Crusades Dramatization Draws Religious Criticism

Kingdom of Heaven is director Ridley Scott's cinematic take on the violent time in history known as the Crusades. Scott's version focuses on the men who wanted peace, but some early viewers say Scott's film distorts both Muslims and Christians.

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Director Ridley Scott has brought some memorable films to the screen, including "Blade Runner" and "Gladiator." In his latest movie, "Kingdom of Heaven," Scott takes on a topic that has a special resonance in today's world, the Crusades. "Kingdom of Heaven" opens today and, as NPR's Lynn Neary reports, it's already been criticized for being historically inaccurate and offensive to Muslims and Christians alike.

LYNN NEARY reporting:

The list of Hollywood films about the Crusades is short and not particularly illustrious, says Paul Halsall, who teaches medieval history at the University of North Florida. Not only are most of them bad movies, says Halsall; they also tend to reinforce negative stereotypes about Muslims. For example, Cecil B. DeMille's 1935 film "The Crusades," which begins with the recapture of Jerusalem.

Professor PAUL HALSALL (University of North Florida): Muslims come in and they collect Christian women together, all with blond hair, and then they put them up for sale as in a slave market. So the Muslims are depicted as rapacious, sexually adventurous, pretty seedy.

(Soundbite of "The Crusades")

Unidentified Man #1: How much will you bid for this daughter of a Christian (unintelligible)?

Unidentified Man #2: Forty dinars.

Unidentified Man #1: Forty dinars, you say?

Unidentified Man #2: Forty.

Unidentified Man #1: Not enough!

NEARY: Given such depictions, it's not surprising that Muslims have been wary of the new Ridley Scott film "Kingdom of Heaven." When Dr. Khalid Abou El-Fadl, professor of Islamic law at UCLA Law School, was shown a script of the film in February, his worst fears were realized. El-Fadl says in the script, many of the scenes were inflammatory, even shocking.

Dr. KHALID ABOU EL-FADL (UCLA Law School): My concerns were that these scenes in a highly charged political environment--that these scenes will have an effect of direct incitement of violence against Muslims.

NEARY: But when El-Fadl actually saw the film, most of the scenes that worried him had been cut. Still, he says, he has continuing concerns about the stereotypes that are reinforced. With the exception of some fanatical leaders, says El-Fadl, Christians are seen as tolerant, humanistic and rational. Muslims, on the other hand...

Dr. EL-FADL: Muslims are mostly--where their theology is concerned, it's irrational and it's violent, and the only way that they become reasonable is to be like Saladin, sort of skeptical about their own faith.

NEARY: Saladin is the Muslim leader who recaptured Jerusalem from the Christians. It is the events leading up to this battle which form the basic plot of "Kingdom of Heaven." In the film, a young knight named Balian, part historical figure, part pure fiction, is the main defender of the city against Saladin's forces.

Professor JONATHAN PHILLIPS (London University): The biggest flaw is the fact that Balian of Ibelin, the hero of the thing, rejects Christianity. It's--a Crusader without his faith just is a non-starter in the 12th century.

NEARY: Jonathan Phillips is a professor at London University and author of "The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople."

Prof. PHILLIPS: He's a man who's very much a sort of a chivalric knight, and chivalry is a sort of a combination of courtesy, of justice and morality. But in medieval terms, it also includes sort of vows and a religious elements, too, and Ridley Scott has again cut that away. To my mind, it's a very sort of modern secular view of a good knight and a good man.

NEARY: Both Phillips and El-Fadl say a secular and modern perspective pervades the film and is perhaps nowhere more evident than in Balian's speech just before the Battle of Jerusalem. It is, they say, a speech that would have been impossible to make during the Crusades, when both sides were motivated by deeply held religious beliefs.

(Soundbite of "Kingdom of Heaven")

Mr. ORLANDO BLOOM: (As Balian of Ibelin) Which is more holy, the wall, the mosque, the sepulchre? Who has claim? No one has claim. All have claim!

NEARY: Director Ridley Scott says he never set out to make a film about the past which speaks to contemporary events.

Mr. RIDLEY SCOTT (Director, "Kingdom of Heaven"): There is no connection, but if you want to look at the connection, i.e., then and now, of course there are equivalents and parallels.

NEARY: The film, says Scott, is not a documentary, nor is it pure history. It is, he says, a fiction that is carefully interwoven with historical facts.

Mr. SCOTT: When you have a shortfall of actual factual information, you try and look into--Who said `God is in the details'? You look into the details, and usually human behavior, because what we're actually doing is we've done a lot of research, a lot of what I'd call sensitive speculation in terms of what could have happened, what might have happened.

NEARY: And, says Professor Paul Halsall, Scott is only doing what so many artists before him have always done when they take on history, no matter how charged the subject.

Prof. HALSALL: Film is an art form like painting or photography or poetry. It's a way of--if it's about the past, it's a way of meditating on the past. It's not a way of presenting a textbook view of the past.

NEARY: In so doing, says Halsall, Ridley Scott is participating in a long tradition. After all, he says, many in the West formed their own ideas about the Crusades not from history, but from fictional works like "The Talisman," written by Sir Walter Scott in the 19th century. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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