Friday, May 13, 2005

History - Americanized away into fiction.

I am guessing that for every Hollywood quasi-historical movie one can write a couple of pages on the discrepancies between real history and the Hollywood kind. Now I fully understand that the objective of Hollywood is to write a good story, one that will sell to an American and to an international audience. I also understand that it is better to have a exciting and entertaining historical drama with some discrepancies than to have a lifeless documentary style boredomfest which is historically accurate. Nevertheless, the understanding of these facts of showbiz does not prevent me from seeing and being seriously annoyed by inconsistencies in the movie, especially when these errors have no impact on the fictitious storyline. It is especially worse when the events themselves are more dramatic and would probably play better on screen than the story as written by Hollywood!

So, I went to see the movie 'Kingdom of Heaven' and now that I have let it digest I am going to point out both the historical mistakes and the logical problems that plague this movie.

The story starts out roughly in the early 1180s with a blacksmith named Balian. He lives in a small French village and he is under great strain as his wife has just committed suicide and is thus barred from heaven by Catholic doctrine. A Crusader knight [Godfrey of Ibelin] with his multicultural posse (which very strangely includes a black crusader knight. In 1180 IN FRANCE!) on his way back to the Holy Land drives into town and declares himself to be his long-lost father who had a thing with his mother many years back. Due to what sounds like a rather painful wound he has since lost the ability to sire children. He proposes that Balian comes with him to the Holy Land. Balian initially rejects him but then in a moment of rage he kills a priest and so is stricken by spiritual depression. He leaves his village and after what appears to be many days on the road reaches Godfrey's posse. Quite soon a large group of archers and knights catch up to the Crusader posse and demand that Balian be handed over to them. When this is refused by the crusaders a well-planned set piece battle immediately starts. Through might and determination the crusaders overcome the attackers.

[problem - logical: the idea that a strong force can be instantly organized and sent to look for Balian seems unlikely with the communications infrustructre of the 12th century. It would take weeks for any message to leave the village, get to the bishop, be sent back to the feudal lord, and from the lord to his vassals to organize a search party of this size
problem - historical: the real Balian of Ibelin was born a lord in the Holy Land. He was married (to Sybille's step-mother) and had 2 children by the time of the loss of Jerusalem. There is something that the movie got right, and that is the fact that a simple blacksmith did actually have the chance to become a lord in the Holy Land. This was due to the extremely high mortality rate among Franks in the Holy Land and due to the fact that very few people wanted to stay in such a shithole. A good warrior was therefore quite hard to find. Most came, saw, fought a little and went home.]

Godfrey is badly wounded. He is taken to a hospital in the Italian port of Messina. The hospital is surprisingly sanitary.

[problem: the crusaders had no idea about the causes of infections and believed that most sicknesses were the result of a spiritual curse. this contributed to the low survivability of crusader knights in the Holy Land. wounds were often fatal because of the conditions of the hospitals. thus the modern looking hospital you see in the movie is unlikely, not to mention the idea that Godfrey survived his previously mentioned quite unpleasant injury and lived to be wounded again. Here is a description of a visit of an Arab physician to the Crusaders and a description of what the Crusaders called medicine from the autobiography of Usama al-Munqidh who lived in the 12th century:

They brought before me a knight in whose leg an abscess had grown; and a woman afflicted with imbecility. To the knight I applied a small poultice until the abscess opened and became well; and the woman I put on diet and made her humor wet. Then a Frankish physician came to them and said, "This man knows nothing about treating them." He then said to the knight, "Which wouldst thou prefer, living with one leg or dying with two?" The latter replied, "Living with one leg." The physician said, "Bring me a strong knight and a sharp ax." A knight came with the ax. And I was standing by. Then the physician laid the leg of the patient on a block of wood and bade the knight strike his leg with the ax and chop it off at one blow. Accordingly he struck it-while I was looking on-one blow, but the leg was not severed. He dealt another blow, upon which the marrow of the leg flowed out and the patient died on the spot. He then examined the woman and said, "This is a woman in whose head there is a devil which has possessed her. Shave off her hair." Accordingly they shaved it off and the woman began once more to cat their ordinary diet-garlic and mustard. Her imbecility took a turn for the worse. The physician then said, "The devil has penetrated through her head." He therefore took a razor, made a deep cruciform incision on it, peeled off the skin at the middle of the incision until the bone of the skull was exposed and rubbed it with salt. The woman also expired instantly. Thereupon I asked them whether my services were needed any longer, and when they replied in the negative I returned home, having learned of their medicine what I knew not before.

