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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 April 2005, 14:33 GMT 15:33 UK
Film-maker defends Crusades epic
By Neil Smith
BBC News entertainment reporter

Kingdom of Heaven, a $130m (69m) epic directed by British film-maker Sir Ridley Scott, has its US premiere in Los Angeles on Thursday.

Orlando Bloom in Kingdom of Heaven
Orlando Bloom plays Balian, a young blacksmith turned crusader
But it has already attracted criticism for its recreation of the 12th Century battle for Jerusalem between Christian crusaders and the Muslim leader Saladin.

With films like Blade Runner, Gladiator and Black Hawk Down, Sir Ridley has taken audiences on epic journeys into space, the past and the future.

But his latest project has uncomfortable resonances in the present, probing as it does the roots of the Middle East conflict and evoking parallels with the US-led campaign to depose Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

"Battles raging in wind-whipped deserts, ancient cities under siege and civilians cowering... Doesn't it sound like recent news from Iraq?" wrote Alan Riding in the New York Times this week.

Given that topicality, he continues, "is this really a good time to show warring Christians and Muslims as entertainment?"


Other Crusades experts go further. Dr Khaled Abou El Fadl, professor of Islamic law at the University of California, believes the film promotes the idea of "a civilisational showdown between Islamic and Christian culture".

"In my view, it is inevitable that there will be hate crimes committed directly because of it," he told the Herald newspaper.

Ask the director himself, however, and he defends his work to the hilt.

Ridley Scott and Orlando Bloom
Scott (left) previously directed Bloom in Black Hawk Down
"I showed the film to one very important Muslim in New York, a lecturer from Columbia, and he said it was the best portrayal of Saladin he's ever seen," says the 67-year-old veteran.

"The characters portrayed in the film are so important in Muslim culture that I knew we had to do it absolutely properly and correctly.

"Saladin is second only to Mohammed in the Arab world. He was a great man and leader - a general, a politician and a religious icon."

Scott's words are supported by Ghassan Massoud, the Syrian actor chosen to play the role.

"Saladin fights battles, but he also enters into dialogue," he said. "We want to show that dialogue can be much better than war."

However, some critics believe the film goes too far in its attempts to portray the Muslim side sympathetically.

In the film, the "Kingdom of Heaven" in Jerusalem ultimately collapses under a fiery assault from Saladin's vastly superior forces.


But this only comes about after severe provocation from rogue Christian knights appalled by the religious tolerance preached by the saintly king Baldwin IV.

Saladin is seen sparing Jerusalem's Christian defenders and uprighting a fallen crucifix.

King Baldwin IV, played by Edward Norton
King Baldwin IV is played by an uncredited Edward Norton
In an earlier scene, he is also shown offering medical assistance to his Christian opponent.

"Baldwin died of virulent leprosy at 25," says Scott. "It's rumoured Saladin found this out and had one of his doctors visit him.

"It's easy to say these two must have had a mutual respect for one another, so I speculate there was some kind of connection between the two."

But some believe this view of Saladin has more to do with his depiction in Sir Walter Scott's 1825 novel The Talisman than recorded historical fact.

One academic, Cambridge professor Jonathan Riley-Smith, has dismissed the story as "Osama bin Laden's version of history", claiming it will "fuel the Islamic fundamentalists".

And another Crusades expert, University of London lecturer Dr Jonathan Phillips, believes Saladin was "rather more hard underneath" that his "soft-focus" portrayal in the film.

Scott, however, is unrepentant. "Because we're constantly rewriting and re-examining history, you have to say that to a certain extent it is up to intelligent conjecture."

And it is conjecture that has found favour in at least one quarter, with the Council on American-Islamic Relations declaring the film to be "a balanced and positive depiction of Islamic culture during the Crusades".

Kingdom of Heaven is out in the UK on 6 May.



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