Today is the 922nd anniversary of Pope Urban II preaching the Crusades. That’s why we’re going back to the 12th century this week to learn the true story behind the movie Kingdom of Heaven.
About Kingdom of Heaven
In 2002, Andrew Lau and Alan Mak teamed up to direct the first in a series of films that would go on to be a trilogy. Conveniently named Internal Affairs, Internal Affairs 2 and Internal Affairs 3, Alan actually co-wrote the trilogy along with Felix Chong.
Now looking at the geographical stats for this podcast, since most listeners aren’t in China, I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that you’re not in China as you’re listening to this. So I’ll jump to the conclusion and guess that you probably haven’t seen 2002’s Internal Affairs or any of its sequels.
What you might’ve seen, though, was when Martin Scorsese won his first and, at least as of this recording, only Oscar when he remade Internal Affairs with 2006’s The Departed.
Well, it’s not like he was the only one who remade it. Actually, a lot of the credit can go to William Monahan, who also won an Oscar for Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay when he adapted the Internal Affairs film into the screenplay for The Departed.
While many considered Martin Scorsese’s Oscar win a long-overdue award for a career of hits, the same isn’t quite true for William Monahan. In fact, quite the opposite.
You see, The Departed earned William an Academy Award as just the second feature film he’d write.
And it’s William’s very first movie that we’re going to be looking at today. In 2005, Kingdom of Heaven was written by William Monahan and directed by another amazing director, Ridley Scott.
Interestingly, a director that, despite being nominated for four Oscars, has yet to win.
Now, if you’re listening to this on the day it’s released, today marks the anniversary of the Crusades…well, the first one at least. You see, it was on November 27th in the year 1095 when Pope Urban II preached about the Crusades, kicking off the Crusades that would last almost two hundred years—until 1291.
That means this year, 2017, marks the 922nd anniversary of a series of so-called Holy Wars that ended up causing millions of people to die and countless more heartache, destruction and pretty much everything else that comes with war.
So this week I invite you to join me on a trip through history as we travel all the way back to the 12th century as we look at the true story behind the 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven.
The true story behind Kingdom of Heaven
The movie begins with some text on the screen to explain the situation. We’re in France in the year 1184. According to the movie, it’s been almost a century since the Christians have seized control of Jerusalem. While Europe is gripped by poverty, both rich and poor are enchanted by the thought of the Holy Land to find fortune.
Finally, the film mentions one knight who’s returning home to find his son. We find out in the next scene that one knight is Godfrey de Ibelin, who’s played by Liam Neeson in the film.
Let’s start by laying down a blanket statement: as is often the case with history, the further you go back, the murkier the waters get. Basically, there’s a lot we don’t know about the true story of the character Orlando Bloom plays in the movie, Balian.
But as far as we know, Godfrey de Ibelin is a completely fictional character made up for the movie. Balian’s real father was called…Balian. Or, as most historians refer to him, Balian the Elder. Although it’s worth pointing out that some historians refer to him as Barisan, while there’s been some who think that Balian the Younger—the guy that Orlando Bloom plays—could’ve also been Barisan, Balisanus, or maybe even Baladan…the latter of which is a name mentioned multiple times in the Christian Bible, in 2 Kings 20:12-15 and Isaiah 39:1.
Although the timeline in the Bible would’ve been before any of these events, so that just adds to the historical confusion. Were these the same people? Or different people throughout history with similar names? Or are there things lost in translation? Maybe.
Oh, and the real Balian was born somewhere around 1143, meaning when the movie began in 1184, he would’ve been older than the then-28-year-old Orlando Bloom is in the movie. More specifically, he would’ve been 41 years old.
And I guess while we’re at it, something else that’s a pretty big inaccuracy in the film is when Balian doesn’t seem to know how to get to Jerusalem. While Balian the Elder was known to have had excursions throughout western Europe, there’s not much evidence to suggest that his youngest son was born during those adventures like the movie suggests. In fact, most historians believe Balian was born in Jerusalem and, as far as we know, lived there for most of his early life.
Going back to the movie, there’s a scene at a pilgrim camp on the road to Messina where we run into another character. This is Guy de Lusignan as played by Martin Csokas.
Guy was a real person, and not to get too far ahead of our story here, but there’s no indications that there was any sort of a love triangle between Guy and Sibylla and Balian.
Sibylla is played by Eva Green in the film.
Perhaps one of the most convincing arguments against Balian and Sibylla having a relationship is the mere fact that Balian was actually married to a woman named Maria Comnena in 1177, so before the movie events took place.
And while the movie makes it seem like Balian did have a wife who passed away, most historians believe Maria died somewhere between 1208 and 1217, which would mean that the movie’s timeline is off there if it’s trying to assume that the woman cast simply as “Balian’s wife” and played by Nathalie Cox was indeed Maria.
Oh, and something else the movie doesn’t mention is that Balian and Maria had four children together.
It’s also worth pointing out that Maria was the widow of King Amalric I of Jerusalem who, in turn, was Sibylla’s father. Although Sibylla wasn’t Maria’s child. She was the daughter of King Amalric I and his first wife, Agnes, while Maria was Amalric’s second wife.
To make matters even more complex, some historians even believe that Hugh of Ibelin was Agnes’ husband first.
So I know that’s a bit confusing. Let’s try to clarify that a bit.
Hugh of Ibelin isn’t in the movie at all, but he was Balian the Elder’s oldest son—so the older brother of the character that Orlando Bloom plays in the movie. In 1153, he was either married or betrothed to Agnes. We don’t really know for sure which one it was.
In 1157, Hugh was captured in battle and Agnes ended up marrying King Amalric I of Jerusalem. I’m sure there’s more to that story there, but that’s a rabbit trail we can’t really go down in this episode.
In 1160, Amalric and Agnes had their first child, Sibylla. Then the next year, 1161, they had a son they named Baldwin.
Now there’s some confusion here with what we know. Some historians, like William of Tyre, suggest that Agnes was…well, less than morally pure, and as a result the High Council in Jerusalem refused to uphold Amalric’s crown for as long as the two were married. So Amalric annulled his marriage and Agnes went back to Hugh of Ibelin, who she married. Again? Maybe. As I said, there’s some confusion with what we know.
What is true is that Sibylla and Baldwin were brother and sister. Baldwin was the leper king of Jerusalem played by Edward Norton in the movie.
In 1167, then, Amalric married Maria Comnena. If that named sounds familiar it’s because we just learned she would go on to marry Balian. But that didn’t happen until Amalric died from what most historians believe was dysentery in 1174. Three years later, as we learned, Maria married Balian.
Hopefully that helps clarify things a bit. If nothing else, it shows that even though the movie makes it seem like Eva Green’s version of Sibylla and Orlando Bloom’s version of Balian didn’t know much about each other before they met, the truth is that the two families had quite an intertwined relationship.
Back in the movie, we see Liam Neeson’s character, Godfrey, get injured by an arrow. As a result of the injury, he develops a fever and his health quickly declines. Before he passes away, though, we see him pass off his titles and lands to Balian.
We already learned Godfrey was fictional, so it’s probably not much of a surprise that this premise is fictional as well.
In truth, Balian the Younger was the, well, youngest son of Balian the Elder. We already heard a bit about his oldest brother, Hugh, but he also had an older brother named Baldwin. Not to be confused with the leper king Baldwin played by Edward Norton in the movie.
Hugh died in 1169, which would’ve passed the lordship of Ibelin to Baldwin, except he didn’t want it because he was already happy with a lordship at a place called Ramla. So he gave the Ibelin lordship to his younger brother, and that’s how Balian became Balian of Ibelin—or Balian, the lord of Ibelin.
Oh, and I know I mentioned earlier that his name might’ve been Barisan or some other variation, but for the purpose of this episode I’m going to stick with Balian because that’s what they use in the movie.
We also have some ancient Arabic sources that mention Balian as being “like a king”, which suggests that even though Balian didn’t get the lordship of Ibelin right after his father’s death, that didn’t stop him from making a name for himself.
