By Louise Gay
Amid a resurgence of interest for peplum and the rise of medieval fantasy movies in the early 2000s, the director Ridley Scott, after having conquered the world with Gladiator, returned to the historical drama genre with Kingdom of Heaven in 2005. Set in the late twelfth century, the film proposed a very romanticized story of Balian d’Ibelin, defender of Jerusalem in 1187 against the armies of Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf (“Saladin” in Western sources).
Constantly mixing fiction and history, it followed Balian’s ascension from his (invented) humble origins as a blacksmith and natural son of a great lord in Northern France to a legitimised lord and military leader of the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem. His path thus crosses with Sybil, sister of king Baudoin IV “the Leper” (r. 1174 – 1185), mother of his heir Baudoin V (r. 1185 – 1186 as sole king), and future queen of Jerusalem herself (r. 1186 – 1190).
Although the historical value of the movie is low (see below), its intended purpose was more based on conveying a message of religious and cultural tolerance. Most of the Crusader characters (especially the Templars) were therefore meant to embody the violence of invaders motivated both by economic gain and power lust, as well as blind religious fanaticism. This was a choice that struck the critics, as the United States of America and its allies were at war against Iraq during its release.
Like most – if not all – Hollywood productions, the film was flawed with countless historical inaccuracies. From military tactics to the backgrounds and relationships of the protagonists, the film distanced itself from factual history (e.g. Renaud de Châtillon killing Saladin’s sister, Balian’s generous offer to save every inhabitant of Jerusalem instead of threatening to kill its Muslim population, etc.). If certain transformations can be explained for practical reasons (limited time with a historical context unknown to the audience) or aesthetic ones (e.g. Baudoin’s mask), others prove more problematic to justify. In particular, the screenplay treatment of Sybil of Jerusalem shows how gender stereotypes are perpetuated by our contemporary film industry in spite of contradictory medieval sources.
Embodied by the divine Eva Green, Sybil’s character is one of the furthest from her historical alter-ego – as Ridley Scott acknowledged himself in the audio commentary of the director’s cut DVD. Throughout the movie, the queen is given the conventional role of a damsel-in-distress. Stuck in a loveless marriage to a brute, Guy de Lusignan, Sibylla soon falls for the heroic Balian. As such, nearly all her political actions are intertwined with her personal feelings for the two men, each of them embodying good (Balian) and bad (Guy) models of rulership. Her authority disappears when she shares the screen with her husband, leading the audience to believe she is afraid of him. Sybil is thus primarily identified as a victim of female oppression with little or no political agency. When Balian refuses the scheme that would have brought him to the throne alongside Sibylla, she is forced to crown Guy despite knowing that he will lead Jerusalem to its downfall.
Her subsequent visual transformation into a penitent (hair cut short, fineries replaced with an unadorned black dress, walking on foot instead of riding) reflects both her guilty feelings as well as the decline of the kingdom. A mere spectator of the submission of the city of Jerusalem, she then renounces her queenship and power to finally flee to France with Balian.
Ultimately, her end matches her narrative purpose in the film: to serve as the hero’s love interest. Already reduced to the status of a foil in favour of Balian, the queen also suffered from the producers’ decision to reduce the length of the film by cutting most of her scenes without the leading male character. Indeed, the director’s cut extends her character by adding her motherhood, completely absent in the theatrical version.
This depiction of Sybil is very much altered from what the historical evidence has left us. Medieval sources present the queen as a strong woman who knew how to navigate and rule within the bounds of the patriarchal medieval society. Contrary to what is presented in the film, it seems that it was Sybil herself who chose Guy as her second husband or, at least, took part in the decision. The relationship between the spouses is completely different: chroniclers note the devotion of Sybil towards her husband, who in turn relies on her help when dealing with the barons. After her own coronation as queen, Roger of Howden tells us how she refused to divorce Guy and tricked her vassals into accepting him as their king . In the aftermath of the defeat of Hattin in 1187, Sybil helped lead the defence of Ascalon and Jerusalem during its siege by Saladin. She negotiated the release of her captive husband, then accompanying him with Christian forces to lay siege to Acre (earlier taken by Saladin) until her death in 1190 from an epidemy.
From an active political actress to a passive love interest, Sybil undergoes our “modern” projections of a strictly masculine Middle Ages. By deliberately choosing this narrative, the film thus misses the opportunity to feature a reigning queen in what was one of the most singular political experiments of the period. In this regard, the 2005 production seems perhaps less willing to accept female power than the men of the twelfth century.
Meriem Pagès, “From Crusading Queen to Damsel in Distress: Re-Imagining Sibylla of Jerusalem, in Kingdom of Heaven”, Gender & History, no. 30 (2018), 696-703
Helen Nicholson, Sybil, Queen of Jerusalem, 1186–1190 (London/New York: Routledge, 2022)
Helen Nicholson, “Queen Sybil of Jerusalem as a military leader”, in Von Hamburg nach Java. Studien zur mittelalterlichen, neuen und digitalen Geschichte zu Ehren von Jürgen Sarnowsky, eds J. Burgtorf, C. Hoffart, Christian and S. Kubon (Leyde: Brill, 2020), 265-276
Natasha Hodgson, Women, Crusading and the Holy Land in Historical Narrative (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2017)
 Roger of Howden, « Chronica », in The Conquest of Jerusalem and the Third Crusade: Sources in Translation, ed. P. W. Edbury (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998), 154-155.