Every May thousands of medieval scholars descend on Kalamazoo, Michigan for the International Congress on Medieval Studies. It is the largest such gathering in the world, featuring hundreds of papers on virtually every imaginable topic in medieval history and culture. This year the meeting coincided with the release of the much-anticipated film, The Kingdom of Heaven, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Orlando Bloom–a film that is set during the period of the Crusades. As a Crusade historian, I knew I would be asked about the movie, so I decided to see it sooner rather than later. Ducking out on what I am sure was a fascinating session called “Focus on Fluids: Analyzing Urine in the Middle Ages,” I corralled a few of my graduate students and headed to the local cineplex to catch the matinee. The theater was largely empty–a bad omen, given the number of geeky medievalists in town.
FICTION. . .
If I were a film critic I would say that this movie is dead dull. After one hour of ponderous dialogue and assorted arrow wounds I was already checking my watch to see if I might still make that paper on medieval English uroscopy. The film can best be described as a series of bloody medieval battle scenes stitched loosely together with a thin, yet preachy, modern morality play. The moral of the story, which Scott cudgels his viewer with at every opportunity, is that religious tolerance is a good thing and we should all have more of it.
But I am not a film critic; I am a historian. As a historian it naturally irritates me that there are people who will leave theaters certain that Scott and his writer, William Monahan, have served up something that approximates reality in the Middle Ages. They haven’t. In fact, there is very little that is medieval about The Kingdom of Heaven. It is instead a mixture of 19th-century Romanticism and modern Hollywood wishful-thinking. The real Crusades began in 1095 as a response to centuries of Muslim conquests of Christian lands. Their purpose was to restore those territories, including the Holy Land, to Christian control. The Kingdom of Jerusalem, which was established by the First Crusade in 1099, was an outpost of European Christians planted in a largely Muslim world for the purpose of safeguarding the holy sites. Subsequent major Crusades were called in response to subsequent Muslim conquests.
Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven is set in the years 1186 to 1187, a time when, he assures us, King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem made the Holy City a place where “anyone could come and go as they pleased, and worship as they pleased.” This golden age of tolerance was then shattered by the Templars, Christian zealots thirsting for Muslim blood who were led by the evil Reynald of Chatillon and Guy of Lusignan. After Baldwin’s death, Guy and Reynald provoked a war with the wise and tolerant Muslim leader, Saladin, who crushed the Christians and then moved his armies toward Jerusalem. The story itself is centered on Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom), a French blacksmith on the run because he has killed a priest. He joins up with his long-lost father, Godfrey of Ibelin, who has a place in the Holy Land. Godfrey assures Balian that the Kingdom of Jerusalem is a “kingdom of conscience,” a place where a person can leave the past behind and become all that he or she can be. Picking up swordplay and chivalry on the trip, Balian is knighted and settles in the Holy Land where he has a love affair with the king’s sister, fights plenty of gory battles, and ends up commanding the defense of Jerusalem when Saladin shows up.
. . . AND FACT
How much of that actually happened? Not much. Balian of Ibelin was born in the Holy Land, not France, where he grew up a respected knight in the kingdom. He was never a blacksmith. His father, Barisan (not Godfrey) died in 1150–36 years before the opening of this film. Although the movie makes Balian out to be a troubled young man who has lost his faith, he was really a mature man in his 40s or older, renowned for his devotion to God and to the saints. Balian is not the only historical character to get a modern makeover in this film. While it is true that King Baldwin IV had leprosy, it is not true that he possessed a wardrobe of silver Brando-esque masks for various occasions. Heck, Baldwin wasn’t even alive at the time, having died one year before the events portrayed in the movie. Neither Saladin nor Baldwin were tolerant rulers seeking peace between Muslims and Christians. The real Baldwin flew into a rage when he learned that Guy failed to attack Saladin in 1183. The real Saladin was, according to his biographer, filled with joy as he watched the decapitation of hundreds of Christians in 1187. Saladin preached jihad throughout his reign, making no secret of his desire to capture Jerusalem and massacre its Christian inhabitants. Both Baldwin and Saladin were, not surprisingly, men of their times, not ours.
Rather than catalogue all of the historical inaccuracies in this movie (and they are legion) I will confine myself to two general threads of anachronism that are woven throughout. First, the Kingdom of Jerusalem is frequently referred to in this film as a “new world.” It was nothing of the sort. Indeed, it was the oldest of the Old World. To watch this movie one would think that the Holy Land was a recently-discovered virgin wilderness just waiting for colonization by strapping young blacksmiths. Balian even sets up his own plantation, thus introducing irrigation to the Fertile Crescent. The Holy Land that Scott and Monahan describe clearly owes much more to post-medieval British history, where overseas lands of opportunity like North America, Australia, and India offered a fresh start for those seeking a new life.
