Award-winning director of "Gladiator" brings the Crusades and an Arab hero to the screen in "Kingdom of Heaven," but does he get it right?
By Ramsay Short
Daily Star staff
LONDON: "It is better to live in peace together than to perpetuate war. It sounds simple but we don't seem to be able to manage it today," Ridley Scott, who was knighted for his services to the British film industry in 2003, explains during an interview after a partial screening of his latest film in the VUE multiplex cinema in London's Leicester Square.
"That's what "Kingdom Of Heaven" is about, the journey of a boy becoming a man without ever losing his integrity."
On the screen behind Scott, a vast column of Christian soldiers is on the march, the Knights Templar, about to do battle with the great Muslim army of Saladin in the Holy Land of the late 12th century.
It is a magnificent sight but inevitably one which is likely to draw much comment in the days and weeks running up to the movie's release in May - and much comment after - not least because of the parallels with events in the Middle East today.
Then Frankish King of Jerusalem, Baldwin IV, did battle with Saracen leader Saladin, who led Muslim armies from Damascus. Today the Syrian capital is once again finding itself under fire from the West as well as from people in the region itself - not least from many Christian descendants of the Crusaders themselves in Lebanon and the born-again Christian, U.S. President George W. Bush.
"History always resonates with where we are today," says Scott, "but none of this film was predetermined [to coincide with contemporary events]."
Still, movies do not exist in isolation and any film whose backdrop is the Crusades - a brutal period of time in the Middle East region where European Christians fought the "heathen infidel occupying the land of Christ's birth" - is bound to be problematic.
Scott, though, is confident. "We were very careful to think it through,"he says, while the film's producers say they hope the film's central message of peace before war, love before hate, will resonate today.
It would be unfair to bill "Kingdom of Heaven" as a battle between Islam and Christianity or East and West. It is more an attempt to depict a fictional heroic tale at a time when, prior to the battle of Hattin in 1187 won by Saladin before he took Jerusalem, (and shown in the movie), the Muslims and Christians coexisted in peace under the rule of two remarkable leaders, both of whom held an abiding respect for each other.
"Look, this film is about living by an unshakeable code of ethics and honor. And it also demonstrates that true goodness is about listening to your head and heart and deciding to do the right thing every day," Scott argues.
The film's story follows the trials and tribulations of Balian of Ibelin (played by in-vogue heartthrob Orlando Bloom), a common man of extraordinary conscience who rises to knighthood and embarks on a life-changing journey to find peace and a better world. That better world is the Holy Land.
"It follows Balian's spiritual search and he achieves greatness through courage, fairness and selfless action," Scott says.
Which sounds not unlike his last epic "Gladiator," in which Russell Crowe played a Roman general who loses everything, only to regain his honor and save Rome for the people.
"'Kingdom of Heaven's' message is pure: that it is better to discard the world - money, position, power - than to endanger one's own integrity. Balian lives by these ideals and is willing to die for them," Scott continues.
"My screenwriter Bill Monahan spent a lot of time consulting with Muslim historians and scholars of the time, not least because accuracy is so important in a historical film.
"Obviously, then, we were concerned with the character of Saladin and getting it right because he is such an important figure in Muslim culture."
Whereas in the past the part of Saladin might have been played by a heavily made up Laurence Olivier for example, Scott made the wise choice of casting Arab actors in the primary Muslim roles, all of whom are key figures in the film.
Syrian actor and a well-known star in the Middle East Ghassan Massoud takes on Saladin, while his closest adviser is played by Egyptian actor Khaled al-Nabaoui. Nabaoui has worked in numerous films directed by his famous compatriot Youssef Chahine.
"Casting Saladin was one of the hardest things to do," Scott says. "Ghassan was cast out of Damascus, and Khaled out of Egypt. I had to watch hundreds of shows from Syria and Egypt - many of which incidentally were very good and sophisticated."
Scott portrays Saladin as a character of great integrity - he is not a bad guy. In fact the "bad guys" of the film are (we don't see much of them in the clips Scott shows), "the extremists of both sides, Christian and Muslim," those who hate each other and want war at any cost.
These are the two Crusader knights Reynald de Chatillon and Guy de Lusignan who provoke Saladin into battle by raiding Muslim caravans, and Saladin's adviser who counsels destruction of the Christians and the recapture of Jerusalem - which comes toward the end of the film when Saladin lays siege to the city.
Despite Scott's protestations that Muslims and Islam are portrayed in a positive manner, there are some who disagree.
Khaled Abu al-Fadl, a Kuwaiti-born professor of Islamic law and history at the University of California in Los Angeles, who saw a shooting script of "Kingdom Of Heaven" in 2004, told the April edition of Empire movie magazine: "The Western characters are fully formed human beings, reflecting the whole gamut of human feeling. On the Muslim side, everyone apart from Saladin is portrayed as a mindless machine, maniacally screaming 'Allahu akbar' (God is greater)."
Fadl continues that the key Islamic figure in the film, Saladin's religious adviser, preaches hate, extremism and massacres, not true Islamic law: "Saladin is torn between being a 'good Muslim' and being human. 'Muslim' meaning being evil."
The professor says that this is a typical portrayal of an enlightened Muslim who wants to do what's right but is forced to do evil by his religion - Islam.
But Scott argues that his Saladin, historically based, did find himself in a position where he had to placate extremists.
"He was a great man, a pragmatist and a strong and logical leader. Saladin practically invented chivalry," an admiring Scott says.
Fadl also argues that the film's story portrays the Crusaders as more tolerant than the Muslims - which historically was not the case.
"In reality, as far as the Crusaders were concerned, they were fighting infidels, pagans and people who were not human, and an Arab Christian was viewed to be as much a pagan as a Muslim."
Scott, however, is dismissive, arguing that the bad Crusaders portrayed in the film are worse than the Saracen enemy.
"You know I showed the final film to an important Muslim in New York and he loved it. He called it the best portrayal of Saladin he had seen," he says.
That man was Dr. Hamid Dabashi, Professor of Hagop Kevorkian Iranian Studies at New York's Columbia University.
Scott recounts that Dabashi said: "The world is bleeding and you've chosen a moment where the wound was cast [the Crusades], and you try to show the story of staunching the blood with peace and respect and love."
Of the "Kingdom Of Heaven" footage seen by The Daily Star in London, most was of the hero, Bloom, and the other stars - including Liam Neeson, Edward Norton, Eva Green and Jeremy Irons. But there was one scene where Saladin is portrayed briefly on the battlefield, looking magnificent and regal as played by Massoud. Nothing indicated a particular bias. Yet until the film is released in full in May it will be impossible to determine the level of controversy.
At least it will bring the acting talents of Massoud and Naboui to a global audience and perhaps draw more attention to the beauty and chivalrous nature of Islam at a time when America's and Hollywood's view is far from positive.
For Scott, ultimately it's all about the stupidity of people and the evil bred by hatred.
"People don't change that much, do they? The clothes change and the weapons change. The weapons even shift into weapons of mass destruction - a machine gun is a weapon of mass destruction as opposed to a sword. But people stay the same. And that's the really disappointing thing."
Copyright (c) 2005 The Daily Star