contrast Balian, he can have as an apprentice a young Templar squire who has been assigned to study under Balian. This young Templar had only recently joined and arrived in the Holy Land has a youthful idealism of protecting God’s kingdom, not dissimilar to Balian at the beginning. He remains so throughout the film, at first trying to help Balian when he becomes disillusioned to then disgusted that Balian would surrender the city of Jerusalem rather than die for it. Balian would then respond with “I’m not doing this for myself but to protect all the people living within these walls, God’s people. His true kingdom.” He then leaves the young Templar behind to contemplate the words Balian had left him with.
I feel that this version makes the film a lot more timeless. We all go through phases of abstract idealism to defeatist self-preservation to then a greater concrete understanding of how the world works. We learn of the imperfections of the society in which we live but come to accept them and endeavor to move forward. Furthermore, it does a better job portraying the complexities of the era: Guy isn’t a mustache twirling villain leading a bloodthirsty horde of Christians while Saladin, still a chivalrous and noble person, is not without his faults and failings. The crusades were not black and white, nor was the religion of the time a perverse and violent one that does not resemble our modern era. The actual film was too much of its time and, once removed from the context of 9/11 and the Bush era, falls flat on its face. I would rather have this kind of story last the test of time, serving as a reminder of the Crusades as well as a story that we can learn human purpose, regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof.