Crusade of Controversy; Ridley Scott's 'Kingdom' Flawed History

Article excerpt

Byline: Scott Galupo, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …