Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven” is a text-book example of how it is possible to be authentic without being accurate. Scott’s film, depicting the crusader kingdom during the last years of the reign of Baldwin IV and the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1186, is far from accurate, yet it succeeds brilliantly in evoking an age and a society. While it is possible to question if all his changes to history were necessary, there is no question that on the whole his film delivers historical insight to an often misunderstood age.
As a historian, I tend to be very fussy about getting the facts right. In my own works of historical fiction I try to get all the known facts scrupulously correct and take liberties only with the interpretation of motives, mood, and non-historical supporting cast. Scott is much bolder – and yet he succeeds in conveying the essential facts in a way that captures the imagination.
For example, the historical Balian d’Ibelin, who defended and surrendered Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187, was the legitimate son of “Barisan” (sometimes also known as Balian the Elder), the Constable of Jaffa, and not an illegitimate son of a childless man as in the film. Nevertheless, the real Barisan was of “obscure” origins, and most probably a younger son of a European noblemen, and Barisan was granted the lordship of Ibelin by the King of Jerusalem. Thus, the character of Scott’s “Godfrey” d’Ibelin reflects reality and articulates a key aspect of the crusades and the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem: the ability of men of (comparatively) obscure origins to become powerful and rich in Outremer.
Scott’s Sibylla is also more fiction than fact, and yet she epitomizes the powerful – and colorful – role played by women in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. They were at once pawns for forging alliances and gaining power, and yet far from powerless, often decisive, notoriously outspoken and anything but prudish. In fact, the real Princess Sibylla probably had an affair with the real Balian d’Ibelin’s elder brother. More important, she forced her brother King Baldwin IV to accept Guy de Lusignan as her second husband, despite the king’s (very justified) objections about Lusignan’s suitability, by having an affair with him. In effect, Scott condensed the stories of several prominent women in the history of the Kingdom of Jerusalem into his fictional Sibylla, and film benefits from Balian being involved with her.
On the other hand, the portrayal of Saladin in the film is, as far as I know, on the whole accurate, as are the role of Reynald de Chatillon, Guy de Lusignan, and the Templars in this period. The catastrophe at Hattin, including the scene in Saladin’s tent following the battle and the siege and surrender of Jerusalem, are all for the most part correct, aside from being slightly condensed. In short, Scott has carefully mixed fact with fiction to produce a great work of art.
Furthermore, with the resources at his disposal, Scott produced images that are magnificent and powerful – truly worth a thousand words! Indeed, “Kingdom of Heaven” is in many ways an excellent example of the advantages film has over the written word when dealing with unfamiliar environments. It would take pages of meticulous description (that no reader wants to wade through!) to describe the armor of a late 12th century knight, or the decoration of a Saracen palace, or the cramped and crowded streets of Jerusalem. In a film with a director of Scott’s quality, who brings together the best costume artists and set designers, all those details are simply spread out in color before the viewer’s eyes. With a single camera sweep, the landscape is laid out in painstaking – and breathtaking – detail. It is when I see a film like this that I wish my novels could be filmed!
Then again, the plot and characters would probably be changed beyond recognition, and I’m not sure I’d want that! Instead, I’ll be content if readers see Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven” before reading my biographical novel of Balian d’Ibelin so they have all those vivid images of the Holy Land in their head when they start to read about a man whose real life was more interesting and real character more admirable than the hero of Scott's film.