Godfrey dies shortly after giving his sword and fiefdom to his newly found son Balian. Godfrey also imparts upon him the need for loyalty to the king and the directive to protect 'the people'. Balian then sets off on a ship towards the Holy Land. After an inconvenient storm, which wrecks the fleet he was on, he finds himself a lone survivor along with a very lucky horse that landed perfectly on a deserted sunny beach. On shore he meets 2 Arab men on horseback. They demand his horse and when he refuses they attack him. Balian kills one of them and takes the other as a hostage/guide.

[problem - logical: what language would a newly landed crusader and a Saracen talk to each other in? Much of the armies of the Muslims during the Crusaders consisted of Turkic tribesmen for whom Arabic would be a second language used as lingua franca in the Muslim world. Learning French to speak to the barbarians coming from Europe into the Arab world seems unlikely. It is the same reason why so few Americans or Europeans speak minor African dialects. For an uneducated crusader on the other hand to know any language other than his native French seems equally unlikely. Communications would probably take place on the level of grunts and jesticulation until either the crusader learned some Arabic or would employ a Christian Arab to work as a translator.]

The Saracen guide takes Balian to Jerusalem where Balian frees him in some vain attempt at modern political correctness and gives him a horse to boot.

[problem - logical: balian is in essence a modern man - he is tolerant of other religions, honest, forgiving and understanding. Where these traits would come from only the writers of the screenplay would know. The idea that some truths are self-evident is a quaint Americanism to put it politely or put bluntly: outworn bullshit. where would a poor [illiterate] blacksmith from France have any understanding of Islam or for that matter any understanding of basics of modern morality? If one searches the Crusader sources on Islam one would find a complete lack of understanding of that religion amid an atmosphere of disgust and contempt for it. Furthermore, the crusaders had no doubts about the truth of their religion, the falseness of all others and the justice of their crusades into the Holy Land.]

Jerusalem is portrayed as a city where all religions come to pray in peace and understanding.

[problem - historical: other than the complete lack of understanding that prevailed on both sides of the divide, the real problem is historical. Upon arrival in the Holy Land the crusaders proceeded to slaughter or expel the populations of all the major cities. The Jewish and Muslim populations of Jerusalem were almost uniformly slaughtered with very few survivors. The same fate met the populations of Haifa, Caesarea, Beirut and all other cities that fell without a negotiated settlement. Other cities - Ramle, Tiberias, Jaffa - were abandoned in fear prior to the arrival of the Crusaders and their populations went into exile in the Muslim lands. Yet other cities, such as Acre, Tripoli and Askelon, which fell after a negotiated settlement, the population was allowed to leave. In many cases the Crusader knights, seeing an opportunity for plunder, broke the terms of the settlement and slaughtered the populations anyway. Now where is this history lesson going? Well, it seems clear that some Muslims and Jews returned to some of these cities after the initial conquest. The problem for this movie is the fact that Jerusalem was a special case. Between 1099, when the Crusaders took Jerusalem, and 1187, when they lost it, no Jews or Muslims were allowed to settle in the city. (Joshua Prawer The History of the Jews in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988) p.46-47) This was a continuation of the Byzantine policy that had kept Jerusalem Jew-free until the Muslims took it in 638. There were Arabs in Jerusalem at this time, but they were all Christians and invited only because the Crusaders could barely populate even a quarter of the walled city of Jerusalem and also needed a skilled labor force which they themselves did not bring with them. ]

Balian is found by his father's peoples and is brought to his fief where he quickly makes the desert bloom by demonstrating to the moronic backwards savages the concept of a well and of an irrigation system.

[This at a time when the biggest city in Europe probably had fewer than 15,000 people and Baghdad and Cairo both had populations in the hundreds of thousands, sewer systems and public baths.]

He soon meets Sybille, the wife of Guy de Lusignan. Somehow she instantly decides to start a relationship with him. In fact it almost seems that she decided to do so prior to meeting him. He also meets the ailing king and a man the movie called Tiberias. These three share some sort of understanding about the need to be moderate and to prevent such extremists as Guy and Reynald de Chautillon from causing a war.

[Tiberias is probably closest historically to Raymond of Tripoli, who was also the master of the city of Tiberias. Reynald did exist and he was basically an ass. He, along with Templars raided Muslim caravans going to Mecca and at one point even attempted a raid on Mecca itself.]

Soon Reynald causes a war and Balian rides to the defense of the fortress of Reynald de Chautillon, Kerac - Crac des Moabites - where Balian and his 40 knights attack Saladin's full army.

