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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A Kingdom's Tale: Historical Accuracy in Film

   As a longtime student of history, I have always felt a keen interest in how different films use and portray historical figures and events.  Movies set in particular time periods tend to follow two mains trends- those that deliberately try to accurately recreate particular events (Hotel Rwanda, Amistad, Gettysburg) and those that merely use those events/figures as a frame for telling a more universal, timeless tale (Amadeus, The Social Network, etc.). 

    These trends are subject to a rather unfortunate double standard.  Most filmmakers using history as a template are focused (as well they should be) on simply making a great film, and make whatever changes they deem necessary to tell the particular story they want to tell, without bothering to notate every one for the audience’s sake.  Unfortunately, many a film that doesn’t claim to be an accurate retelling of history is often slammed for those selfsame inaccuracies, by both critics and regular viewers.  On the flip side, it is unheard of for a film to be criticized for sticking too close to actual events.  A prime example of this is Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven. 

    Released in 2005, Kingdom of Heaven takes place in Outremer (the Christian Crusading states) in the late 12th century, depicting the growing conflict between Saladin (a Muslim general who had recently unified Egypt and Syria) and the restless knights and nobles of Baldwin IV, the Leper King of Jerusalem.  The film depicts the decisions leading to the real-life Battle of Hattin, which utterly destroyed the armies of Jerusalem, leading to Saladin’s recapture of Jerusalem after a century of Christian rule. 

    The central figure in all this is Legolas.  I mean Will Turner.  I mean Balian of Ibelin, a recently widowed French blacksmith who is convinced by a man named Godfrey (played by Oskar Schindler) to come with him to the Holy Land.  Driven by doubts about his own faith, he joins Godfrey and begins to be trained as a knight.  As they travel (and after Godfrey is wounded in a fight) Balian learns that he is Godfrey’s son, and heir to a parcel of land near Jerusalem called Ibelin (he is later knighted before Gofrey dies from his wounds).  

    After his arrival, we see Balian attempt to navigate the twisted realms of Outremer politics and intrigue.  An uneasy peace between Saladin and Baldwin IV (portrayed by, of all people, Ed Norton) is threatened by the militant Templars, led by Raynald de Chatillon and Guy de Lusignan.  As the noble and moral figures of Balian, Baldwin, and their allies attempt to hold back the blatantly evil Raynald and Guy, they constantly discuss and debate the true meaning of faith, and how it can drive both the Christians and Muslims to acts both magnanimous and horrifying. 

    It is ambitious film, if nothing else, seeking to combine elements of action, old-school, Lawrence of Arabia-style historical drama, and heady religious discourse.  It has a powerhouse of a supporting cast (including Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, Ed Norton, and David Thewlis), and tries to offer a genuine, sober look at the connections between extreme religion and conflict, and at how the driving forces of the Crusades, in many ways, live on in the Holy Land to this day.  In my opinion, it succeeds with flying colors, offering a potent tale of faith, radicalism, and redemption. 

    However, there seem to be many who disagree with me.  The theatrical release of the film has only a 39% percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 63 overall rating on Metacritic.  Part of this is undoubtedly due to the fact that Scott was forced to cut almost an hour of his original version for theaters, removing a considerable amount of depth from the characters.  His Director’s Cut, released later that same year, was the 194-minute version of the film he originally presented to the studio (20th Century Fox, if anyone’s wondering), and has gotten a far better reception from critics. 
    In addition to lukewarm reviews of the theatrical release, much criticism was directed at a perceived lack of historical accuracy in the film.  Depictions of Baldwin IV, Syblla, Guy, Raynald, and others are heavily fictionalized.  Orlando Bloom’s tortured, simple-blacksmith-turned-perfect-knight Balian is a far, far cry from the real Balian, who was much more politically involved in the succession conflicts following Baldwin IV’s death.  Historian Jonathan Riley-Smith specifically attacked an apparent bias against Christianity; the patriarch of Jerusalem is cold, cowardly, and unfeeling, and Guy, Raynald, and the Templars are almost cartoonish in their lust for Muslim blood (the shouted phrase “GOD WILLS IT” is their repeated chorus for most of the film).  Riley-Smith even went so far as to call the film, “Osama Bin Laden’s version of the Crusades.”

    As a historian myself, such sentiments trouble me.  Yes, the film is loaded with inaccuracies; most of the characters and events are highly dramatized, and the dynastic and political conflicts are made much more simple than they really were.  But, as I’ve said before, that’s sort of the point.  It’s a movie.  The point of a movie, first and foremost, is to tell a great story.  And to do that, a filmmaker seeking to use real events as a framework will have to dramatize certain things, simplify others, and leave some parts out entirely. 

    The funny thing is, in a way, historians must do the same thing.  History is nothing more or less than the story of everything there is- the ultimate novel ever written, the greatest film ever made.  As a result, historians are bound by the same constraints as filmmakers seeking to explore a certain event or historical figure; since we can never know everything about them- every motivation, every thought, every word spoken- the historian must conjecture, deduce, and sometimes flat-out guess in their efforts to understand why things happened the way they did.  We seek to be “objective.”  We try to reconstruct cause, motivation, and effect as accurately as possible, using every bit of information available to us, but in the end, our efforts are still just that- a reconstruction.  A replica.  A remake. 

    I suppose what I’m getting at is that there is little constructive benefit to damning a historical movie for inaccuracies that are as inevitable as those in “legitimate” history.  And if so many people are so misinformed about the past that a film can mislead them, then we historians aren’t doing our jobs properly.

-Judge Richard

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