The story is set during the Crusades of the 12th century. A French village blacksmith goes to aid the Kingdom of Jerusalem in its defence against the Ayyubid Muslim Sultan, Saladin, who is battling to claim the city from the Christians leading to the Battle of Hattin. The film script is a heavily fictionalised portrayal of the life of Balian of Ibelin (ca. 1143–93).
In 1184 France, Balian, a blacksmith, is haunted by his wife's recent suicide. A Crusader passing through the village introduces himself as Balian's father, Baron Godfrey of Ibelin, and asks him to return with him to the Holy Land, but Balian declines. The town priest, Balian's half-brother, wishes to claim Balian's property. To achieve this, he reveals that he ordered Balian's wife beheaded before burial, which would prevent her from ascending to heaven, in an attempt to convince Balian to leave to the Holy Land. Instead, an enraged Balian kills him and flees the village.
Balian joins his father, hoping to gain forgiveness and redemption for himself and his wife in Jerusalem. Soldiers sent by the bishop arrive to arrest Balian, but Godfrey refuses to surrender him, and in the ensuing attack, Godfrey is struck by an arrow that breaks off in his body, fatally wounding him.
In Messina, Italy, Godfrey knights Balian and orders him to serve the King of Jerusalem and protect the helpless, then succumbs to his injuries. During Balian's journey to Jerusalem his ship runs aground in a storm, leaving Balian the only survivor. After wandering the desert, Balian is confronted by a Muslim cavalier, who attacks him over Balian's horse. Balian reluctantly slays the cavalier but spares the man's servant, whom he convinces to lead him to Jerusalem. Once there, he lets the man go free, and the man tells Balian that his deed will gain him fame and respect among the Saracens.
After meeting Godfrey's men and announcing himself as his father's successor, Balian becomes acquainted with Jerusalem's political arena: the leper King Baldwin IV; Tiberias, the Marshal of Jerusalem; the King's sister, Princess Sibylla; and her husband Guy de Lusignan, who supports the anti-Muslim activities of brutal factions like the Knights Templar. After Baldwin's death, Guy intends to break the fragile truce with the sultan Saladin and make war on the Muslims.
As the new Baron of Ibelin, Balian settles in his new land of Ibelin. Using his skills as a blacksmith, he earns the respect of his subjects by building an irrigation system. Sibylla travels to meet him, and the two become secret lovers.
Guy and his ally, the cruel Raynald of Châtillon, attack a Saracen caravan, and Saladin advances on Raynald's castle Kerak in retaliation. At the request of the king, Balian defends the villagers, despite being overwhelmingly outnumbered. Captured, Balian encounters the servant he freed, whom he learns is actually Saladin's chancellor Imad ad-Din. Imad ad-Din releases Balian in repayment of the earlier debt. Saladin arrives with his army to besiege Kerak, and Baldwin meets it with his. They negotiate a Muslim retreat, and Baldwin swears to punish Raynald, though the exertion of these events weakens him.
Baldwin asks Balian to marry Sibylla and take control of the army, knowing they have affection for each other, but Balian refuses because it will require Guy's execution. After Baldwin dies, his nephew and Sibylla's son Baldwin V becomes king. Once Sibylla finds out that he too, has leprosy, Sibylla kills him to spare him the pain of the disease. She becomes queen and Guy becomes king. Guy releases Raynald, asking him to give him a war, which Raynald does by murdering Saladin's sister. Sending the heads of Saladin's emissaries back to him, Guy declares war on the Saracens and sends assassins to kill Balian, though Balian survives the attempt.
In 1187, Guy and the Templars march Jerusalem's army into the desert for war, despite Balian's advice to remain near water. Saladin's army annihilates the exhausted Crusaders in the ensuing desert battle, executes Raynald, and marches on Jerusalem. Tiberias and his men leave for Cyprus, believing Jerusalem lost, but Balian remains to protect the people in the city, knighting the men of the city. After a siege that lasts three days, a frustrated Saladin parleys with Balian. When Balian reaffirms that he will destroy the city before surrendering it, Saladin agrees to allow the Christians to leave safely in exchange for Jerusalem—though he ponders if it would be better if there were nothing left to fight over.
Balian is confronted by the disgraced Guy one final time, but defeats and spares him. In the marching column of citizens, Balian finds Sibylla, who has renounced her claim as Queen. After they return to France, English knights en route to retake Jerusalem ride through the town to enlist Balian, now the famed defender of Jerusalem. Balian tells the crusader that he is merely a blacksmith again, and they depart. Balian is joined by Sibylla, and they pass by the grave of Balian's wife as they ride toward a new life together. An epilogue notes that "nearly a thousand years later, peace in the Holy Land still remains elusive."
Many of the characters in the film are fictionalised versions of historical figures:
Bloom's character, Balian of Ibelin, was a close ally of Raymond III of Tripoli, the film's Tiberias, and a member of that faction which sought a place within the patchwork of the Near East and opposed the aggressive policy of Raynald of Châtillon, the Templars, and "fanatics newly from Europe", who refused to come to terms of peace with the Muslims. Balian was a mature gentleman, just a year or two younger than Raymond, and one of the most important nobles in the kingdom, not a French blacksmith. His father, Barisan (the French "Balian"), founded the Ibelin family in the east, and probably came from Italy. Balian and Sibylla were indeed united in the defence of Jerusalem but no romantic relationship existed between the two. Balian married Sibylla's stepmother Maria Comnena, Dowager Queen of Jerusalem and Lady of Nablus. Nablus, rather than Ibelin, was Balian's fief at the time of Jerusalem's fall.
The Old French Continuation of William of Tyre (the so-called Chronicle of Ernoul) claimed that Sibylla had been infatuated with Balian's older brother Baldwin of Ibelin, a widower over twice her age, but this is doubtful; instead, it seems that Raymond of Tripoli attempted a coup to marry her off to him to strengthen the position of his faction. This legend seems to have been behind the film's creation of a romance between Sibylla and a member of the Ibelin family.
King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, who reigned from 1174 to 1185, was a leper, and his sister Sibylla did marry Guy of Lusignan, though on her own initiative. Baldwin IV had a falling out with Guy, and so Guy did not succeed Baldwin IV immediately. Baldwin crowned Sibylla's son from her previous marriage to William of Montferrat, five-year-old Baldwin V, co-king in 1183. The little boy reigned as sole king for one year, dying in 1186 at nine years of age. After her son's death, Sibylla and Guy (to whom she was devoted) garrisoned the city, and she claimed the throne. The coronation scene in the movie was, in real life, more of a shock: Sibylla had been forced to promise to divorce Guy before becoming queen, with the assurance that she would be permitted to pick her own consort. After being crowned by Patriarch Heraclius of Jerusalem (who is unnamed until late in the movie), she chose to crown Guy as her consort. Raymond of Tripoli was not present, but was in Nablus attempting a coup, with Balian of Ibelin, to raise Sibylla's half-sister (Balian's stepdaughter), Princess Isabella of Jerusalem, to the throne. Isabella's husband, Humphrey IV of Toron, refused to precipitate a civil war and swore allegiance to Guy.
Raymond of Tripoli was a cousin of Amalric I of Jerusalem, one of the Kingdom's most powerful nobles, and sometime regent. He had a claim to the throne himself, but, being childless, instead tried to advance his allies in the Ibelin family. He was often in conflict with Guy and Raynald of Châtillon, who had risen to their positions by marrying wealthy heiresses and through the king's favour. The film's portrayal of Raynald of Châtillon as insane is not supported by contemporary sources, though the same sources do portray Raynald as a reckless, aggressive freebooting warlord who frequently violated truces between the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Sultanate of Egypt. The film's picture of Guy encouraging Raynald of Châtillon to attack Muslim pilgrimage convoys on their way to Mecca to provoke a war with Saladin is false. Guy was a weak, indecisive king who wanted to avoid a war with Saladin and who was simply unable to control the reckless Raynald. Saladin's abortive march on Kerak followed Raynald's raid on the Red Sea, which shocked the Muslim world by its proximity to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Guy and Raynald also harassed Muslim caravans and herders, and the claim that Raynald captured Saladin's sister is based on the account given in the Old French Continuation of William of Tyre. This claim, unsupported by any other account, is generally believed to be false. In actuality, after Raynald's attack on one caravan, Saladin made sure that the next one, in which his sister was travelling, was properly guarded: the lady came to no harm. The depiction in the film of the Battle of Hattin, where the Crusader force wandered around the desert for three days without water before being ambushed, is consistent with the known facts. The scene in the film where Saladin hands Guy a cup of iced water (which in the Muslim world was a sign that the victor intended to spare the life of his prisoner), and then notes that he did not hand Raynald the cup (indicating that Raynald was to be executed) is supported by the Persian historian Imad ad-Din al-Isfahani who was present with Saladin after the Battle of Hattin.
Balian was present at the Battle of Hattin, but escaped and fled to Tyre and then Jerusalem, to retrieve his wife and children. The defenders of the city, including the military orders and the Patriarch Heraclius, named him the leader of the city's defence. On the ninth day of the siege of Jerusalem, Saladin's forces breached the wall, but the defenders held out until the tenth day, when Balian surrendered the city to Saladin. The Christians of the city were made to ransom themselves, and Balian was unable to raise the funds to ransom all the city's poor; thousands marched out into safety and thousands into slavery.
Balian and Sibylla remained in the Holy Land during the events of the Third Crusade. Sibylla was a victim of an epidemic during the Siege of Acre. Balian's relations with Richard I of England were far from amicable, because he supported the claim to kingship of Conrad of Montferrat against Richard's vassal Guy. He and his wife Maria arranged her daughter Isabella's forcible divorce from Humphrey of Toron so she could marry Conrad. Ambroise, who wrote a poetic account of the crusade, called Balian "more false than a goblin" and said he "should be hunted with dogs".
An episode of The History Channel's series History vs. Hollywood analysed the historical accuracy of the film. This program and a Movie Real (a series by A&E Network) episode about Kingdom of Heaven were both included on the DVD release.
The visual style of Kingdom of Heaven emphasises set design and impressive cinematography in almost every scene. It is notable for its "visually stunning cinematography and haunting music". Cinematographer John Mathieson created many large, sweeping landscapes, where the cinematography, supporting performances, and battle sequences are meticulously mounted. The cinematography and scenes of set-pieces have been described as "ballets of light and color" (as in films by Akira Kurosawa). Director Ridley Scott's visual acumen was described as the main draw of Kingdom of Heaven with the stellar, stunning cinematography and "jaw-dropping combat sequences" based on the production design of Arthur Max.
British visual effects firm The Moving Picture Company completed 440 effects shots for the film. A reel of their work can be seen here. Additionally, Double Negative also contributed to complete the CGI work on the film.
The music differs in style and content from the soundtrack of Scott's earlier 2000 film Gladiator and many other subsequent films depicting historical events. A combination of medieval, middle-eastern, contemporary classical, and popular influences, the soundtrack is largely the result of British film-score composer Harry Gregson-Williams. Jerry Goldsmith's "Valhalla" theme from The 13th Warrior and "Vide Cor Meum" (originally used by Scott in the Hannibal movie and composed by Patrick Cassidy and Hans Zimmer), sung by Danielle de Niese and Bruno Lazzaretti, were used as replacements for original music by Gregson-Williams.
Upon its release it was met with a mixed reception, with many critics being divided on the film. Critics such as Roger Ebert found the film's message to be deeper than that of Scott's Gladiator.
The cast was widely praised. Jack Moore described Edward Norton's performance as the leper-king Baldwin as "phenomenal", and "so far removed from anything that he has ever done that we see the true complexities of his talent". The Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud was praised for his portrayal of Saladin, described in The New York Times as "cool as a tall glass of water". Also commended were Eva Green, who plays Princess Sibylla "with a measure of cool that defies her surroundings", and Jeremy Irons.
Lead actor Bloom's performance generally elicited a lukewarm reception from American critics, with the Boston Globe stating Bloom was "not actively bad as Balian of Ibelin", but nevertheless "seems like a man holding the fort for a genuine star who never arrives". One critic conceded that Balian was more of a "brave and principled thinker-warrior" rather than a strong commander, and Balian used brains rather than brawn to gain advantage in battle.
Bloom had gained 20 pounds for the part, and the Extended Director's Cut (detailed below) of Kingdom of Heaven reveals even more complex facets of Bloom's role, involving connections with unknown relatives. Despite the criticism, Bloom won two awards for his performance.
Online, general criticism has been also divided. Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 39% based on reviews from 185 critics. Review aggregator Metacritic gives the film a 63/100 rating, indicating "generally favorable reviews" according to the website's weighted average system.
In the time since the film's release, scholars have offered analysis and criticisms through a lens situating Kingdom of Heaven within the context of contemporary international events and religious conflict, including: broad post-9/11 politics, neocolonialism, Orientalism, the Western perspective of the film, and the detrimental handling of differences between Christianity and Islam.
Academic criticism has focused on the supposed peaceful relationship between Christians and Muslims in Jerusalem and other cities depicted. Crusader historians such as Jonathan Riley-Smith, quoted by The Daily Telegraph, called the film "dangerous to Arab relations", calling the movie "Osama bin Laden's version of history" and would "fuel the Islamic fundamentalists". Riley-Smith further commented against the historical accuracy stating that "the fanaticism of most of the Christians in the film and their hatred of Islam is what the Islamists want to believe. At a time of inter-faith tension, nonsense like this will only reinforce existing myths", arguing that the film relied on the romanticized view of the Crusades propagated by Sir Walter Scott in his book The Talisman, published in 1825 and now discredited by academics, "which depicts the Muslims as sophisticated and civilized, and the Crusaders are all brutes and barbarians. It has nothing to do with reality." Paul Halsall defended Ridley Scott, claiming that "historians can't criticize filmmakers for having to make the decisions they have to make... [Scott is] not writing a history textbook".
