Renowned director, author among others of classics like “Alien” or “Blade Runner”, Ridley Scott also revived the fashion of the historical film, and the peplum in particular, with “Gladiator” (2000). A success and rather positive reviews which have led to a number of more or less successful ersatz such as "Troy" (Wolfang Petersen, 2004). It was September 11 that made Scott want to tackle the subject of the Crusades, with a desire to give a different vision of Muslims than that which was beginning to emerge in the United States; thus, it was a question of demonstrating that even in a period of conflict and tensions, there could be exchanges between men of good will and, above all, that the "bad guys" were not necessarily those whom one believes. .
Knowing the spectacular and sometimes bombastic Scott style, one could only wait with impatience and curiosity for this film. We chose to treat its "director's cut" version, because it is better and better balanced, but above all more interesting in its historical treatment.
The story begins in France, in the 12th century. The young blacksmith Balian has just lost his wife, who committed suicide following the death of their child; he survives by work, and by enduring the sarcasm of the local priest when the Crusaders arrive on their way to the Holy Land. Their leader, Godfrey of Ibelin, confesses to Balian that he is his father and asks him to accompany him to Jerusalem. At first, Balian refuses but he kills the priest who insulted the memory of his wife and, on the run, resigns himself to join his father.
Their journey to Holy Land is agitated, and Godefroy injured in an ambush dies in Messina. He has time to transfer his property to his son, and especially to make him a knight. Balian leaves with the fleet but, victim of a shipwreck, he ends up alone on a desert beach. He then meets an Arab horseman and his servant; in a duel, he kills the first and spares the second. It will serve his reputation. He then miraculously arrives in Jerusalem, but if he finds a place to stay there, he does not seem to regain the faith lost following the death of his wife.
His father's reputation allows him to meet all important lords of the holy city: the noble Tiberias, the antipathetic and contemptuous Guy de Lusignan, the good leper king Baudouin IV and especially his sister Sibylle, with whom he falls in love.
But a danger lurks: the fanatic Renaud de Chatillon, who acts on behalf of Guy, multiplies the provocations against Muslims, while the king and Sultan Saladin have been able to build links and maintain relative peace. Baudouin IV manages for a time to avoid the worst, by punishing Renaud following the siege of Kerak by Saladin, in which Balian is famous. But his death precipitates events: his young nephew succeeds him briefly before his mother, Sibylle, realizes that he is also a leper and decides to poison him and then assume his fate and marry Guy, making of the latter on king of jerusalem. It's the war ! The Crusaders are exterminated in Hattin, Renaud killed and Guy taken prisoner. Balian, whom Guy tried to assassinate, then defends Jerusalem with a handful of men whom he knights. In front of the number, he must finally deliver the city to Saladin. The magnanimous sultan gives freedom to the people.
Balian finds Sibylle; with her he returned to France to lead a life of anonymity, and went so far as to refuse to join Richard the Lionheart's Third Crusade. Balian lost Jerusalem, but he found his faith and a woman ...
Between History and Fiction
What is most striking about "Kingdom of Heaven" (KoH) is its visual beauty. The director of "Gladiator" has always been (re) known for making aesthetically striking films, with some critics even judging them sometimes too close to commercials. There, one can only bow to some really beautiful scenes (the burial of the king for example). Great care has been taken with the sets, the costumes, and obviously the battle scenes are spectacular, without excessive digital as is too often the case today. If the visual aspect of the film is therefore to be welcomed, what to think of the rest, that is to say of the interpretation, of its plot and above all, given the historical ambition of the film, of its relation to "reality?" historical ”?
First, the interpretation and the choice of representation of certain characters are questionable for more than one reason: if Tiberias or Baudouin IV are charismatic and very well played, just like a very beautiful and elegant Eva Green as queen of Jerusalem, we can only deplore the Orlando Bloom's blandness, who never manages to make his character endearing and above all credible. Likewise, Guy de Lusignan is a caricature of a fanatic and, conversely, Saladin a caricature of a good man. Only Renaud de Chatillon, also full of excess, can be accepted as such because he seems to be the closest to the character who inspired him ...
At historical leveleu, precisely, the errors or shortcuts concerning the protagonists are plethora: Balian existed, but he was a foal (born in the Holy Land) and at the time of the film he was Baron d'Ibelin (in fact the real character was rather that of his father in the film) in the Ramallah region; he had married the former queen of Jerusalem, wife of Amaury I, Marie Comnenus, a Byzantine princess. So he was not a young blacksmith. He did hold Jerusalem, but had not participated in Hattin due to his advanced age ... Guy de Lusignan was not a Templar, and certainly not the fanatic portrayed by the film, but rather manipulated by Renaud; moreover, he survived and later became King of Cyprus after participating in the siege of Acre alongside Richard the Lionheart; his character seems to have been merged with that of the Grand Master of the Templars, Gérard de Ridefort (it is also said that this merger may have been made with Renaud).
