Hollywood on Crusade

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By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 1, 2005

PASADENA, Calif. It's Muslims against Christians, and right now the Muslims are winning. Great balls of Greek fire float through the night sky, then explode on the battlements of Jerusalem. Screaming Muslim attackers batter down a section of the city's wall. Howling Christian defenders hurl themselves into the breach.

Swords slash. Blood gushes.

Sir Ridley Scott has invaded the Middle East. Can this be a good thing for Western civilization?

On Friday, the British director's $130 million Crusader epic "Kingdom of Heaven" -- which previewed at Pasadena's Pacific Paseo theater last month -- is scheduled to open in about 8,000 theaters worldwide. In less troubled times, a violent costume drama set in 1187 might not seem any more relevant than, say, a fantasy trilogy set in the third age of Middle Earth. Yet after Sept. 11, 2001, and the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, historical antecedents of this kind of East-West conflict can feel extremely timely.

Five days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President Bush called for a "crusade" against terrorism. He was widely chastised for using a word that carries major negative connotations in the lands the original Crusaders set out to conquer.

Words matter -- but these days, pictures matter more. When it comes to shaping public understanding of the Crusading era and its legacy, the Hollywood version could have more impact than a thousand books. This is why, long before Scott had even finished his movie, it was being attacked by people who feared the fallout "Kingdom of Heaven" might produce.

They didn't always fear the same kind of fallout, though.

"It's Osama bin Laden's version of history. It will fuel the Islamic fundamentalists," the eminent Crusades historian Jonathan Riley-Smith of Cambridge University complained to the Telegraph in January 2004 after encountering some initial PR for the film.

"I believe this movie teaches people to hate Muslims," UCLA Islamic law professor Khaled Abou El Fadl told the New York Times in August after reading a script the newspaper had provided, which he saw as riddled with stereotypes.

Scott says he was "dismayed and irritated" by these attacks, especially Riley-Smith's. "How can a historian say that?" he complains. "That's like me being a specialist telling you you've got [bleeping] cancer and I haven't examined you."

Coming soon, then, to a theater near you: Hollywood meets history -- and the bloody 12th century meets the bloody 21st.

'In the Shadow of 9/11'

Ridley Scott's original idea wasn't to make a controversial Crusades film. He just wanted to make a movie about a knight .


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