[This obviously didn't happen, but this also demonstrates that the Balian of the movie is a fucking moron]

Surprisingly almost all of his knights survive the idiotic attack and are released soon thereafter to the army of the leper king of Jerusalem who negotiates a truce with Saladin.

[In 1183 Baldwin IV (the leper king) became very sick and appointed Guy as regent. In the same year Kerak (with Guy inside for a wedding ceremony) was besieged by Saladin. Baldwin IV rode out with his army and lifted the siege. No truce signed.]

The differently abled handicapable king is however unfortunately dying. So now we have the problem of succession since Guy is married to Sybille and she is the sister of the leper king. A solution to this problem is proposed to Balian whereby Guy gets whacked and Balian marries Sybille and becomes king. Balian in a fit of righteousness refuses. The leper dies and Guy becomes king. [ahem.. prooving once again that the Balian of the movie is a fucking retard]

[Later in 1183 Guy proved to be a coward in dealing with Saladin and Baldwin IV made his young nephew (Sybille's son) his successor with Raymond of Tripoli as regent. By 1185 the leper king was dead. A truce was negotiated in that year by Raymond of Tripoli in the name of the new king - Baldwin V. Guy was disgraced and went to Ascelon with Sybil. By 1186 Baldwin V died and though the Crusader barons probably would have preferred Raymond of Tripoli [Tiberias] as king, in the absense of Raymond from Jerusalem, Sybil organized her own coronation and gave the crown over to Guy. Raymond tried to set up an alternative coronation in Nablus, but failed and asked for Saladin's help in obtaining peace with Guy. More dramatic than the movie's political games aint it?]

For some reason Guy sends only three metalheads to kill Balian. Not surprisingly they fail. About this time Reynald has raided a caravan and captured Saladin's sister. Saladin invades with his army and all the lords gather in Jerusalem to discuss what should be done. Under pressure from the military religious orders and from Reynald Guy decides to go to war. Raymond and Balian refuse and leave. The crusader army runs out of water and is crushed by Saladin.

[Historically Reynald raided a caravan and might have captured Saladin's sister. Though shortly after Saladin made a promise to kill Reynald, this did not start the real war. After some minor skirmishes Raymond was able to hammer out a truce with Saladin (at least for himself). Shortly later, a Saracen party led by Saladin's son was crossing, with permission, through Raymond's land near Tiberias. The Templars, not knowing that the Saracens had permission, attacked the numerically superior Muslim army near Nazareth and were slaughtered almost to a man. Soon thereafter the main body of the army under Saladin crosses into the Crusader lands and besieges Tiberias. By this time the Crusaders had called up all of their manpower and had mercenaries from Europe. The Crusaders encamped in Sepphoras [Tzipori], which is in the Gallilee sitting roughly halfway between Tiberias and the Mediterranean. Sepphoras sits on the major roads leading from Tiberias into the Crusader lands. It also sits on some of the most fertile lands in Israel with plentiful water for the huge army that the crusaders had. While they were sitting on this point their army was invincible. They are sitting on a big hill from which they never have to move out to fight. There are almost no other water resources suitable for a large army between Tiberias and Sepphoris. No army can besiege them for any amount of time without water resources. At this point the Crusader army gets word that the city of Tiberias has fallen with only the citadel still holding out, being personally defended by the wife of Raymond of Tripoli [Tiberias] and several knights. A meeting is called where a public argument takes place between the masters of the military religious orders and Raymond of Tripoli. The military orders and the newly arrived crusaders want a fight. Raymond and many native barons are against a battle because they understands that moving from Sepphoras is a bad strategic move and that the loss of this army is the end of Jerusalem. Raymond also understands that even if the citadel of Tiberias falls he would just ransom back his wife within a few months or years. This would not be the first time such a transaction took place. Raymond himself had spent many years in captivity. Fearing that he would be called a coward and wanting to use the already paid-for mercenaries King Guy decides to march to relieve the citadel of Tiberias. Had they not made this terrible mistake they could have held Jerusalem much longer. They marched out towards Tiberias but they were being constantly harrassed by the Muslim horse archers. They were marching very slowly at the speed of the infantry because they had to constantly march in formation and neither the cavalry nor the infantry could survive separately. The infantry would be cut down by cavalry charges, while the heavy cavalry would have their horses shot out from under them turning them into immobile infantry. For this reason the cavalry had to move with the infantry so that the infantry archers could protect them from the Muslim horse archers, while the infantry needed heavy cavalry protection from cavalry charges. After a day of marching in full armor under the hot July sun (temperature somewhere in the 90s) without water and with the Muslims starting fires in front of them, the crusaders camped in a plain with no water and no protection. By the next day Saladin had them surrounded in the plain near the Horns of Hattin and the Crusaders were finished. The terrain where this battle took place by itself deserved to be in the movie. It is in hilly country, from here you can see Tiberias and the landmark itself - the Horns of Hattin - is an extinct volcano. Some of the cavalry, led by Raymond (and including Balian of Ibelin), tried to break out and succeeded. The rest of the army, disorganized and tired was attacked by Saladin and defeated. The victorious Muslims sold the captured infantry and sergeants at arms into slavery. The prices of slaves in Damascus plumetted the next day. Saladin massacred all the captured members of the orders of the Hospital and the Temple. The basic idea is that Crusader armies can not fight without knights, so if you slaughter the orders you deprive the Crusaders of many of the best knights.]

