How historically accurate is the movie the Kingdom of Heaven

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The Kingdom of Heaven is a 2005 historical epic directed by Ridley Scott, who directed some of the most memorable movies of recent decades such as Gladiator. The historical epic was produced in Spain and Morocco. The movie starred Orlando Bloom, Eva Green, Liam Neeson and Jeremy Irons, among others. It was scripted by William Monahan who is an Academy award winner. It was one of the most anticipated releases in 2005 but the movie did not live up to people’s expectations. The motion picture was something of a box-office flop and it was not appreciated by the critics, who felt that it was incomplete and fragmentary. Scott was obliged to cut his original version of the picture by the studio executives. He did this against his will and he later released a directors’ cut, which included many scenes that Scott was forced to delete. The director’s cut is some fifty minutes longer than the movie that was shown in the cinemas. This longer version was widely praised by the critics and it is now regarded as the definitive version. The director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven and its historical accuracy is examined in this article.

Orlando Bloom in 2005

The historical background

The background to the British director’s movie was the decline and the fall of the First Kingdom of Jerusalem (1091-1087). This kingdom was established by the Crusaders after they had captured the city in 1081. They were Christian knights and soldiers who had taken a religious vow to recapture the sacred sites in the Holy Land (modern Israel). The Kingdom of Jerusalem had been under near constant attack from the Arabs and Muslims, for whom the city is of great religious significance [1]. The movie captures very well the near constant and brutal conflict between the Christians and the Muslims in the area. The Crusaders were motivated to fight in the Holy Land out of religious fervour and they genuinely believed that they could save their souls from eternal damnation by fighting the Muslims. The movie concentrates on the growing threat posed to the Kingdom of Jerusalem by the rise of the Ayyubid Sultanate. This was a kingdom founded by Saladin who deposed the last Fatimid Caliph in Egypt and later captured Syria. He was the most powerful Islamic ruler in the region in a century. The movie very well captures the threat posed by Saladin to the Crusaders who is often regarded as a military genius. Scott’s movie also shows very accurately the lead up to the Battle of Hattin (1187). As in the motion picture this battle was fought in a desert and it was a military disaster for the Crusaders and a great victory for the Ayyubid Sultan [2]. The British director’s account of the Crusaders near-annihilation by the army of Sultan is factually correct. The aftermath of the battle was that Saladin was able to besiege Jerusalem and this is also correctly shown in the 2005 movie. The capture of Jerusalem was a complete disaster for the Crusaders, and they lost most of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. In the movie this is shown as leading to the start of the Third Crusade and attempt by mainly English and French Crusaders to recapture Jerusalem[3].. This is also historically accurate. In general, the historical background of the movie and its portrayal of major events such as sieges and battles are fairly accurate.

The aftermath of the Battle of Hattin from a medieval manuscript

The historicity of the main characters

The hero of the movie is Balian who is played by the English actor Orlando Bloom. The screenwriter loosely based this character on a real-life character. In the movie Balian is a young blacksmith who decides to go on Crusade when he meets his natural father, who is a knight and who is played by Liam Neeson. In the movie Balian is shown as a very humble young man who goes on Crusade to help to secure his wife’s salvation after her suicide. The character played by Bloom was based on Balian of Ibelin's and he was a member of the nobility. He was definitely not a lowly blacksmith. Rather he was the legitimate son of his father Barsian of Ibelin [4]. The motion picture gives Balian’s father the name of Godfrey of Ibelin which is incorrect. In the movie Godfrey played by Liam Neeson recognized Balian as his son and before he dies he knights his son. The knighting of an illegitimate son would not have been legally possible in the Middle Ages without some dispensation from a monarch or the Catholic Church. Ridley Scott introduces Balian as living in France, but his origins are not known, and his family may actually have been Italian. The character is also shown as making his way to the Holy Land and he did make this journey at some time. His father in the motion picture is shown to be a crusader and this was indeed the case. The motion picture shows Godfrey of Ibelin as a noble knight who went on Crusade for religious reasons. In fact, Balians father was one of the most powerful lords in the Crusader States and he ruled the County of Jaffa (modern Israel) and was a vassal of the King of Jerusalem [5]. In the movie we see Balian going on crusade with his father who died before arriving in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. In fact, it seems likely that Balian had been living in the Crusader kingdom since he was a young man. He was not the only son of Barsian of Ibelin and was in reality his youngest son. Balian was given a large area of land and a castle by his father and he too became a vassal of the King of Jerusalem [6]. This meant that he would have been very familiar with the culture and politics of the region. In the movie the main character is portrayed as a young man however at the time of the events shown, he was a mature man. The movie does correctly show that in the 1180s that Balian was a major figure in the politics of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. He was very involved in the power struggles that greatly weakened the realm. In the movie the hero is shown as struggling to save the Kingdom from various factions who were only interested in power. In reality Balian was quite Machiavellian and sought to increase his own power and influence at the expense of his rivals. However, the movie does accurately shown that the character played by Bloom was a great and a brave knight. In the movie he is portrayed as a great swordsman and a brave leader. The commander of the Christian garrison of Jerusalem during the Ayyubid army, was indeed Balain and he provided to be a brilliant commander, as portrayed by the British Director. He was able to beat off countless attacks by the Muslims as in the 2005 motion picture. In the movie we seen Balian and Saladin reaching a negotiated settlement that ended the bloody siege. This was actually the case and the Christian did agree to surrender the city on terms in 1187. In one of the most memorable scenes we see the main character as leading the Christians safely out of Jerusalem as he hands it over to Saladin. This actually happened and the Muslims did allow the garrison and the Christian population to leave the city unmolested. In the movie after the surrender of Jerusalem to the Muslim Sultan that he returns to Europe with Sybilla. In one scene he is shown as living happily as a blacksmith in his native village and refusing the entreaties of English knights to go on the Third Crusade. In fact, after the fall of Jerusalem Balian stayed in the region and he became one of the leaders of the Crusader states. He actually participated in the Third Crusades and was a key advisor to the legendary Richard the Lionheart. Scott shows the main character as having good relations with Muslim and indeed in real-life Balian of Ibelin had a good relationship with Saladin.

