...gonna kick the darkness 'till it bleeds daylight... musings of a hungarian in texas

©2003 by Annamaria Kovacs. All contents of this blog are the property of the author. Use with written permission only.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Kingdom Of Heaven?

You know...
I promised this SUCH a long time ago, because it was asked. I kept putting it off, first because I was sick, then because I just did not find the right words...
You know...
It's not that I despise Ridley Scott, the director. I adore and admire what he did with "Blade Runner", both story-wise and cinematographically (is that an English word?). The weird thing is, after the first five minutes I could even like and actually get into "Gladiator". I started automatically look at it as a movie about Roman times, a remake of the long-winded but magnificent sword-and-sandal epic "The Fall of the Roman Empire"--and I went almost ballistic in the "Corvin" theatre in Budapest, until it just clicked: it was a fantasy flick. With names that were rather, but not quite Roman, with weapons, clothing, equipment, furniture, etc., rather, but not quite, like Roman stuff in 2th c. AD. And I could believe the story that way. And, last but not least, the acting was okay. Well, actually, Richard Harris and Joaquin Phoenix were quite excellent...and well, even Russell Crowe managed to act some.

Now. Onto this installment of histerical...erm...historical...experiments Hollywood lately likes to excrete, the one they entitled 'Kingdom of Heaven'. When I saw he preview trailer on the Internet I was blown away. I went 'Wow! They GOT it...' That preview, if you recall, gave the impression of a sweeping, accurate reconstruction of the historical events of the fateful year 1187 on the Holy Land: the struggle between the King of Jerusalem and Saladin, te Seljuk soldier who became Sultan and later, conqueror of the Holy City. Yes. The weaponry, the costumes, the emotions, all seemed right and right there...and the scene with the catapults throwing flaming fireballs over the City of Cities just took my breath away.

So: while in Kalamazoo at the Medieval Congress at the beginning of May, two days after the movie came out, we stumbled into two of our colleagues from the De Re Militari society at the book fair, and they said: "Well, we plan to watch this Kingdom movie tonight at the local multiplex. Wanna come?" I felt a tad better from my what I know now was walking pneumonia, at that point feverless, brave and almost happy, so I said: "What a great idea...sure!" And so we went, with those two brave souls, The Husband and The Lizard Queen as my escorts...I promised I will not scream too loud; a promise, I am sad to confess, I was not able to keep.

The most enfuriating thing about it? That they got SOME of the events right, some of the background right, some of the historical figures correct, and some of the preps were spot on.

By now most of my dear Readers have probably seen the movie, so I will not spoil anything if I tell what actually DID happen. In case anyone is really interested in how the whole thing came down, I encourage you to consult a number of quite good books on the subject, that are easily available, and which the scriptwriters, quite obviously, have seen for five seconds, one day three years ago, after a heavy drinking binge. Maybe. In my darker hours I doubt even that. But Sir Steven Runciman's History of the Crusades, or Stephen Howarth's The Knights Templar gives an excellent reconstruction and a vivid image about those troubled times. Or, for further reading, one can go to the De Re Militari website where our unfortunate colleague in pain (we'd seen the movie together)Mr. Konieczny, the web editor compiled a whole section for educating us, moviegoers about the era of The Kingdom of Heaven.
To keep this simple, I will just concentrate on the main characters in the movie and very briefly sketch up what is wrong with them...hopefully that will give an idea about why am I so bitter about this one.

Let's start with the protagonist: Balian of Ibelin. As no doubt you'd read somewhere else already, Dear Reader, you need to be disappointed now...the esteemed Mr. Ibelin was not a blacksmith, never been to France, and was most assuredly NOT a bastard. He was the completely legitimate son of Balian the Elder, Baron of Ibelin, one of the oldest noble families that lived in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. He was much older than he was portrayed in the movie, and at the point of time that is described therein, was married the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem, Maria Komnena,Byzantine princess and close relative to the reigning Emperor of Byzantium; widow of King Amalric of Jerusalem and mother of Princess Isabella of Jerusalem, half-sister to the Princess Sybilla. What? That Scott never mentions these people? Sorry. It gets better.
Princess Sybilla was the daughter of King Amalric of Jerusalem by his first wife, Agnes de Courtenay, whom he divorced because they were close cousins (oops...) At least that was the official reasoning. Later events probably point to the truth in the rumor that the real reason was the royal lady's adultery on an almost industrial scale. After the divorce, Amalric married the Byzantine princess Maria, by whom he had another daughter, Isabella, who is not even mentioned in "Kingdom". Not even en passe, even though she plays an absolutely vital role in the years after 1187, as she becomes the sole heir of the kingdom of Jerusalem. But you know, more than one female lead might be confusing to stupid movie audiences, because, as we all know by now, Hollywood's basic premise is that all movegoers are idiots and are to be treated accordingly, with force-fed half-truths and such. After all, who cares what happened REALLY to a bunch of dead Europeans and Middle Easterners? We want to get the MESSAGE accross, dammit. And if the facts only partially support The Message (you know, the one about War Is Always Bad, People Want to Live In Peace and Harmony Under Visionary Rulers on Both Sides Of the Fence, and Said Rulers Are Forced Into War By Evil Warmongers; Furthermore, Religion IS Bad For You Because It Is Nothing Else But Fanatism.
Anyway. Back to the real events and background.
After King Amalric's death, his crown passed to his son by his first marriage, Baldwin IV, the Leper King. Baldwin, wonder of wonders, and pain of my heart, is actually portrayed almost to the perfection in the movie. Ah, Edward Norton is SO good in his role, he saved a number of scenes where I was ready to scream. He would have been an amazing ruler had he lived long enough. But he did not. He died, and his heir was the ten-year old boy child of Sybilla by her first marriage. The first husband died early, and shortly after she married Guy de Lusignan, whose older brother, Amalric, one of the main officials of the Kingdom, was also the lover of Sybilla's mother, Agnes. You know, stay in the family.

