Thursday, May 5, 2005

All Ridley Scott wanted to do was make a movie about a medieval knight. Like cops, cowboys and pirates, he thought knights were the kind of swashbuckling characters that make moviegoers giddy, like children. “This had nothing to do with the fact that I’m a knight,” Sir Ridley assures.

Now he’s embroiled in controversy that has historians, Christians and Muslims alike, taking potshots at him.

“It’s absolute [bunk],” the director of “Gladiator” and “Black Hawk Down” summarizes, his voice dripping with refined English disdain, during an interview at the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown earlier this week.

Mr. Scott’s little knight movie, of course, became the $130 million “Kingdom of Heaven.” (Reviewed on D4.) A sword-and-sandal epic penned by first-time screenwriter William Monahan, it stars Orlando Bloom as a French knight defending Jerusalem from Saladin’s Arab army in the third Crusade.

East versus West. Muslims versus Christians. A war over the Holy Land claimed by the world’s three major monotheistic religions: Is it any wonder emotions were hot well before the movie was even finished?

“I believe this movie teaches people to hate Muslims,” Khaled Abu el-Fadl, a professor of Islamic law at UCLA, told the New York Times in August. “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.”

Months before that, Jonathan Riley-Smith, an ecclesiastical professor and Crusades expert at Cambridge University, had the opposite take. “It’s Osama bin Laden’s version of history,” he told London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper in January 2004. “It will fuel the Islamic fundamentalists.”

Is it possible that in provoking such mutually exclusive reactions, “Kingdom of Heaven” gets things just about right?

Mr. Scott believes his is a “balanced” take on a knotty, centuries-long epoch of history. Plus, he stresses, “It’s a movie, not a documentary.”

The Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) agrees, saying in a statement: “Bucking the general trend, ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ provides a balanced portrayal of a painful historical conflict. It refrains from the usual stereotyping or dehumanizing of Muslims.”

While his goal was balance, Mr. Scott admits the movie has a point of view: Religious fanaticism leads to pointless slaughter. (In our interview, Mr. Scott tells a story about opening the lid of a tin of bait while fly-fishing. The image of all those “pink, wriggling maggots” consuming one another stuck with him as he filmed “Kingdom’s” battle scenes.)

Also, that Christians started it.

“I think we did,” Mr. Scott says, referring broadly to Western Christendom and echoing conventional 20th-century wisdom that the Crusades (a succession of battles and skirmishes running from 1095 to 1291) began as an act of Christian aggression — namely Pope Urban II’s order to take back Jerusalem from Muslim Turks.

But that question — who started it? — isn’t so simple.

After all, Thomas F. Madden points out, Muslim armies, by the time of the Crusades, had taken over two-thirds of the Christian world, including lands such as Syria and Turkey, the heart of the early church. Mr. Madden, a St. Louis University historian and author of “A Concise History of the Crusades,” says Christians were fighting a defensive war, just as church creedalists said at the time.

Mr. Scott responds with realpolitik: “That’s like saying the Indians have a right to take back the United States, and Australia belongs to the Aborigines. You may be right. …Go ahead and try.”

Fair enough, but the movie’s imbalance extends beyond the schoolyard-scuffle question of who started it. (I say this as a fan of Mr. Scott, who conveyed obvious admiration for American Marines in “Black Hawk Down” and, during our talk, expressed sympathy for the Bush administration’s quandary about how best to respond to September 11.)

Christians clearly bear the brunt of Mr. Scott and Mr. Monahan’s anti-clericalism. Christian priests are depicted as doltish dogmatists, while the Kurdish warrior Saladin (played by Ghassan Massoud) is written as a sort of pluralist ahead of his time.

No wonder CAIR was so pleased.

And just who preserved Saladin’s memory? Europeans, not Muslims, contends Mr. Madden, recalling that Syrians couldn’t locate the great hero’s tomb when Kaiser Wilhelm II sought to visit it in 1898.

“He took back Jerusalem,” Mr. Scott insists. “That had to have been noticed at the time.”

Similarly, Mr. Bloom’s Balian, a real historical figure about whom little is known, is given a fictional story arc in which he renounces Christianity for a tolerant agnosticism. Given that public atheism, such as that of German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, didn’t emerge in Europe until the 18th century, this is somewhat hard to swallow in a movie set in the 12th. (Anyway, Mr. Madden asks, “Why would you go off on a Crusade because you lost your religion?”)

As spectacle, “Kingdom of Heaven” is as good as it gets — what we have come to expect from Ridley Scott. As history, it’s shabby. It ransacks the past to editorialize about contemporary fundamentalism.

Modern Muslims’ unceasing recriminations about the Crusades notwithstanding, Islam emerged the victor from the long struggle. “They went on to much greater power and wealth after they were over,” Mr. Madden says.

At best, the West slowed the advance of Islam with the Crusades, which were a net drain on European blood and treasure.

Why, then, are the Crusades still a sore spot for some Muslims? Because they need something on which to pin the blame for their failure to keep pace with the modern West. They’ve ransacked the past to assuage present anxieties.

And they’re not making a movie. What’s their excuse?

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