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Balian of Ibelin surrendering Jerusalem to Saladin from a 15th century manuscripts

Sibylla of Jerusalem

In the movie we see Balian having a passionate affair with Sibylla of Jerusalem. She was a real-life character and a sister of one King of Jerusalem and later became Queen of the Kingdom, for a brief time ref>Bernard Hamilton, "Women in the Crusader States: The Queens of Jerusalem", in Medieval Women, edited by Derek Baker. (London, Ecclesiastical History Society, 1978), p 17</ref>. She was a very powerful woman and had great influence among the Crusaders. This is captured in the movie and especially in the performance of Eva Green. In real life she was married to Guy de Lusignan (1150-1194). Balian did not have an affair with Sibylla as shown in the movie. They did not return to Europe and live in a remote village as shown in the climax of the 2005 work. Balian was married to a Byzantine Princess and Sibylla remained married to Guy and did not leave him, in fact she died of an epidemic while campaigning with Guy in 1190, dying at the age of thirty [7]. The love affair between Sibylla of Jerusalem and Balian is a complete fiction.

Guy de Lusignan

The ‘bad’ guy in the movie is the nobleman Guy de Lusignan. He was a real-life historical character and one who was very important in the history of the Crusades. In Scott’s movie he was an evil man, and this was pretty much the case. He had been expelled from France for murder and he had had fled to the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Guy later married Sibylla as shown in the movie. In the motion picture he is shown as very anti-Muslim and aligning with the fanatical Knights Templers [8]. Scott’s movie shows him and his allies treacherously attacking a caravan of Muslims and slaying, every man, woman, and child and this prompted Saladin to invade the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which was a disaster for the Crusaders. This is a historical fact and Guy’s massacre of innocent Muslims did provoke Saladin and this led to the ultimate capture of Jerusalem by the Muslims [9]. The movie shows Balian and Guy as implacable enemies and this is only partially true. The men in real life had a complex relationship and were at times enemies but occasionally also allies. Guy was captured and later released by Saladin as shown in the movie. In the finale of the scene there is a great duel between Balian and Guy. The hero is shown as defeating his enemy and utterly humiliating him and Scott suggests that Guy was a broken man who was utterly disgraced. The duel probably did not take place and there are no records of Balian and Guy engaging in hand to hand combat. Moreover, Guy after the fall of Jerusalem had a claim on the kingship of the Crusader states through his wife Sybilla. He began a civil war in a desperate bid to become king but was defeated and was forced to flee from the Holy Land. However, this rather unpleasant character was very fortunate. He was able to seize control of the island of Cyprus and become its Lord. Indeed, he established a dynasty and his successors ruled the islands as kings, until the coming of the Ottomans in 1476 [10].

Ridley Scott in 2015


The 2005 movie especially after the release of the Director’s Cut is now regarded very highly by critics. With regard to the question of the historical accuracy of the movie it is broadly accurate. The historical background and major events such as the Battle of Hattin are portrayed in a very accurate way. It shows very well the decline and fall of the First Kingdom of Jerusalem. The nature of warfare at the time is shown very well. Moreover, it does present a realistic portrait of Saladin. The main issue with the movie is that while its main characters are based on historical figures they are also heavily fictionalized. For example, Balian is shown as a typical Hollywood hero but in reality he was a much more complex and ambiguous figure. The love affair between him and Sybilla is a complete fabrication. The portrayal of Guy de Lusignan captures the character of this rather repulsive person. In real life he did not receive his due deserts as shown in the final scenes’, but he became a powerful Lord he even founded a royal dynasty.

Further Reading

Bernard Hamilton, "Women in the Crusader States: The Queens of Jerusalem", in Medieval Women, edited by Derek Baker. (London, Ecclesiastical History Society, 1978).

Hindley, Geoffrey. Saladin: Hero of Islam (London, Pen & Sword, 2007).

Hillenbrand, Carole. The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives (London, Routledge, 2000).


  1. Runciman, Steve. A History of the Crusades, vol. II: The Kingdom of Jerusalem (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1952), p 167
  2. Runciman, p 189
  3. Runciman, p 189
  4. William of Tyre, A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea. E. A. Babcock and A. C. Krey, trans (Columbia, Columbia University Press, 1943), p 114
  5. William of Tyre, p 201
  6. William of Tyre, p 212
  7. William of Tyre, p. 178
  8. Runciman, p 212
  9. Runciman, p 213
  10. Edbury, Peter. The Kingdom of Cyprus and the Crusades, 1191–1374 (Cambridge, 1991), p 22