Got the impression it was decidedly NOT as clear-cut as in the movie? Wait, there is more. Guy the Lusignan was young, beautiful and totally incapable of making decisions on his own. By marrying into the royal family, he became one of the possible heirs to the throne, plus, his family being the vassals of the Plantagenets, the Kings of England and half of France suddenly became VERY interested in the game played in the Holy Land (Richard the Lionheart anyone? And, by the way, WHY is that NONE of the knights in the entourage of Richard at the end of "Kingdom" lops off Balian's head AT ONCE when he fails to even BOW to a KING???)

Sybilla's sister, Isabella, married a young man named Humphrey (Onofroi) de Toron, whose stepfather was none other but Reynald de Chatillon. You know, the guy with the multicolored beard, the crazy villain from "Kingdom"...Humphrey was wildly educated, spoke Arabic, read Noth Arabic and Latin, and was generally liked by everyone, but was considered a bit too bookish and shy to rule a war-torn land. Isabella's stepdad, Balian of Ibelin (remember, married to Maria, widow of a King), and him both supported the Regent the Leper King named to govern in stead of his ten-year old nephew...Raymond IV, Count of Tripoli and Lord of the City of Tiberias...Ah-ha: you were wondering where that name came from in "Kingdom" didn't you? Yes, the character played by Jeremy Irons who so gruffily and authentically worried about the fate of the Kingdom (The Husband's eyes got THIS big when I mentioned Irons and said: "OMG, you are right, he WAS there! Good acting, I did not even noticed it was him..." ) Now WHY was he disguised as 'Tiberias" when that was merely the title of one of his WIFE's fiefs, only Mr. Scott's scriptwriter knows. Must have been that drinking binge I referred to earlier.

I will try to be brief here, I see I am getting long-winded as this time and place in medieval history is one I actually digged into deeper as the REAL characters and events at this point are SO vividly real and so exciting...::sigh::

The little King, Baldwin V did not live too long. During his one -year reign, however, (totally omitted from the movie) the conflicts that were kind of touched upon on the screen escalated.

The rapidly rising Saracen ruler, Saladin (real name: Salah-Ad-Din Yusuf), was actually a Kurd soldier from a solider family who united most of the warring Moslim states in the area under his rule and thus produced far larger armies and organization than the Crusading states were previously facing. Actually, one of the reasons the Crusades succeeded in the early years was preciselty the lack of a unified Moslim leadership in the region. Thus, you see, Dear Reader, Saladin was far from the 'tolerance preacher' guy Mr. Scott portrays him. He indeed, by all accounts, was a generous, even chivalrous leader of his people, capable of surprisinlgy great acts (like, during his siege of Kerak--the REAL siege--when he learned that a wedding is held in one of the towers of the castle, he ordered his men not to direct catapult fire and assault towards that tower. Ironically, the wedding there was that of Princess Isabella and Humphrey of Toron...remember, Kerak was Renauld de Chatillon's castle...you know, the guy with the multicolored beard....) However, he was, first and foremost, the ruler of his empire, with the dream all his subjects and soldiers shared: to hold the Holy City again.
And so, once the time was right, he did not hesitate. When the little King died, the Kingdom was tossed into the feeding frenzy of 'who will be King?' Obviously, there were two heirs: Sybilla and Isabella, and, through them, their husbands. In his will, the leper King decreed that should his nephew die, the next King should be decided by the Pope, the Holy Roman Emperor, and the Kings of France and England, all stakeholders in who sits on the throne of Jerusalem. The problem was, these powers were far away, while the party of Guy de Lusignan, and through him, the power-grabbing ex-queen, Agnes of Courtenay and her brother Joscelin, magnate of the Kingdom, much closer. In a move worthy of a MUCH better movie, they managed to remove Raymond of Tripoli from the scene, rushed Sybilla and Guy to Jerusalem, and there they were crowned in a coup full of scenes that are BEGGING to be filmed.In all these moves the Templar Grand master, Gerard de Ridefort played a crucial role, but well, he does not even SHOW UPin the freakin' screen. Moreover, the Templars are delegated into this weird role of the private army of Guy de Lusignan and Reynald de Chatillon (guy with multi-colored etc.) I will probably dedicate a separate post to the actual events of this coronation, just to make you weep, Dear Reader.

