Repeating history

Repeating history

The director Ridley Scott has been accused of lifting the story of his epic film Kingdom of Heaven from an academic's book. But can you copyright history, asks Dorothy King

May 20, 2005 - The Guardian

I am down near Cannes for the film festival. In theory I am doing some rewrites to a script and advising on a movie based on Roman history; in practise I am having long lunches at the Eden Roc and listening to a lot of lies. Last night, for example, I met the eighth person who told me that they were the producer of Kingdom of Heaven, Ridley Scott's epic movie about the Crusades. Strangely, none of them are credited in the production notes. Yet another so-called producer was extremely rude about the script; criticising others to elevate oneself is another Cannes trend, and one he unsuccessfully used in an attempt to hire me. All anyone seems to talk about this week is Kingdom of Heaven, but they are talking about the movie's history rather than history itself.

For the record, my only involvement with the film was a couple of very enjoyable hours watching it in the cinema. My interest in the film was first aroused when an academic, James Reston Jr, apparently claimed that Scott had lifted the story from his own 2001 book, Warriors of God. Mr Reston's cited explanation - Scott was given a copy of his book, turned it down, and then made a Crusades film on a similar subject - sounds damning, a lesson to any historian tempted to flirt with Hollywood. I ordered the book from Amazon, and it arrived just after I had seen the film.

Two points struck me. The film had heavily distorted history. In the movie, Balian of Ibelin is a blacksmith, the long-lost bastard son who proves himself better than the legitimate aristocrats. He has an affair with Queen Sibylla, unhappily married to a villain husband, and in the end they run off together to France to live the simple life of peasants. There they meet Richard the Lionheart and decline his request to join the third crusade. In reality, Balian was born in wedlock and into wealth. He consolidated his great power when he married Maria Comnene, a Byzantine princess and Sibylla's stepmother as the dowager queen of Jerusalem. After the fall of Jerusalem, both Balian and Sibylla stayed in Tripoli with their respective children, rather than return to France, and from there they both took part in the third crusade. They are not known to have had an affair. These are the basic facts I remember from my school history lessons, without reading Mr Fenton's book. As a historian, I would have been embarrassed to claim the former paragraph for a history book; it is a Hollywood fable designed to get bums on seats.

Scott and scriptwriter William Monahan have rewritten the historical narrative in a way I would not have. Had their Queen Sibylla chosen to stay in the Holy Land with her children, as she did in fact do, there could have been a tear-jerking ending that was both closer to history, and could have left the way open for a sequel. Historians have condemned their reinvention of historical facts, but Scott and Mr Monahan only did so to be able to produce a film people would want to watch. They also performed a great service, in these difficult times, by showing that Saladin was an educated and compassionate leader, and that Muslims are not always the villains, as in most Hollywood movies.

Mr Renton's book, in fact, largely concentrates on Richard the Lionheart's third crusade, which took place after the fall of Jerusalem, so after the period covered by Scott's film. Balian of Ibelin, the hero of the film, is apparently a very minor historical figure taken from Mr Renton's book, according to press coverage I have read. This may be news to those of us who thought he was quite an important figure in medieval history. I will admit I have only glanced at Warriors of God, but it seems to cover different material, and to be distinctly unrelated to the film. As one Amazon reviewer pointed out, Mr Renton's book seems to put an emphasis on homosexuality, not a theme I noticed in Scott's movie, although I may be being naïve. In Scott's position, wanting to make a film about the Crusades, I would have read several books and then chosen a story that appealed to me most, as he seems to have done.

Apparently the dispute will now be going to court, but what is of greater interest to me is the question - who owns history? And can one copyright history? I have been involved in disputes over physical cultural property, where the issues involved are ones of physical ownership and claims of cultural heritage. But I had always thought that intangible cultural property, such as history and literature, belonged to all; owned by anyone who wanted to read or devote thought to history, and to let it live on in people's minds. The idea that historical figures and facts can belong to one person seems perverse; surely our history is part of our common heritage. If the character of Balian belongs to Mr Renton and Scott has "stolen" him, then surely the academic has himself taken Balian from earlier historians who had also conducted research into the fall of Jerusalem.

The issue arose when I was recently accused of using the "same" facts about a historical dispute - why didn't I do some more research, I was told. The truth is that no matter how much research one does, most facts do not change. If they were subject to constant change, then they would be suppositions or proposals. No amount of research will move the Battle of Hastings from 1066 or shift American Independence from 1776. A Hollywood script can change Balian into a blacksmith, but in history he will always be Lord of Ibelin. No one, though, can copyright the truth. Arguments and interpretations can vary, but never facts. Although historians always feel that the period they cover "belongs" to them, surely part of the joy of writing about history is in sharing the facts of the period with others, the readers.

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