Thomas F. Madden, Director of Saint Louis University's Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, criticised the film's presentation of the Crusades:
Given events in the modern world it is lamentable that there is so large a gulf between what professional historians know about the Crusades and what the general population believes. This movie only widens that gulf. The shame of it is that dozens of distinguished historians across the globe would have been only too happy to help Scott and Monahan get it right.
Scott himself defended this depiction of the Muslim-Christian relationship in footage on the DVD version of the movie's extra features. Scott sees this portrayal as being a contemporary look at the history. He argued that peace and brutality are concepts relative to one's own experience, and since contemporary society is so far removed from the brutal times in which the movie takes place, he told the story in a way that he felt was true to the source material, yet was more accessible to a modern audience. In other words, the "peace" that existed was exaggerated to fit modern ideas of what such a peace would be. At the time, it was merely a lull in Muslim-Christian violence compared to the standards of the period. The recurring use of "Assalamu Alaikum", the traditional Arabic greeting meaning "Peace be with you", is spoken both in Arabic and English several times.
The "Director's Cut" of the film is a four-disc set, two of which are dedicated to a feature-length documentary called "The Path to Redemption". This feature contains an additional featurette on historical accuracy called "Creative Accuracy: The Scholars Speak", where a number of academics support the film's contemporary relevance and historical accuracy. Among these historians is Dr. Nancy Caciola who said that, despite the various inaccuracies and fictionalized/dramatized details, she considered the film a "responsible depiction of the period."
Screenwriter William Monahan, who is a long-term enthusiast of the period, has said "If it isn't in, it doesn't mean we didn't know it... What you use, in drama, is what plays. Shakespeare did the same."
Caciola agreed with the fictionalization of characters on the grounds that "crafting a character who is someone the audience can identify with" is necessary in a film. She said that "I, as a professional, have spent much time with medieval people, so to speak, in the texts that I read; and quite honestly there are very few of them that if I met in the flesh I feel that I would be very fond of." This appears to echo the sentiments of Scott himself.
The historical content and the religious and political messages present have received both praise and condemnation. John Harlow of the Times Online wrote that Christianity is portrayed in an unfavourable light and the value of Christian belief is diminished, especially in the portrayal of Patriarch Heraclius of Jerusalem. When journalist Robert Fisk watched the film in a Beirut cinema, he reported that the Muslim audience rose to their feet and applauded during a scene in the film in which Saladin respectfully places a fallen cross back on top of a table after it had fallen during the three-day siege of the city.
The film was a box office disappointment in the US and Canada, earning $47.4 million against a budget of around $130 million, but did better in Europe and the rest of the world, earning $164.3 million, with the worldwide box office earnings totalling at $211,643,158. It was also a big success in Arabic-speaking countries, especially Egypt. Scott insinuated that the US failure of the film was the result of bad advertising, which presented the film as an adventure with a love story rather than as an examination of religious conflict. It's also been noted that the film was altered from its original version to be shorter and follow a simpler plot line. This "less sophisticated" version is what hit theatres, although Scott and some of his crew felt it was watered down, explaining that by editing, "You've gone in there and taken little bits from everything".
Unhappy with the theatrical version of Kingdom of Heaven (which he blamed on paying too much attention to the opinions of preview audiences, and conceding to Fox's request to shorten the film by 45 minutes), Ridley Scott supervised a director's cut of the film, which was released on December 23, 2005 at the Laemmle Fairfax Theatre in Los Angeles, California. The director's cut earned positive reviews, including a four-star review in the British magazine Total Film and a ten out of ten from IGN DVD. Empire magazine called the reedited film an "epic", adding, "The added 45 minutes in the director’s cut are like pieces missing from a beautiful but incomplete puzzle." One reviewer suggested it is the most substantial director's cut of all time and James Berardinelli wrote that it offers a much greater insight into the story and the motivations of individual characters. "This is the one that should have gone out," reflected Scott.
The DVD of the extended director's cut was released on 23 May 2006. It comprises a four-disc box set with a runtime of 194 minutes, and is shown as a roadshow presentation with an overture and intermission, in the vein of traditional Hollywood epic films like The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), and Doctor Zhivago (1965) during the heyday of the roadshow theatrical release. The first Blu-ray release omitted the roadshow elements, running at 189 minutes, but they were restored for the 2014 Ultimate Edition release.
Scott gave an interview to STV on the occasion of the extended edition's UK release, when he discussed the motives and thinking behind the new version. Asked if he was against previewing in general in 2006, Scott stated: "It depends who's in the driving seat. If you've got a lunatic doing my job, then you need to preview. But a good director should be experienced enough to judge what he thinks is the correct version to go out into the cinema."