Historical accuracy aside, as a film, Kingdom of Heaven isn't bad. Most of the performances are strong, and the sets and costumes are very well done. The action was exciting and well worth a visit to the theater for the full force of the wide screen and sound system. Battle sequences appeared incredibly realistic. And the cinematography is awe-inspiring.
But there were some notable problems that had nothing to do with historical fact.
Orlando Bloom, while a very attractive young man with undeniable talent, didn't seem comfortable in his role as Balian of Ibelin. His speech before the climactic battle fell far short of rousing, and I sensed no real chemistry with Eva Green as Sibylla. If this had been a fantasy film, I might have bought his extraordinary fighting skill after a lifetime of blacksmithing and five minutes of training with his father. Then again, I might not.
The plot was muddled and at times difficult to follow. The surviving shipwrecked horse was unlikely on several levels. And at times the dialog was terrible:
- Godfrey: I once fought for two days with an arrow through my testicle.
Guy de Lusignan: Give me a war.
Renaud de Chatillon: That is what I do.
Muslim Warrior: Why aren't they firing back?
Saladin: They're waiting.
Frustrated viewer: Well, duh, Saladin, whatcha think they're waitin' for?
And before the film was half over, I'd had quite enough of the sorrowful choir music rising over the increasingly muted sounds of graphic violence.
Still, there's enough excitement and adventure to compensate for these flaws -- as long as you don't mistake what you see for historical fact.
What Scott Got Right
To be fair, a good deal of Kingdom of Heaven is close to factual. The costumes are very good, but, since heraldry was in its infancy during the 12th century, there's a lot of leeway concerning the coats of arms -- so, who's to tell? The sets are marvelous, from the dusty walls of Jerusalem to the richly-decorated chambers of the leper king.
The weapons appeared to be accurate, too. Both the siege towers and the trebuchets were very like those used at times in the Middle Ages. Even the flaming balls flung by the trebuchets are possible (though not likely to have been used on such a scale). Documentary evidence exists to support the use of a substance similar to "Greek Fire" in the 12th century (see Medieval Siege Weapons by David Nicolle, p. 41). I wouldn't be surprised if some sharp-eyed medieval weapons experts catch some problems with swords and other hand-held weapons, but I noticed none.
And one point that amused the audience was something that was actually done in the Middle Ages: the blow given to prospective knights was a feature of dubbing. (And, just to be clear, it was not always a blow; sometimes it was an embrace or a kiss.)
But there were many, many errors, and a few serious misrepresentations.
What Scott Got Wrong
The standard practice for laying a suicide to rest is to bury him in unconsecrated ground. It's not to cut off his head and bury him under a gigantic cross.
Both Guy de Lusignan and Renaud de Chatillon were real historical figures. Guy was indeed King of Jerusalem and Renaud was an unbalanced troublemaker prone to violence. However, neither of them were Templar Knights.
The actor who portrayed Saladin (Ghassan Massoud ) was extraordinary, and to my mind, his performance was the closest representation of an actual historical figure in the film. Yet the moment when, in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem, he gently sets upright a small Christian cross clashes with the description by Terricus, eyewitness and acting commander of the Templars:
- "After Jerusalem had been captured, Saladin had the Cross taken down from the Temple of the Lord and, beating it with clubs, had it carried on display for two days throughout the city."
--The New Knighthood by Malcolm Barber, p. 114.
The real Balian of Ibelin did indeed knight men of Jerusalem right before the battle, but he didn't knight just anyone -- there were 30 burgesses, plus all noble boys over the age of sixteen. None of them were servants.
It is true that the battle for Jerusalem ended with terms negotiated between Balian and Saladin. But the terms that were reached in historical fact, while generous, were not quite as depicted in the film. Safe passage was guaranteed to Jerusalem's survivors for a price. And although the ransoms theoretically covered the poor, several thousand were not redeemed and may have been sold into slavery (see The Crusades article at The Encyclopedia Britannica online).
But these (among others) are just minor film flubs that you're likely to find in any historical epic. The biggest, most jarring inconsistency between fact and film lies in Scott's imposition of modern viewpoints on medieval individuals.