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 .
The director of "Alien," "Blade Runner," "Thelma & Louise," "Gladiator" and "Black Hawk Down" has reddish hair, a whitening beard -- he's 67 -- and, on this azure California morning, the resigned expression of a man who'd much rather be sweating it out on location in Morocco than trapped in a luxury hotel with the entertainment press.
Born in England in 1937, Scott says he grew up worshiping John Wayne and Charlton Heston. In art school he affected Gauloises cigarettes and got drunk on Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa -- artists who, he says, "don't just consider the material, they consider what light is on the tree in the background." With both Hollywood and alternative cinema as part of what he calls his "DNA," he has combined formula moviemaking with a rich, frame-packing visual style that's kept him in demand since his first feature, "The Duellists," appeared in 1977.
He always knew, he says, that he wanted to make films about what he calls the "iconic figures" so beloved of Hollywood: outsiders who "sit on the cutting edge of society" and develop their own special ethical codes. Cops, for example, or cowboys. Or those medieval dudes with the heavy-metal body suits and codes of chivalry.
In the fall of 2001, after some false starts, it finally started to happen.
Scott was working on a different project with screenwriter William Monahan when he raised the subject. "I said, 'What do you know about knights,' " Scott recalls, "and he said, 'In armor? Hard armor or chain mail?' " The director laughs. He knew he'd found his man.
This conversation occurred "in the shadow of 9/11," he says. He's sure his knight film would have happened with or without that cataclysm or the wars that followed it -- but he also says that 9/11, and the strong reaction to Bush's crusade remark, was part of the reason he decided not to put the word in its title.
It was still going to be set during the Crusades, however. This was Monahan's doing. The screenwriter had argued that these hard-fought holy wars would offer the most dramatic context in which to develop Scott's knightly hero.
But which Crusade? History gave them a lot of options.
The historical Crusades were varied and complex, and they're difficult for a modern nonspecialist to keep straight. The Crusading era began on Nov. 27, 1095, when Pope Urban II -- sketching a horrifying though largely fictional portrait of Muslim crimes against eastern Christians -- called for armed volunteers to perform an act of penance that would help them achieve salvation. They were to march to the aid of their Orthodox brethren in Constantinople -- who'd asked for help fending off the Seljuk Turks -- and, while they were at it, take back the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.
The end of the movement has often been dated to the fall of the last mainland Crusader bastion in the Middle East in 1291. Many historians find this definition too narrow, because it leaves out various later efforts, not to mention the closer-to-home Crusades proclaimed against assorted European pagans, heretics and political enemies of the papacy. But never mind all that: 20th Century Fox wasn't going to fund a Ridley Scott extravaganza on the Albigensian Crusade or the War of the Sicilian Vespers.
The filmmakers could have opted for the chaotic but triumphant First Crusade, which culminated in 1099 as Jerusalem fell to the Christian soldiers after 461 years of Muslim rule. A small problem: They'd have had to deal with the tendency of those pioneering Crusaders to slaughter European Jews on their way east, and with the brutal massacre of Jerusalem's Muslims and Jews after the Christian victory.
They could have gone for the Fourth Crusade, a wildly misbegotten venture that ended with the western Christian army fighting not Muslims in Palestine but Orthodox Christians in Constantinople (which they ruthlessly sacked). Or they could have picked the much-chronicled Third Crusade, in which England's King Richard the Lionhearted faced off against the legendary Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, better known as Saladin, the Kurdish-born leader who had recently united the Muslims of Egypt and Syria.
As it happened, however, Scott and Monahan settled on a dramatic period just before the Third Crusade, when the feuding Crusader barons of what had become known as the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem were forced to confront the growing power of Saladin. King Richard gets only a late cameo. The film's hero is Balian of Ibelin, a Latin Kingdom baron whose historical claim to fame is that he led the defense of Jerusalem against Saladin.
An unintended consequence of this choice was a charge by author James Reston Jr. that Scott, Monahan and Fox had appropriated portions of his 2001 book "Warriors of God," a popular history of the Third Crusade whose opening chapters highlight many of the same dramatis personae as the film. Reston's book experienced a spike in sales after 9/11 and was optioned by veteran producer Mike Medavoy of Phoenix Pictures. Medavoy, in turn, sent it to Scott, who was known to be interested in the topic.
Reston and his lawyers have threatened to sue.
Fox, Scott and Monahan have denied the charge. "There was no
infringement, period," Monahan wrote in an e-mail. "I've been familiar with the fall of the Latin Kingdom for thirty-odd years."
A more positive consequence of choosing this slice of history was that since Balian's was a name few moviegoers would know, the filmmakers could turn him into whatever kind of hero they chose. They turned him into Orlando Bloom, wielding a broadsword this time instead of the elfish bow he carried in "Lord of the Rings."
He also got a wholly fictional back story -- and a distinctly non-12th-century point of view.'I Put No Stock in Religion'
Balian is a man on a mission. A French blacksmith whose beloved wife has just committed suicide, he kills an evil priest who disrespects the dead woman, then heads for Jerusalem. He hopes to atone for both her sin and his, but, pilgrimage complete, his prayers go unanswered.
"It seems I've lost my religion," he tells a companion, a member of an order of fighting monks called the Hospitallers who serves as his spiritual guide.
"I put no stock in religion," the Hospitaller replies. "In the word 'religion' I've seen the lunacy of fanatics of every denomination before the will of God." Holiness, he explains, is to be found "in right action and courage on behalf of those who cannot defend themselves."
These are words to live by. Balian, who's been made a knight by now, aligns himself with the faction in Jerusalem that believes in coexisting peacefully with Muslims. In the small fiefdom he has implausibly inherited from his long-lost father, he rolls up his sleeves to help his combined Muslim, Christian and Jewish workforce make the desert bloom. When war breaks out and some poor folk are in danger of being overrun by Saladin's cavalry, he leads a seemingly hopeless charge to save them.
Oh, and he's in love with the Queen of Jerusalem, and she with him, but he refuses to allow her scummy warmonger of a husband to be killed so he can marry into the throne himself. Predictably, Saladin and the Latin Kingdom are soon at war, though Saladin -- played with craggy-faced gravitas by the Syrian actor and director Ghassan Massoud, who makes Bloom look about 12 years old -- has to be provoked into it.
What's wrong with this picture, from a historical point of view?
It's hard to know where to start. So let's begin with the good news.
"I think it does a very, very good job of presenting the material texture and look of life in the Middle Ages," says Nancy Caciola, who teaches medieval history at the University of California, San Diego, and whom Fox hired to come to Pasadena and talk with reporters. Caciola particularly likes the fact that Scott's Jerusalem is "dusty, filled with vendors, filled with animals and carts -- you know, not a pristine-looking place."
"Visually, it's stunning. The battle scenes looked great," says the University of London's Jonathan Phillips, author of "The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople," who recently was invited to see portions of the film and hear Scott hold forth about it.
And yet: "When he was giving the preview talk," Phillips says, "he put a great emphasis on the amount of research that went into it. I appreciate that to make a movie for a mass audience you have to take liberties -- but you should admit it."
The small and mid-size inaccuracies are numerous. To take just one example: "The love story is a non-starter," Phillips says. The real queen was devoted to her husband, who, while certainly no prize, wasn't the meatheaded ogre the film makes him out to be.
To be fair, Scott does admit some of these things. "We cheated a little bit," he'll say about a modest manipulation of chronology for dramatic purposes, or about a biographical inaccuracy in the way his movie ends. "I don't think anyone historically, really, except historians, cares."
He's probably right. But Caciola, Phillips and other historians with knowledge of the period care less about this level of historical misdemeanor than what they see as a series of felonies against the past.
Take the skeptical attitude that Bloom's character and the film as a whole display toward religion. "God will understand," Balian says at one point, "and if He doesn't, then He is not God." Says Caciola: "I just don't think that that is the way medieval people thought." As for what Scott describes as his hero's permanent descent into agnosticism, Saint
Louis University historian Thomas Madden will have none of it. In the Middle Ages, Madden says, losing faith in God would be seen as a form of insanity.
Take the multicultural paradise Balian and his allies are shown trying to build in Jerusalem. It's true that the city's Christian overlords permitted their Muslim subjects to worship freely, just as the Muslims had allowed Christians to do when Jerusalem was in their hands. But this was ruling-class pragmatism, nothing more. Tolerant religious pluralism as a value system is, in Caciola's words, "a post-Enlightenment construct."
Or take the film's portrait of a patient, beneficent Saladin who shares Balian's utopian dreams: "The major problem I have is Saladin," Phillips says. "Yes, he is an honorable man," as the film portrays him. But that hardly means he wants a permanent peace. If he doesn't expel the Christians, "he will lose all his support and backing and his political base."
Meanwhile, Khaled Abou El Fadl, the UCLA professor who attacked Scott's film, has filled his copy of the screenplay with scribbled comments about its take on Muslims. "Typical!" he writes of a scene in which an armorless Balian and an aggressive "Saracen knight" go one on one in the desert. And: "This image of tolerance is supposed to be Jerusalem under Christian rule?" And: "God!!! Typical view of every Muslim cleric!!"
This last comment refers to a fanatical mullah who particularly angers Abou El Fadl. "It's as if there cannot be a religious Muslim who is moral or representative of an ethical tradition," he says.
In the finished film, the mullah's role appears to have been reduced. ("Kingdom of Heaven" was cut from well over three hours to two and a quarter; Scott says the longer version will appear as a director's cut on DVD.) Some other things that bothered Abou El Fadl are gone entirely. Last week the Council on American-Islamic Relations announced its view that the film offers "a balanced and positive depiction of Islamic culture during the Crusades."
Still, Abou El Fadl's strong reaction points to the likelihood that some Muslims will see Scott's film through their own, radically different, historical lens.
Fair enough, you may think. But dig a little deeper and you'll turn up a paradoxical complication.
That Muslim lens is nowhere near as different as you would expect.
And here's where Crusades history -- and its relationship to 9/11 -- gets especially fascinating and strange.'Saladin, We Have Returned'
A year after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Cambridge's Jonathan Riley-Smith -- the early Scott critic who is perhaps the best-known living historian of the Crusades -- was invited to Virginia to lecture at Old Dominion University. He also spoke to analysts at both the FBI and CIA about Osama bin Laden's rhetorical use of the Crusades.
Riley-Smith went on to publish a version of his Old Dominion talk as "Islam and the Crusades in History and Imagination, 8 November 1898 -- 11 September 2001."
"One often reads that Muslims have inherited from their medieval ancestors bitter memories of the violence of the crusaders," he wrote. "Nothing could be further from the truth."
What actually happened, according to Crusades historians -- Riley-Smith's analysis draws in part on the work of Carole Hillenbrand of the University of Edinburgh, whose book "The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives" is the preeminent work examining the Muslim point of view -- is that after Muslims expelled the Crusaders, they mostly put this unpleasant episode behind them. If they did look back, it was with what Riley-Smith describes as "indifference and complacency." After all, they'd won -- big time. From their point of view, also, they'd faced far greater challenges, among them a frightful onslaught by the Mongol descendants of Genghis Khan.
In Europe, meanwhile, the Crusades stayed high-profile. They were romanticized by medieval chroniclers as the height of chivalry, derided by Enlightenment thinkers as gross religious intolerance, rehabilitated by 19th-century historians as glorious antecedents of nationalism and portrayed -- first with approval, then disapproval -- as the precursors of European colonialism. Through all this, the figure of Saladin became rooted in the European imagination as the worthiest and most chivalrous Crusader opponent, just as he is in "Kingdom of Heaven." In Damascus, by contrast, his tomb was allowed to decay.