The second major anachronism is the movie’s approach to religion. Most people know that the Crusades were wars of faith. Crusaders underwent extreme hardship, risking their lives and expending enormous amounts of money because of their devotion to Christ, his Church, and his people. Crusader piety also manifested itself in extraordinary devotion to the Virgin Mary and the saints, particularly those saints who had lived in the Holy Land. The Kingdom of Heaven, however, performs the delicate operation of stripping religious piety completely out of the Crusades. Balian and his father appear to be agnostics. Other Crusaders, like the Hospitaller, are openly critical of religion. Indeed, all of the good guys in this movie seem to have no devotion to God at all, only a devotion to tolerance. The bad guys, on the other hand, are all religiously devout, which causes them to be either evil (like Guy and Reynald) or mad (like the glassy-eyed preacher who chants, “To kill a Muslim is not murder, it is the path to heaven”). In other words, the medieval world is portrayed in much the same way that Hollywood views America: Smart people either have no religion or do not take it very seriously. The rest are right-wing Christian fanatics.
There are no churches in this movie, not even in the holiest of cities. There are no monks, no nuns, and very few pilgrims, all of whom would have filled the streets of medieval Jerusalem. Only two priests appear in the film, one a twisted corpse mutilator and the other a villain whose strategy for defending Jerusalem is to convert to Islam and leave the people to die. Scott scatters a few crosses here and there, but there are no crucifixes, which were much more common in the Middle Ages. Beautiful set decoration of Crusader palaces includes no icons of Mary or the saints, indeed no religious art of any kind. Christians, Muslims, and Jews all live in harmony in this cinematic Jerusalem. Yet, in truth non-Christians were forbidden to live in the Holy City during the reign of Baldwin IV. But it is not just Christianity that Scott sterilizes. Muslims are shown praying a few times in the film, yet the only devout Muslim is a black-robed cleric demanding that Saladin attack the Christians and capture Jerusalem. The message here is clear: Religion leads to fanaticism, and fanaticism leads to war.
As a matter of plot logic, one might reasonably wonder why all of these Crusaders wearing crosses on their breasts and marching off to hopeless battles care so little for Christianity? When preparing for the defense of Jerusalem, Balian proclaims that it is not the stones that matter, but the people living in the city. In order to save the people’s lives he threatens to destroy all of the Christian and Muslim holy sites, “everything,” he says, “that drives men mad.” Yet if he is only concerned with defending people, why has Balian come all the way to Jerusalem to do it? Aren’t there plenty of people in France who need defending? The truth is that Scott’s Balian has it exactly wrong. It is the stones, the buildings, the city that mattered above all else. Medieval Christians saw Jerusalem as a precious relic sanctified by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The people were there to glorify God and defend His Holy City. The real Balian, faced with the inevitable conquest of Jerusalem, threatened to destroy the Dome of the Rock if Saladin did not abandon his plan to massacre the Christian inhabitants. That plan is airbrushed out of the movie. Indeed, the good and noble Saladin of this movie lets all of the citizens depart with a hearty, good-natured smile on his face. The real Saladin required them to pay a ransom. Those that could not–and there were thousands–were sold into slavery.
Given events in the modern world it is lamentable that there is so large a gulf between what professional historians know about the Crusades and what the general population believes. This movie only widens that gulf. The shame of it is that dozens of distinguished historians across the globe would have been only too happy to help Scott and Monahan get it right. After all, by Hollywood standards, historians work for peanuts. According to the movie’s production notes that kind of assistance was apparently unnecessary: “[Screen writer] Monahan worked from primary sources using firsthand accounts (in translation) by people who were present while history was being made, and avoiding interpretations written over the subsequent centuries.” Yet some of those “interpretations” that Monahan so studiously avoided were written by professional historians using rigorous source criticism and relying on far more than a few works translated into English. Why not phone some of them, if only to check your own meticulous research?
Ridley Scott has repeatedly said that this movie is “not a documentary” but a “story based on history.” The problem is that the story is poor and the history is worse. Based on media interviews, Scott, Monahan, and the leading actors clearly believe that their story can help bring peace to the world today. Lasting peace, though, would be better served by candidly facing the truths of our shared past, however politically incorrect those might be.
–Thomas F. Madden is Professor of Medieval History and Chair of the Department of History at Saint Louis University. A recognized expert on the Crusades, he is the author most recently of The New Concise History of the Crusades and editor of Crusades: The Illustrated History.