Saturday, January 17, 2004

LONDON — Oscar-nominated director Ridley Scott was savaged by senior British academics yesterday over his forthcoming film, which they say “distorts” the history of the Crusades to portray Arabs in a favorable light.

The $135 million film, which stars Orlando Bloom, Jeremy Irons and Liam Neeson, is described by the makers as being “historically accurate” and designed to be “a fascinating history lesson.”

However, academics — including Britain’s leading authority on the Crusades, Jonathan Riley-Smith — attacked the plot of “Kingdom of Heaven,” describing it as “rubbish,” “ridiculous,” “complete fiction” and “dangerous to Arab relations.”

The film, which began shooting last week in Spain, is set in the time of King Baldwin IV (1161-1185), leading up to the Battle of Hattin in 1187, when Saladin conquered Jerusalem for the Muslims.

The script depicts Baldwin’s brother-in-law, Guy de Lusignan, who succeeds him as King of Jerusalem, as “the archvillain.” A further group, “the Brotherhood of Muslims, Jews and Christians,” is introduced, promoting an image of cross-faith kinship. “They were working together,” the film’s spokesman said. “It was a strong bond until the Knights Templar cause friction between them.”

The Knights Templar, the warrior monks, are portrayed as “the baddies” while Saladin, the Muslim leader, is “a hero of the piece,” Mr. Scott’s spokesman said. “At the end of our picture, our heroes defend the Muslims, which was historically correct.”

Mr. Riley-Smith, who is the Dixie professor of ecclesiastical history at Cambridge University, said the plot was “complete and utter nonsense.” He said it relied on the romanticized view of the Crusades propagated by Sir Walter Scott in his book “The Talisman,” published in 1825 and now discredited by academics.

“It’s rubbish. It’s not historically accurate at all. They refer to ‘The Talisman,’ which depicts the Muslims as sophisticated and civilized, and the Crusaders are all brutes and barbarians. It has nothing to do with reality.”

Mr. Riley-Smith added: “Guy of Lusignan lost the Battle of Hattin against Saladin, yes, but he wasn’t any badder or better than anyone else. There was never a confraternity of Muslims, Jews and Christians. That is utter nonsense.”

Jonathan Philips, a lecturer in history at London University and author of “The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople,” agreed that the film relied on an outdated portrayal of the Crusades and could not be described as “a history lesson.”

“The Templars as ‘baddies’ is only sustainable from the Muslim perspective, and ‘baddies’ is the wrong way to show it anyway. They are the biggest threat to the Muslims and many end up being killed because their sworn vocation is to defend the Holy Land,” he said.

Mr. Philips said that by venerating Saladin, who was largely ignored by Arab history until he was reinvented by romantic historians in the 19th century, Mr. Scott was following both former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and the late Syrian President Hafez Assad. Both leaders commissioned huge portraits and statues of Saladin, who was actually a Kurd, to bolster Arab Muslim pride.

Mr. Riley-Smith said Mr. Scott’s efforts were misguided and pandered to Islamic fundamentalism. “It’s Osama bin Laden’s version of history. It will fuel the Islamic fundamentalists,” he said.

Amin Maalouf, the French historian and author of “The Crusades Through Arab Eyes,” said: “It does not do any good to distort history, even if you believe you are distorting it in a good way. Cruelty was not on one side, but on all.”

Mr. Scott’s spokesman said that the film portrays the Arabs in a positive light. “It’s trying to be fair, and we hope that the Muslim world sees the rectification of history.”

Mr. Scott, 65, who was knighted in July last year, rose to fame with the movie “Alien,” starring Sigourney Weaver.

He followed it up with classics such as “Blade Runner”; “Thelma and Louise,” which won him an Oscar nomination in 1992; and in 2002, “Black Hawk Down” told the story of the U.S. military’s disastrous October 1993 raid on the Somalian capital, Mogadishu. In 2001, his film “Gladiator” won five Oscars, but Mr. Scott lost out to Steven Soderbergh for best director.

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