LOS ANGELES – In these uneasy times, you’d think a Hollywood epic about the Crusades would spark a major revival of hard feelings over the medieval religious wars in the Middle East.

Yet Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven” is hitting theaters in comparative quiet, without the sort of uproar provoked by President Bush’s post-Sept. 11 “crusade” gaffe or Mel Gibson’s crucifixion saga “The Passion of the Christ.”

There were uneasy rumblings among Arab groups that obtained an early treatment of the script a year or so ago. They found the film potentially fraught with stereotypes about 12th century Muslims fighting Christians for control of Jerusalem, negative images that might have inflamed anti-Muslim sentiment.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee was among those worried groups, but half a dozen members came away greatly relieved after a “Kingdom of Heaven” screening arranged for them by Scott.

“It’s one of the better representations of Muslims we’ve seen out of Hollywood,” said Laila Al-Qatami, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based group. “We thought that he did a good job tackling a potentially volatile subject and avoided doing a simplified, stereotyped story of Muslim vs. Christian.”

The Crusades ebbed and flowed over a 200-year period starting in the 11th century as European knights traveled to the Mideast, proclaiming they were doing God’s work in trying to reassert Christian rule in the Holy Land.

Pragmatic motives

Behind the supposed religious compulsions were more pragmatic motives. Land, wealth and personal glory all drove the Crusades. Europe’s leaders also sought to give knights squabbling among each other a common enemy to fight. Muslims were easy targets.

Scott said he deliberately chose a time of anxious truce between the Second and Third Crusades, a period when Christians controlled Jerusalem under dying leper King Baldwin IV, who ruled it as an open city for those of all faiths.

Muslims were rallied behind the wise general Saladin, whose restraint and diplomatic savvy maintained the relative tranquility between Arabs and Christians.

The film centers on an educated young French blacksmith, Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom), questioning his faith amid grief over his wife’s death. The father he never knew, a Crusader knight (Liam Neeson), recruits Balian to accompany him back to Jerusalem and take up the family trade.

There, Balian is caught up in a soap opera of chivalry, betrayal and romance involving Baldwin (Edward Norton), his sister (Eva Green), her power-hungry husband (Martin Csokas), an honorable knight (Jeremy Irons), the high-minded Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) and a bloodthirsty European warrior (Brendan Gleeson) whose atrocities rekindle Muslim passions to drive out the Christians.

Called on to lead the defense of Jerusalem against a Muslim siege, Balian earns the respect of friend and foe alike and comes to realize the fallacy driving the Crusades, the “perception of taking back what is ours, when in fact, as we say in the film, it isn’t actually ours. It’s everyone’s,” Scott said.

“Kingdom of Heaven” ends with a bit of text recapping the centuries of strife in the Middle East following the Crusades.

“It’s so relevant today,” Bloom said. “The last caption of the movie is, a thousand years later, we’re still doing the same thing, still fighting one another over the same religious divides, and Jerusalem is still in conflict. It’s like: When are we going to learn?”

Scott said he never worried the film would rankle Arabs because he aimed for historical accuracy and consulted Muslim scholars to present a balanced portrait. Still, the mere notion of a Crusades film in a post-Sept. 11 world seemed as though it would be asking for trouble.

The word “crusade” itself remains a loaded term. In September 2001, Bush stoked resentment among Muslims when he described his campaign against terrorism as a crusade. Bush said later through a spokesman that he regretted using the word “crusade,” which invokes images of religious wars against Muslims.

“I would have figured sight-unseen a Crusades movie would create an outcry. It does surprise me that it hasn’t,” said Josh Stein, a history professor at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island whose areas of interest include the Crusades. “I can’t account for it necessarily except by my assumption that everyone else assumes it’s politically correct and levelheaded and will not be offensive to religious groups.”

The film serves as a counterpoint for Hollywood portraits of Muslims as religious zealots. After the demise of the Soviet Union deprived Hollywood of a ready source of communist bad guys, Arab terrorists became an easy substitute as the heavies in action films.

Revered as a unifying figure among Muslims, Saladin presents a stately, upstanding portrait for U.S. audiences accustomed to Hollywood stereotypes of Arab villains,

“I think Muslims will be extremely proud and happy, because they’re seen as noble, chivalrous characters,” actress Green said. “Especially in this Crusade, the Arab people behaved in a more noble way than the Christian people. Saladin was such a great character. He was the hero of his time.”

Al-Qatami of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee said the only faults her group found with “Kingdom of Heaven” were small historical inaccuracies, changes made to beef up the movie’s drama and romantic subplot involving Bloom’s and Green’s characters.

“At the end of the day, we’re happy,” Al-Qatami said. “I think it’s a fair picture of cultural and religious relations of the time.”


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