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Fact and Hollywood

by Jeff Herbert


Having been 'put off' from seeing a number of recent 'historical' films due to the abuse of history by the Directors/Screenwriters involved, I decided to go and watch The Kingdom of Heaven. Again what could have been an epic worthy of the name has been condemned to be another of Hollywood's twisted histories. It had no need to be and just some semi-intelligent script work could have saved it.


It has some good points and my advice, is to grit ones teeth and watch it. The filming is brilliant and is what one would expect from such a director, the scenes are fantastic and give you the impression of stepping back in time and the costumes are, on the whole, excellent, although a little too uniformed, no doubt to help the costume department. The Knights Templar are wearing the wrong uniforms and should have red crosses on white instead of black. I cannot remember seeing the Hospital represented but these would have been white crosses on black. So a part from a few small gripes about costume what went wrong?


Balian d Ibelin was of course no illegitimate son of his father (also called Balian) but one of 3 brothers, by the time the fall of Jerusalem takes place he is in fact some 60 years of age. The d Ibelin family was both very important and powerful and would remain so. Balian did later assist King Richard I. The film also misplaces some key events; the siege of Kerak was relieved by Raymond of Tripoli in 1182, Baldwin the IV, was succeeded by Baldwin V who was in turn succeeded by Guy. The Horns of Hattin took place the year after Guy became King. The siege of Jerusalem took place over two months after Hattin, not almost immediately as shown and Balian a key leader in its defence did manage to come to terms with Saladin in that the citizens could ransom themselves, many could not and were abandoned to their fate, which apparently wasn't bad. The film also leaves out some earlier events such as the highly profitable Red Sea raids of Reynald de Chatillon against pilgrims going to Mecca, in which he used pre-fabricated galleys carried across the desert on camels. This could of course just been referred to but, more importantly, the Battle of Cresson which kick started 1187 could not. Following the raid on his sister's caravan Saladin sent an armed reconnaissance of some 7,000 men into Palestine. The Amirs in charge asked for permission to cross the lands of Count Raymond of Tripoli (seemingly called Tiberias in the film), which was granted on the condition they would cross and return in a single day and not pillage. This was discovered by the Masters of the Temple and Hospital who set out with 140 knights and 300 foot soldiers to intercept them. Unfortunately they did catch up with Saladin's men and Gerard de Ridefort ordered a charge, not even waiting for the infantry. Needless to say it was a disaster and only de Ridefort and two knights escaped. (I wonder if this is depicted in Balian's charge at Kerak?) Anyway this increased the enmity between Count Raymond and the three men who destroyed the Kingdom, namely, King Guy, Reynald de Chatillon and Gerard de Ridefort. De Ridefort blamed the disaster on Count Raymond.



Hattin itself was hardly depicted but was the major reason for the fall of the kingdom and deserved more said about it. Saladin invaded with 12,000 mamluks and scores of hangers on. The exact total is unknown but the Franks said there were 25,000, other sources up the figures to 80,000 and 700,000 so the film stating 200,000 cannot be brought to task, but in truth the real fighting would have been down to the 12,000. The Christians were to meet this with 2,000 knights, 4,000 turkopoles and 27,000 foot. Turkopoles are not shown but no knight would leave home without them, they did at Cresson and at Cresson they died. Turkopoles were lightly armoured horse using lighter weapons and possibly bows which protected the flanks of the knights. As can be seen from the true numbers, the Christian army could have won, which is why it marched out, in fact it could not have remained in Jerusalem as this wasn't the key to the holy land merely the prize.


So as the army marched out in good spirits, what went wrong? On July 1 Saladin camped at Kafar Sebt cutting the road to Tiberias and Sennabra, half the army remained in camp whilst the remainder attacked Tiberias, which belonged to Count Raymond but was held by his wife, the Countess Eschiva, who appealed to King Guy. Unfortunately the message got through, Count Raymond in whose vested interest it was to attack, advised against doing so, stating that their present position was good being well provided with water and pasture and in a position to prevent further movement by Saladin. This is where Gerald de Ridefort and Reynald de Chattilon stepped in and advised the opposite on the grounds of being honour bound to save the Countess, even though her husband declined to do so. So it was that they set out across the waterless Plain of Toran, skirting north in the hope of reaching the springs of Wadfi Hamman. Saladin, to quote that old cliché, cut them off at the pass and blocked the way to water in the hills of Hattin. The Christians were not unaware of this as they came under attack of increasing numbers of skirmishers, they could still have turned back, they could still have won. They could even have tried what Raymond advised and charge through to the water. Instead King Guy camped for the night a bare five miles from where he had come. The army was dead. In the morning Saladin attacked, the infantry who had suffered the most from thirst refused to take part in the fighting and crowded onto a small hill to wait their fate.


The brave Count Raymond led the first charge with 200 knights and these found the enemy open ranks in front of them and let them through, closing afterwards. Raymond suffered three wounds and being unable to return rode off to Tyre, this led to Count Raymond be blamed for the disaster. It is thought that at this stage Balian d Ibelin (our hero) and Prince Reynald of Sidon, deserted from the rearguard and escaped. Those that remained fought on bravely, repulsing many attacks before being overcome. Ibn al-Athir wrote, "When one saw how many were dead one could not believe that there were any prisoners, when one saw the prisoners one could not believe that there were any dead." The knights of the Temple and the Hospital who were captured, some 260, were all beheaded after first being asked to convert to Islam, which they declined. Saladin obviously able to identify an idiot spared Gerard de Ridefort. (In the film you see piles of heads, these are those of the executed knights Temple and Hospital, the secular knights were not, with the exception of Reynald, executed).


The script would have been easy to fix and in fact for the better making the Director's lot an easier one to boot. The character played by Orlando Bloom could still have been an illegitimate son but of Balian his father, therefore the third to hold the name. Journeying on a pilgrimage back to the Holy land to find his 'roots', he could have arrived shortly after Hattin and before the fall of Jerusalem, to be filled in on all that has occurred by his father Balian (whilst waiting for Saladin to arrive.) The bad guy could have been Balian's legitimate son John, resentful of his father's bastard. By doing this far more of the politics and the key actions of the time could have been portrayed and narrated by Balian the Elder and shown as cameos. The film could have ended with the young Balian disillusioned by his father's sell out of Jerusalem making off to Tyre, (which managed to hold out.), possibly with his love interest who wouldn't have been Sybilla.


Sybilla remained loyal to Guy and when he was ransomed a year later went with him to Tyre, where they were refused entry. Sybilla died outside the walls of disease, along with her children. Guy who had lost all credence also lost his title to King, which was finally deprived from him in 1192. He was made King of Cyprus in return. Cyprus had recently been conquered by Richard I and sold to Guy. This time Guy was able to keep his Kingdom, but he of course didn't have Reynald or Gerard to help him lose it. However before this King Guy managed one more disaster, at the Great Battle of Acre, where he lost some 10,000 men to Saladin. The disaster could have been worse, as at least on this occasion he had a protected camp to fall back on. Gerard de Ridefort was again captured and this time beheaded, no doubt Saladin felt sorry for King Guy!  For a more sympathetic view of Gerard de Ridefort read an extract from M. W. Baldwin's "The First Hundred Years" (1969), which can be found here.


So there we have it, Fact and Hollywood. Why meddle with history? For those directors thinking of making a historical film, please do so, invented characters can be fitted into history but history cannot be altered to suit them. Balian the bastard, could have existed, most knights had a few but they could never break through the social code of the times, even in the Holy Land and would have ended up as paid men at arms for a greater lord.


For those who really want to read a good factual fictional yarn, and one, which would have made for a greater film, I recommend "Ride Home Tomorrow" by Evan John. Unfortunately Ridley-Scott obviously hasn't read it.

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