Newsworthy Citations: "Film on Crusades Could Become Hollywood's Next Battleground," NY Times, August 12, 2004


LOS ANGELES, Aug. 11 - With bloody images of Muslims and Westerners battling in Iraq and elsewhere on the nightly news, it may seem like odd timing to unveil a big-budget Hollywood epic depicting the ferocious fight between Christians and Muslims over Jerusalem in the Crusade of the 12th century.

But 20th Century Fox is planning a release next year for "Kingdom of Heaven," a $130 million production by the Oscar-nominated director Ridley Scott, shot in Morocco with hundreds of extras, horses and elaborate costumes. The script, by William Monahan, is based on real characters of the three-century Crusades, including Balian of Ibelin, a Crusader knight who led the defense of Jerusalem in 1187, and the Muslim leader Saladin, who defeated him.

While the studio has tried to emphasize the romance and thrilling action, some religious scholars and interfaith activists who were provided a copy of the script by The New York Times questioned the wisdom of a big Hollywood movie about an ancient religious conflict when many people believe those conflicts have been reignited in a modern context.

"My real concern would be just the concept of a movie about the Crusades, and what that means in the American discourse today," said Laila al-Qatami, a spokeswoman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington.

She added: "I feel like there's a lot of rhetoric, a lot of words flying around, with prominent figures talking about Islam being incompatible with Christianity and American values. This kind of movie might reinforce that theme in the discourse." Not all of the people contacted by The Times were worried about the film's effect. The Rev. George Dennis, a Jesuit priest and a history professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, who was one of five experts provided with the script for "Kingdom of Heaven," said he was impressed by its nuance and accuracy. "Historically I found it pretty accurate," he said. "I can't think of any objections from the Christian side. And I don't think Muslims should have any objections. There's nothing offensive to anyone in there, I don't think."

But Khaled Abu el-Fadl, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies Islamic law, vehemently disagreed, calling the screenplay offensive and a replay of historic Hollywood stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims.

"I believe this movie teaches people to hate Muslims," he said. "There is a stereotype of the Muslim as constantly stupid, retarded, backward, unable to think in complex forms. It's really annoying at an intellectual level, and it really misrepresents history on many levels." Mr. Fadl argued that the movie would reinforce negative attitudes toward Muslims in America. "In this climate how are people going to react to these images of Muslims attacking churches and tearing down the cross and mocking it?" he asked.

Aside from the movie's specifics, the subject is a fraught one. Even the word "crusade" remains loaded. When President Bush initially called the war on terror a "crusade" after the 9/11 attacks, he was criticized by some for using a term that has long had anti-Muslim overtones. Meanwhile some Islamic experts who analyzed Osama bin Laden's motives after 9/11 suggested that he was trying to cast himself as a modern-day Saladin. And Saladin's name was invoked by Saddam Hussein's government to rally Muslims against the American-led invasion of Iraq. Mr. Scott said he was not concerned about disturbing the sensitivities of any religious group. The film "sounds like a Boy Scout ethic," he said in an interview last week, adding: "It talks about using your heart and your head, being ethical. How can you argue with that? There's no stomping on the Koran, none of that."

For a movie about holy war, "Kingdom of Heaven" has surprisingly little religious oratory, or even religious content. The only overtly religious figures are extremists: marauding Knights Templar on the Christian side and murderous Saracen knights on the Muslim side. Balian, the hero of the film, played by the British actor Orlando Bloom, is a French blacksmith drafted reluctantly into the Crusade in the wake of his wife's suicide. Once in Jerusalem, where the world's three monotheistic religions are depicted as coexisting, he falls in love with the king's sister.

After a massacre of Muslims by the Knights Templar, Saladin, played by Ghassan Massoud, goes to war. This leader is depicted as balanced and chivalrous, at least until he orders that no quarter be given in the ransacking of Jerusalem.

Jim Gianopulos, co-chairman of the Fox studio, said he did not think the film would be a source of controversy. "We're thrilled to have Ridley making this movie,'' he said. "After all, he is the master of the modern epic, and this is a story rich in scale, adventure, romance and action with a superb cast led by Orlando Bloom. From what we've seen, it will be one of the most exciting movie events of 2005."

Executives at Warner Brothers read the script and declined to share the financing of the movie with Fox, but Alan Horn, president of Warner Brothers, said the refusal had nothing to do with the topic. He said the studio had other period epics on its slate.

"I thought it was balanced, with different political views," Mr. Horn said. "It wasn't black and white, good and bad."

Nonetheless the battle scenes in the script are vast and violent. One of Hollywood's most acclaimed directors, Mr. Scott has created indelible tableaus of battle in movies like "Gladiator" and "Black Hawk Down."

In its many scenes of devastation, the script shows intransigence on both sides. "Will you yield the city?" the victorious Saladin asks Balian. He replies: "Before I lose it, I will burn it to the ground. Your holy places. Ours. Every last thing in Jerusalem that drives men mad." Near the end of the film the script describes the Muslim army as advancing on Jerusalem. Saladin says: "Not one alive. Not one," as the advancing soldiers cry, "Allah!" The script reads: "As the Muslim army of thousands advances at a run, ready to kill the Christians at a single rush, Balian looks to his left in the shield wall. The Saracen knights fire a sky-blackening volley of arrows and charge, screaming 'Allah.' This is their chance; they will take Jerusalem at this rush and are not afraid of martyrdom."

The Muslim army is hacked to pieces, and a crane shot reveals "Saracens tangled with Europeans inside the breech in the wall," the script says. "Hundreds of dead; thousands perhaps.''

The two university scholars who read the script did not agree on its historical accuracy. Father George said that the 12th-century Crusader state was, as shown in the film, relatively tolerant, and that Saladin did in fact order his troops to give no quarter in the fighting in Jerusalem, an order he later rescinded.

But Mr. Fadl said the Crusader state was by its nature discriminatory and oppressive of other religions. He said that the Muslim knights took the idea of granting quarter very seriously, and that the notion that Saladin would thank Balian for teaching him chivalry, as the script had it, was laughable.

"Pick up any book on chivalry, it's exactly the opposite," he said. "The whole idea of knighthood and chivalry came from Muslims and was exported to Europe." He noted, as did Father George, that at the time of this Crusade, science and scholarship were far more advanced in the Islamic world than in Europe.

Of course for Hollywood, controversy isn't necessarily bad. Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ" found itself at the center of a firestorm when Jewish groups, angered by his violent depiction of the Crucifixion, complained the movie was anti-Semitic. It nonetheless earned $609 million worldwide.

Various Crusade-era scripts have sparked interest on Hollywood back lots for decades, notably one that was being developed by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1990's. Mr. Scott said he was asked to do that script and declined. "I wanted to do my own knight subject," he said, adding that he was studying the religious conflict when he and Mr. Monahan came up with the film's concept in 2002. "I try to make movies," Mr. Scott said. "I'm not a documentarian. When you've got 300 years to choose from, this was the most interesting conflict, which was a balanced one as well."

Whether moviegoers agree remains to be seen. "I think its going to cause a firestorm of criticism and free publicity in the op-ed pages," said Christy Lohr, the coordinator of the Multifaith Ministry Education Consortium in New York, an association of 12 theological schools.

"I imagine that's part of the appeal for Hollywood," said Ms. Lohr, who read the script. "It is cynical, but I think they enjoy stirring up a hornets' nest."

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