Sibyl has always been faithful to Guy, with whom she married following the death of her brother Baudouin IV, then of her son (the episode of poisoning is obviously questionable), and she even obliged the patriarch from Jerusalem to crown them by placing the crown on her husband's head herself; she obviously had no affair with Balian, who could have been her father ...Renaud de Chatillon, as we have said, is perhaps the character closest to what we know: his eventful life is a long series of abuses and provocations against Muslims, with the result of imprisonment for several years at Damascus! On the other hand, he was not Templar either… Tiberias did not seem to exist, but he perhaps represents Raymond of Tripoli, very important in the struggle for succession from Baudouin IV, of whom he was a close friend. ; he was against the marriage between Guy and Sibylle. Baldwin IV is, along with Renaud, the character who also seems closest to what the sources tell us: a very young king, he even beaten Saladin in Montgisard when he was not sixteen ...Saladin, well, was not as magnanimous as the film suggests (see our article on the Sultan).
Concerning the events, the inaccuracies are also numerous, but perhaps less shocking. We don't really know for how many years the film takes place, but we can estimate that the events take place between 1181 and 1189-90, the attack on the caravan by Renaud having taken place in 1181, the siege of Kerak in 1183, the death of Baudouin IV in 1185, and Hattin and the fall of Jerusalem in July and October 1187, while Richard embarked in Marseille in 1190. Then, regarding the great important moments of the film: the attack on the Muslim caravan is true, but if Renaud was present this is probably not the case with Guy; Saladin attacked Kerak well, and it seems indeed Baudouin IV who ended the siege peacefully, but Balian was probably not present (he was more part of Raymond's camp than that of Guy and Renaud. ); at the death of Baudouin IV then of his nephew, there is a conflict between most of the barons who are with Raymond of Tripoli against the party of Guy and Sibylle, and it is this one which imposes the marriage and the coronation, she do not endure them like in the film; the Battle of Hattin appears to have unfolded as shown in the film and, most importantly, Saladin effectively killed Renaud with his own hand (in contrast, the Frankish lord never killed his sister); Saladin didn't really storm the Holy City, and he quickly negotiated with Balian for his surrender; however, he was not as magnanimous as in the film, and freed the locals for a heavy ransom (Balian had obtained the right to mint coins). We could cite other examples, but here are the main ones.
Then there are many small details and anachronisms that we can dispute and note, such as the use of certain weapons (including Greek fire), the fact of hanging the Templars (they judged themselves and those guilty of exaction were beheaded, but it was rare ), Saladin would probably never have picked up the crucifix as he does in the film (I have this remark from Anne-Marie Eddé herself, author of the last reference biography of the sultan), and the figures given by the film on the armies are fanciful: it was rare that the troops of one or the other camp exceeded ten or twenty thousand men… Finally, to see a frank blacksmith teaching the natives of Palestine how to irrigate their lands is laughable when one knows the advance that Muslims had in this area at the time, compared to the Latin West!
An imperfect historical film, but to know
We could therefore cry out in horror at so many inaccuracies, or even more historical errors, but yet we cannot say that KoH is a bad historical film; we can even say that it makes a certain tribute to the time, to the facts and to the characters. We must not forget that the film was made in a post-September 11 context, with a desire to “demonize” Muslims. Admittedly, it is a pity that the character of Saladin is shown in such a positive light, but we know that for the time the Sultan was still someone exceptional and recognized for his values; at the same time, the character of Renaud is undoubtedly very close to the facts, and clearly shows the fanaticism of certain Crusaders. The quality of the film, beyond its concessions to Hollywood, is to present the logic of historical facts in a fairly fair way: how, at a time when two enlightened and tolerant rulers (Saladin and Baudouin IV) had succeeded in establishing a peace relative and to restore certain exchanges, religious fanaticism has destroyed everything and led to war and the return of resentment, with its spiral of vengeance. In this, KoH is therefore an interesting film for any lover of history and its relationship to current affairs. We can only deplore its failure at the box office.
We strongly recommend the vision of the "director's cut" version: longer, better balanced, it also offers us some very interesting additional scenes, in particular those with young Baudouin V.
Kingdom of Heaven (director's cut), by Ridley Scott (2005), with Orlando Bloom (Balian), Liam Neeson (Godefroy), Eva Green (Sibylle), Jeremy Irons (Tiberias), Ghassan Massoud (Saladin), Marton Csokas (Guy de Lusignan), Brendan Gleeson (Renaud de Chatillon), Edward Norton (Baudouin IV).
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- Mr. Balard, Latins in the East, PUF, 2006.
- J. Prawer, History of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, CNRS, 2007.
- P. Aubé, A crusader against Saladin: Renaud de Chatillon, Fayard, 2007.
- A.M. Eddé, Saladin, Flammarion, 2008.