Now Balian goes back to defend Jerusalem from the inevitable attack. He arrives there to find no defenders. The first thing he does is set up some high-tech siege warfare weapons and to calibrate the ballistas and the catapults. He then proceeds to energize the defenders of the city with an inspiring speech on the lack of justice of their cause and the sanctity of the city of Jerusalem to all three religions, not just their own. If ever there were words capable of inspiring men to sacrifice their lives for the defense of a holy city, these are not them. He then, in a fit of chronologically misplaced democratic values, knights the whole male population of the city. The newly emancipated knights then proceed to valiantly defend the meaningless barren rocks of what they had formerly thought as the holiest city of Christianity. After several successful defenses of the city Balian, after negotiations, surrenders the city to Saladin who lets everyone leave peacefully. Balian (a lord) and Sybille (queen of Jerusalem) are then seen back in a shitty village in France where they live happily ever after as blacksmith and wench.

[error overload.... reboot.... OK, So in reality Balian was one of the few knights to break out of the disaster of Hattin. Soon after Hattin Saladin set up a siege of Jerusalem. Balian went into Jerusalem with Saladin's permission in order to get his wife and children out of the city. Once he got there he was begged to organize the defense of the city. He supposedly asked for and received permission from Saladin to do so while his family was allowed safe passage out of Jerusalem. He organized the defense of the city, perhaps even knighting some youths who had not fully completed their training. That he knighted the whole population of the city is absurd as Balian like any other noble would think in hierarchies and bloodlines. That he would make any speech but to proclaim the sanctity of the city and to promise its defenders salvation is equally ludicrous. To believe that a 12th century knight would admit any element of guilt for the crusades - sanctioned by the Pope - is also out there. Anyways... after repelling several attacks Saladin enters into negotiations with Balian and makes an agreement whereby each Frank would be allowed to leave the city if he was able to pay a certain amount of gold. Those that paid would be given free passage to the coast. The patriarch and the servants of the Church were of course the first to leave taking with them the treasury of the city and not caring much for the poor of the city. The nobility and anyone who could afford to pay left peacefully. The rest of the Frankish population was sold into slavery. Essentially the terms of the surrender were reasonable for the time period.

Balian moved to Tripoli (in modern Lebanon) where he continued to be an influential lord though his lands had been conquered by Saladin. He was later given new lands by Richard [the lionhearted]. In 1192 he helped Richard negotiate a truce a treaty with Saladin. He died in 1193. His children continued to be prominent lords in the Crusader kingdoms.
After Guy was freed in 1188 Sybille and Guy went to Tyre (in modern Lebanon) , one of the few remaining Crusader cities, but were denied admission by Conrad, a competitor for the throne of Jerusalem. Guy soon joined the Third Crusade in sieging Acre. Sybille and her daughters died of an epidemic in 1190. The death of Sybille meant the Guy no longer had a credible claim on the throne of Jerusalem. However to compensate him for his 'loss' (of the kingdom) he was given the newly conquered kingdom of Cyprus which his descendants (he obviously remarried) continued to rule until the late 15th century. Seems to me he got a pretty sweet deal.]

Now there are a few historic inaccuracies of which the most annoying was not using the bit about Raymond of Tripoli's wife being held under siege in the citadel of Tiberias and him still being against committing the Crusader army to her rescue. Why not use this? Its drama at its best and allows a great actor like Jeremy Irons to make a dramatic speech and show the contrast between Raymond and Guy!! All you had to do was introduce the wife of 'Tiberias' in the beginning of the movie. She just needs to smile, look nice and say like 3 words. 'I wife Tiberias'.