But well, there it is. A new King is crowned by his wife... an interlude of necessary wait and dance while everyone realized the situation and submitted to their rule, however reluctantly (like, oh, Raymond of Tripoli, or the Isabella-Humphrey-Balian of Ibelin-Maria Komnena party) and then, when they needed peace the most, Reynald de Chatillon went ahead and broke the standing peace with Saladin by attacking a caravan and plundering it out of all of its goods. Yes, they got that piece right, except that Reynald would not DARE to kill Saladin's sister. Ever.

After that, it was straight way to hell for the Kingdom. A smaller battle at the Springs of Cresson cost 140 Templars their life, when the Kingdom really could not afford it, and soon after that Saladin marched on Jerusalem...and the Kingdon's forces, due to some bad, bad planning, were crushed at the Horns of Hattin. After which, that scene in Saladin's victory tent is almost word-by-word out of the chronicles in the movie, and makes me want to throttle the director...it is SO well done!!

The Siege of Jerusalem happened months afterwards; Balian of Ibelin, the real one, was indeed inside Jerusalem at that point, but originally jut to retrieve his wife, and his children. he received a safe-conduct from Saladin to do so, under the conditions that he will NOT stay and engage in war. In a rather desperate plea, however, the inhabitants asked him to stay and help to organize the defenses, such as they were. Remember, this happened three months after Hattin: a lot of people had fled once the news of the catastrophe had reached the city. Balian wrote a letter to Saladin asking for his forgiveness for breaching his oath and engaging in hostilities, but he cited his duties to his King and God. After almost a full month of siege (not days, mind you)... Balian started negotiations and at a point he actually threatened with burning everything inside the city, starting with the Moslim holy sites if Saladin does not grant free departure to most of the inhabitants. Saladin eventually did, for a steep price on everyone's head (he had to fund his army from something, right?)--and even then, there were a lot of people who could not pay and ended up on the slave markets. In October 1187, Jerusalem fell.

Balian went back to Ibelin, with his wife and children. Guy de Lusignan was taken prisoner at Hattin, released years later, went to Acre, found that his wife Sybilla and their daughters died of pestilence, and he lost the claim to the throne. Reynauld de Chatillon died just like the movie showed: by Saladin's hands after Hattin. Raymond of Tripoli, escaping from the battle, got pneumonia and died very shortly after the City fell. Princess Isabella, the only surviving member of the royal family of Jerusalem, was forced to divorce Humphrey to marry a more suitable candidate to the royal throne, then, after his death, was married to the candidate the newly arrived crusading Richard of Lionheart chose for her. She was not even twenty-five and he was married three times. Her daughter by her third husband stood to inherit her claim and title, at this time of history not much more than the city of Acre and some coastal lands.

Weep, I say. This could have been SUCH a great movie. Let me know if ayone is interested in my little re-telling of the story of Guy & Sybilla's coronation and I'll put it up here somewhere. In the meantime, I would be VERY much interested in how others had viewed the movie. Comment away, please.

I cannot help but repeat what one of my old colleagues at the Museum of Visegrad in Hungary liked to say when we discussed various 'historical' movies or re-enactment events: "You know, I just don't get it. They could have stayed with the events that actually happened instead of making up shit. Making up shit actually costs more that just following what actually was...and it looks a LOT worse, not to mention the stink."


At 9:23 AM, Blogger Annamaria said...

Comments are back. Sorry for the inconvenience. This is a test post.

At 12:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think, in the case of this movie, historical ignorance on the part of the viewer *is* helpful in getting something out of this movie!

-- rufel

At 8:23 AM, Anonymous anna said...

You sure know how to discourage me from EVER writing a movie review again...

At 1:23 PM, Blogger eowyn said...

I dunno, I had already decided not to see the movie, so I enjoyed the review.

At 1:51 PM, Anonymous anna said...

Just rent it on DVD when it comes out. It's good to see once.

I never understood why these people insult our collective intelligence by doing WWII movies down to perfection and screwing up anything that''s earlier than 19th century, bacause "well, that's ancient history and no one cares anyway..."

At 4:19 PM, Blogger eowyn said...

Because there are still people alive who fought in WWII.

At 4:20 PM, Blogger eowyn said...

Because there are still people alive who fought in WWII.

At 4:49 PM, Blogger Annamaria said...

That is NOT an excuse. WWII is just like another historical period, and I don't think you would accept that just because no one is alive from 1838, the Count of Monte Christo could brandish a Kalashnikov in front of Fernand,or announce that Napoleon won after his return from Elba, right? So why is it okay to completely distort historical timelines back in the Middle Ages??

At 11:28 AM, Blogger eowyn said...

I'm not saying it's logical or appropriate, I'm just saying that's probably the reasoning behind it.

At 11:34 AM, Anonymous anna said...

I know, it's just infuriating and totally illogical...::sigh::


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