Riley-Smith's mention of Nov. 8, 1898, refers to a remarkable manifestation of this contrast. On that day, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany "laid a satin flag and a wreath, with an inscription dedicated to 'the Hero Sultan Saladin' " on Saladin's grave, which he'd apparently had some trouble locating. He then paid to restore the tomb and included "another wreath, this time bronze gilt, and inscribed 'From one great emperor to another.' "
But the Muslim world's take on the Crusades was about to change. It began to look at these ancient wars through the European lens, and what it saw was: colonial oppression.
The head of the Ottoman Empire, which was rapidly losing territory to Europeans, responded by asserting that his foes were engaged in a new Crusade. World War I and its aftermath brought a renewed British and French presence in the old Crusader territories of Palestine, Lebanon and Syria -- "Behold, Saladin, we have returned," one French military governor proclaimed. The Crusade metaphor was picked up by Arab nationalists. Saladin was revived as an inspirational figure. Later in the century, he would be embraced by the likes of Syria's Hafez Assad and Iraq's Saddam Hussein.
Radical Islamists adopted the metaphor and extended it. They argued, Riley-Smith notes, that "any offensive, including a drive for economic or political hegemony, against Islam anywhere by those who call themselves Christians" was a form of Crusading, along with similar actions by surrogates such as the "Crusader state" of Israel. Such notions help fuel al Qaeda -- and are widely shared by moderate Muslims who wouldn't dream of initiating violence themselves.
"Since 9/11 I've done countless interviews," says Saint Louis University's Madden, and the interviewers often ask "how the Crusades 'created' the situation in the Middle East. My answer is: They had nothing to do with the current situation. But the recasting of the Crusades that came out of 19th-century colonialism -- that's what did it."
Current Muslim views on the Crusades are a form of "recovered memory," more than one Crusades historian says, and whether that memory is true or false, it's a potent one. Is it any wonder that a Hollywood Crusades movie -- any Hollywood Crusades movie -- looks to some like a cinematic stone hurled straight at a political hornet's nest?'Not a Documentary'
One picture. A thousand words. What, in the end, will "Kingdom of Heaven" add up to?
Whatever its intentions, Ridley Scott's knight movie cannot escape either the historical era in which it is set or the times in which it was made. It's likely to be seen as both a harmless Hollywood rendition and a dangerous provocation; as both historically evocative and historically obtuse. To a moderately neutral observer, it doesn't appear to be intentionally anti-anything, except religious fanaticism of all stripes. But as one of Fox's imported historical experts put it, the film is sure to be "interpreted by as many interpreters as there are."
Screenwriter Monahan agrees. "Movies are such high-voltage cultural events," he explains, "that they sometimes get people coming out of the woodwork to unleash programmatic rhetoric, irrespective of what the movie actually is." The film he and Scott made has nothing to do with 9/11, he maintains, and as for accuracy, well, Shakespeare modified history too: "What you use, as a dramatist, is what plays."
"This is not a documentary," another Fox expert, Columbia medievalist and film scholar Hamid Dabashi, warned the press in Pasadena. "This is a work of art."
Best, perhaps, to leave that for history to judge.
Still, if you talk long with Dabashi and others who've seen the film, one particularly striking sequence is likely to come up. It's also the only one that Scott -- the man with the Hollywood instincts and the visual DNA -- mentions when asked to name the most meaningful visuals in his film.
It begins up close and personal, in the midst of that desperate struggle to hold the breach in Jerusalem's wall. Orlando Bloom has lost his helmet -- as all stars do in such battles, lest their fans lose track of them among the grunting, bleeding masses -- and he's slashing away like a berserker, sometimes backlit, sometimes in slow motion.
But then Scott's camera gradually pulls us into the air above the shattered wall. We see the fighters shrink and the horizon expand. It's as if we've taken God's point of view, from which it is a great deal harder -- impossible, in fact -- to justify the savagery below.
"That clearly speaks for itself, right?" Scott says. "And that's where I think the visual is better than words."