With all of this talk of various marriages, I’m sure you’re wondering: what about the marriage between Guy de Lusigna and Sibylla in the movie? Was that real?
But there’s more to the story that the movie doesn’t mention.
Remember Sibylla’s mom, Agnes?
Well, some historians believe that Agnes was sleeping with a man named Aimery. Aimery invited his younger brother to come to Jerusalem, who accepted the invitation and arrived somewhere around 1180.
His younger brother’s name? Guy de Lusigna.
Although the movie mentions that Sibylla was betrothed to Guy at the age of 15 at the behest of her mother, history doesn’t really seem to agree with that synopsis. We don’t know a lot of the reasonings that went into the facts, but some suggest that Guy was a surprise husband to Sibylla when, in 1180, the two were married.
If you recall, that’s the same year Guy arrived in Jerusalem. Apparently he didn’t waste much time.
The reason why Guy didn’t waste much time is something that the movie indicates by showing the leprous king. That’s true, and so it would seem that when Guy arrived in Jerusalem he saw the sickly king and took advantage of the opportunity.
Back in the movie, one of the main rivals to the Christians in Jerusalem is the Saracen leader, Saladin.
The movie doesn’t really talk much about Saladin’s back story since it focuses more on the Christian side of the story, but Saladin was indeed a real person.
In fact, thanks to a biography written by a scholar named Ibn Shaddad, Saladin is one of the characters in the movie we know the most about. Ibn Shaddad wrote his biography during Saladin’s lifetime, and it would seem the two were friends.
Saladin was born in the small town of Tikrit in Mesopotamia. Well, I say small town…today, Tikrit, which is located in modern-day Iraq, has about 160,000 people in it. We don’t really know the exact population back in 1138 when Saladin was born.
Oh, and his real name was Yusuf. Saladin was an honorary name, referred to in Arabic as a laqab, that means “Righteousness of the Faith.”
Although being born in Mesopotamia, it’d seem Saladin made his way to Damascus because that’s where his education really grew. From what we can gather, it sounded like Saladin was a really smart guy who studied arithmetic, law, religion before his military career began.
In the movie, there’s a moment where Edward Norton’s version of King Baldwin mentions defeating Saladin at the age of 16. While the film never comes out and says it, the implication I got from that memory was that they’re trying to say the leper king, Baldwin, defeated Saladin and drove the Muslims out of Jerusalem.
In fact, the King Baldwin that Edward Norton portrays in the film was Baldwin IV. He reigned from 1174 to 1185.
Something else the movie doesn’t really mention that’s important to understand is that Jerusalem was an entire kingdom and not just a city like it is now. While the borders of that kingdom shifted quite a bit, when it was at its largest the Kingdom of Jerusalem contained most of modern-day Israel, Palestine and had some lands in modern-day Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
And as Baldwin IV’s name implies, he was not the first king of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. That would be King Baldwin I, who set up the Kingdom of Jersalem after the First Crusade captured the lands at the request of Pope Urban II in the year 1095. Well, that’s when the First Crusade began. It ended in 1099 when, on July 15th, 1099, the Templars captured Jerusalem.
Then in 1100, King Baldwin I began his reign. So that’s 84 or 85 years before the events in the movie. In that time, the Kingdom of Jerusalem had five different kings until, in 1174, Baldwin IV became the sixth king of the young kingdom.
While the movie makes it seem like it was right after Baldwin IV died when Guy de Lusigna took the crown, that’s not true.
King Baldwin IV did die from his leprosy, though. That was in the spring of 1185, ending his reign. Some historians believe that before passing, Baldwin IV made sure the crown would pass to his nephew and Sibylla’s son, who became King Baldwin V, in an attempt to keep the throne from Guy de Lusigna.
That was a short-lived reign, though, and the following year, he died. He was only nine years old.
After King Baldwin V’s death is when the crown went to Sibylla who, as the movie shows, chose Guy de Lusigna both as her husband and as the next king.
So while the movie might’ve shown the right people, the means by which they ascended to the throne was quite different.