As far as the battle and siege scenes in the movie, they are pretty good. The acting is nothing special and the characters are cut-outs. Everybody is good except for several evil lords and priests who are fueled by blind hate and are trying to disrupt the perfect harmony prevailing between the Muslims and Christians. This movie is about as PC as it gets.

Time for an anti-PC rant... So why can't we show the slaughter of the Templars or the enslavement of the remnants of the Crusaders at Hattin or of the poor of Jerusalem? If you want you can put in scenes of the Crusader conquest of Jerusalem in the beginning of the movie. Why must American movies shy away from moral complexity. Why can't we have a hero who is a man of his time? Why must he be some modern PC man transported back in time a thousand years? Is there no way to portray the past honestly and not portray what we would like to have happened rather than what actually did happen? Is it impossible to portray hate, not by a small minority, but hate and dislike as something endemic in a society? How can you fight hate and racism and bigotry if you refuse to believe that it can actually be the normal condition for human beings? If we can't even show hatred as being prevalent a thousand years ago how can we every conceive the fact that many societies are still based on hate? That children are taught that blind hate is normal? That reason itself is no protection against a hate-mongering education? That religion itself can be the source of blind hate? Did the Muslims hate the Christians during the Crusades? Yes. Did the Christians hate the Muslims during the Crusades? Yes. Were Catholics doctrinally taught to hate all Jews for killing Jesus until the 1960s? Yes.
Were the Germans as a people taught to hate the Jews during the Nazi Reich? Yes. Do the Palestinians hate the Israelis? Yes. Do the Arabs hate America? Yes. Were the Crusaders crusading because their religion taught them to do so? Yes. Are the Muslims fighting against the Americans because they believe their religion teaches them to do so? Yes. Are we allowed to actually portray these truths in cinema? No. Only if we are talking about small extremist minorities. Even if historically or statistically we can show that these were/are prevailing trends. To even consider that a whole population can hate irrationally is somehow against some American civil religion.

Is there any doubt that the actions and policies of countries not sharing American values can not be understood with such ideological constraints on the thinking of American decision-making organs?

OK, got carried away a bit.. Good Night..


Anonymous Mysterious Stranger said...

Excellent, informative review. The only addition that would make it even more informative would be an analysis of the battle scenes themselves. Were the armies really that huge? Did Saladin's weapons really punch through Jerusalem's wall (looked to be paper thin)? Did Saladin's trebuchets really throw refrigerator-sized stones?

6:46 AM  
Blogger Bubba said...

As the movie barely concentrated on the battles, the battle scenes did not reveal much of the tactics used by either side, so there is not much to judge.

The armies were large. At Hattin the crusaders had about 20,000 men including 1,000-2,000 knights. Saladin had at least an equal number of troops with many more mounted troops. Additionally there as always was the problem of money. As Americans are aware, good armies are expensive to maintain. While the Muslim lands facing the Crusaders were in and of themselves rich, the Crusaders of the Holy Land were living in a very poor country. Therefore money to buy and bring men and supplies had to be collected in Europe. When Crusading fervour waned in Europe, the Crusaders couldn't raise armies. The Muslims did not face this problem. Their problem was always the lack of unity among the Muslim princes. Once this was solved - by Nur al-Din and Saladin - they were capable of raising armies that the Crusaders simply could not match. It should however be pointed out that this newly found Muslim unity was as much the result of good Muslim leaders as of inept Crusader statemanship. In any case the Christian kings simply never had the resources to be able to maintain an organized Crusade for long periods of time. They always faced the problem of having to conduct two wars at the same time. One against the Muslims in the Holy Land and one to maintain their lands and crowns back in their home countries.

This btw explains why several crusades were launched into Egypt. First, it was just easier and cheaper to motivate warriors to join a crusade to wealthy Egypt. Second, it would have been possible to maintain a relatively large army using the resources of Egypt thus solving the constant logistics problem faced by the Crusaders. Third, it would deprive the Muslims of the same resources.

Yet another problem for the Crusaders was logistics. After Edessa fell, the land-route to Palestine was no longer safe. All supplies and men had to be brought by boat. This as you can imagine was expensive and made several Italian cities very wealthy. Additionally, the Italians were very smart in insisting on extraterritorial rights in the Crusader principalities. They carved out tax-free quarters within the Crusader cities which further deprived the Crusader principalites of resources.

As far as siege weapons. As far as I understand siege weapons were meant to destroy towers and to keep away archers in order to allow sappers to come in and destroy the walls. The breach did come - as shown in the movie - at the same place where the Crusaders breached it: the Gate of St. Stephen. The breach however was the result of the work of sappers, not the mangonels.


11:36 AM  

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