The movie also doesn’t mention that Sibylla had a half-sister named Isabella who was still alive at that time and had a claim to the throne as well. Both Sibylla and Isabella were daughters of Amalric I, although Sibylla was from Amalric’s first wife, Agnes, while Isabella was the daughter of his second wife, Maria Comnena.
If you remember, Maria then married Balian of Ibelin, so that’s where he comes into the picture here. And, actually, Balian and Maria worked together to get Isabella’s marriage annulled so she could instead marry a man named Conrad of Montferrat. He was King Baldwin IV’s uncle, so they were trying to keep Guy de Lusigna from seizing control of the throne with the marriage of Conrad and Isabella.
That event was one that didn’t seem to make King Richard I of England very happy, as some historians have noted that ancient scholars have documented negative opinions of Balian and Maria for their arranging of Maria’s daughter’s marriage.
Oh, and the movie also doesn’t mention that Raynald of Châtillon, who’s played by Brendan Gleeson in the film, was a supporter of both Sibylla and Guy. He championed a campaign to convince the High Council of Jerusalem to crown Sibylla.
They did, and as the movie shows, Sibylla then turned around and crowned Guy.
Isabella ended up not getting married to Conrad after all and there are some sources that indicate she and the man she did marry, Humphrey IV of Toron, swore loyalty to the new monarch.
So there certainly seems to have been some politics at play there, but it’s still quite a bit different than what we saw in the movie.
There’s also no indications of a romantic relationship between Balian and Sybilla.
But the movie is correct when showing the massive battle between Saladin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem. There’s a brief moment where we see Raynald of Châtillon incite war by killing Saladin’s sister—that’s true.
Well, maybe. It was something that was suggested by the historian William of Tyre, but not something modern historians have been able to prove.
It’s also true that Raynald raided a Muslim caravan to further damage the truce between Saladin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, but most believe that actually happened around 1183.
Although the movie says Saladin has about 200,000 soldiers and most historians believe that number was more like 40,000.
Still, we don’t really know the exact reasons why the real Guy de Lusigna wanted war with Saladin, but it’d seem that hubris and pride had to have played a big part in it.
Oh, and religion. While the movie tries its best to downplay the role of religion, it was at the heart of just about every decision. Remember, the Kingdom of Jerusalem began with the First Crusade. It was formed out of the Pope wanting to take the Holy Lands, in particular the city of Jerusalem, away from the Muslims—or Saracens as they were commonly called by the Christian Church back then.
So while the movie makes Balian out to be some sort of agnostic and Saladin to be someone who makes light of Islamic traditions—which we can gather from some scenes with Saladin and Mullah—that’s not true at all.
This is especially prevalent at the end of the film when Orlando Bloom’s version of Balian makes a very cinematic speech about how all religions have claim to the holy places in Jerusalem. The stones of Jerusalem don’t matter—the people inside do.
Timothy Furnish, the Assistant Professor of History at Georgia Perimeter College, has a Ph.D., in Islamic History and a Masters in Church History, and he has a great article about some of the historical mistakes in Kingdom of Heaven. In that article, he paraphrased the character Dirty Harry from the movie Sudden Impact and said:
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 speeches about religious tolerance.
The geography Timothy mentions has to do with the mountainous terrain we see in the film. The movie was actually shot in Morocco, so the landscapes we see in the movie aren’t anything like what you’d see in Jerusalem. I’d encourage you to check out Timothy’s article—I’ll make sure to link to it in the show notes over at basedonatruestorypodcast.com.
Even though there was plenty of creative freedom in the movie, the big battle at the end did happen. The film doesn’t really show much of the battle when the now-King Guy led his troops to meet Saladin on the battlefield, but we see it was a slaughter.
And it was, but perhaps it wasn’t such a sure thing as the movie implies. As we learned earlier, the 200,000 troops for Saladin was inflated quite a bit.
That battle is called the Battle of Hattin because of its location near the town of Hattin and the Horns of Hattin, a notable double hill geographic landmark. As far as we can tell, King Guy’s troops consisted of about 20,000 men while Saladin had about 30,000.
Saladin lost hardly any while the Kingdom of Jerusalem’s army was completely wiped out.
Oh, and Guy was actually captured like we saw in the movie. But he was released a few months later and would end up living until 1194.
The movie also doesn’t mention that Balian was there at the Battle of Hattin. He was one of the commanders, but he managed to survive and return to Jerusalem.
While the specifics of the movie are mostly fictionalized in the big, final battle, the basic gist is pretty accurate.
We likely wouldn’t know as much about Balian as we do today if he hadn’t led such a masterful defense of the city of Jerusalem after it was besieged by Saladin’s forces. But he did, as the movie shows, end up surrendering the city.
But the movie was sped up quite a bit. The Battle of Hattin happened in July of 1187 while the Siege of Jerusalem took place from September 20th to October 2nd of the same year.
Oh, and the terms didn’t seem to be as favorable as the movie shows. The people of Jerusalem were given a choice: Either pay a ransom for your freedom or, if you couldn’t pay within 50 days, you’d be forced into slavery.
At the very end of the movie, we see Balian and Sibylla run away together. While they’re back in France, the scene of Balian’s blacksmithing at the beginning of the movie, we see the King of England arrive looking for him. They’re heading off to start another Crusade to reclaim Jerusalem.
Well, we already learned there wasn’t a romantic relationship between Balian and Sibylla. Instead, Balian left the city about a month after the surrender, around November 20th, and went to Tripoli where his wife and children were.
The mention of another Crusade was correct, though.
We’ve all seen the story of Robin Hood and how he was fighting against the evil Prince John, who was trying to take the throne in the absence of Richard the Lionheart.
Well, this is the other side of that tale.
In 1191, King Richard of England arrived at the coastal city of Acre in modern-day Israel. For two years, he fought to recapture lands in the name of the Christian Church. He never made it to Jerusalem, though.
Falling ill to scurvy and realizing that John was taking advantage of his absence in England, King Richard made peace with Saladin on September 2nd, 1192. It was a three-year truce that let Christians access Jerusalem. King Richard returned to England on October 9th, and only a few months later, on March 4th, 1193, Saladin passed away after taking ill with a fever.
Despite being a great military leader and ruler, Saladin didn’t keep any of the wealth he amassed for himself. Instead, he gave it away to the poor in his kingdom. According to the scholar Ibn Shaddad, when Saladin died, the total amount of his riches equated to one piece of gold and forty pieces of silver.
KEEP LEARNING WITH MORE RESOURCES
- Kingdom of Heaven (film) – Wikipedia
- “History vs. Hollywood” Kingdom of Heaven (TV Episode 2005) – IMDb
- Kingdom of Heaven: Fact vs. Myth – Crusades and CrusadersCrusades and Crusaders
- History News Network | Kingdom of Heaven: What Parts Are Real?
- Kingdom of Heaven: Sorting Fact from Fiction – CanMag
- Kingdom of Heaven (2005) – IMDb
- Balian, Baron of Ibelin, Kingdom of Jerusalem
- Balian of Ibelin – Wikipedia
- Balian d’Ibelin, Lord of Ibelin (c.1143 – 1193) – Genealogy
- In Search of the Real Balian | Christian History
- Saladin – Wikipedia
- Saladin | Ayyubid sultan | Britannica.com
- Saladin – Facts & Summary – HISTORY.com
- Saladin’s Siege of Jerusalem – Military History
- Roger of Hoveden: The Fall of Jerusalem
- Siege of Jerusalem (1187) | World History Project
- Siege of Jerusalem (1187) – Wikipedia
- Kingdom of Jerusalem – Wikipedia
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- – Document – The Kingdom of Heaven: teaching the Crusades
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- Battle of Hattin, 4 July 1187
- The Battle of Hattin – THE FEARLESS KNIGHTS
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- Saladin | Project Gutenberg Self-Publishing – eBooks | Read eBooks online
- Kingdom of Jerusalem | Project Gutenberg Self-Publishing – eBooks | Read eBooks online