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Pluralistic Crusaders

Culture | The authentic costumes and set in the new Hollywood blockbuster Kingdom of Heaven all suggest the year 1186, but the philosophy behind the script screams 2005

Issue: "John Bolton: Take cover!," May 7, 2005

PASADENA, Calif. - When George W. Bush referred to the war on terror as a "crusade" less than a week after 9/11, critics balked, calling the moniker offensive to Muslims and destructive to Middle Eastern relations. The president's aides defended Mr. Bush, saying he used "crusade" as a synonym for struggle. The word never crept back into the president's public vocabulary. More than 700 years after the end of the European Crusades, the bloody, 200-year conflict between Christians and Muslims still proves a volatile subject, even when only alluded to.

Director Ridley Scott steps into the historical minefield this month with the release of The Kingdom of Heaven, a $130 million epic film set in the 12th century between the Second and Third Crusades. But Mr. Scott doesn't risk getting hit by any shrapnel. Instead the director plays it safe by skimming over reality and making a film that is both politically correct and historically revisionist.

The film follows the story of Balian (Orlando Bloom), a young blacksmith-turned-knight who joins Crusaders traveling to Jerusalem to defend the holy city against a looming Muslim invasion. A fragile peace exists between Christians led by King Baldwin IV (Edward Norton) and Muslims led by the legendary Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), but a new king will plunge the two groups into war.

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Though the film takes up one of the most controversial periods in religious history, Mr. Scott doesn't dwell on fleshing out the facts. The director instead uses the historical setting as a backdrop to produce generic themes about tolerance, faith, and peace that seem more suited for 2005 than 1186.

"I liked the idea of making a period piece that was also contemporary," Mr. Scott told WORLD. "This is not a documentary." The film takes liberties with history in part by making characters more idealistic than realistic. The crusading Balian gives speeches about tolerance and religious pluralism that were likely uncharacteristic of the average Crusader. Christians and Muslims form alliances that seem overly amicable for two groups engaged in a fierce war. According to Mr. Scott, the idea was that "the Muslim goes away a little bit Christian and the Christian goes away a little bit Muslim."

Nancy Caciola, a professor of medieval history at the University of California, San Diego, said the pluralism of Balian and other characters in the film would have been "relatively rare." "There are definitely simplifications in the film," she said.

The plot was "complete and utter nonsense," Jonathan Riley-Smith, a professor of ecclesiastical history at Cambridge University, told London's Daily Telegraph. "There was never a confraternity of Muslims, Jews, and Christians," he said.

The film's screenwriter, William Monahan, said he consulted primary sources in researching the film using translated firsthand accounts. Mr. Monahan did not list historians or outside experts as sources. The film's stars fended for themselves, doing their own research about their characters and the time period.

While the screenwriter did not insist on historical accuracy in crafting a script, the film's production staff did insist on painstaking accuracy in crafting a medieval world. Stunning visual details serve as the movie's most authentic feature.

"This was a massive, massive undertaking," said Sonya Klaus, lead set decorator. Ms. Klaus supervised two workshops in Spain and Morocco where dozens of workers handcrafted an enormous inventory of props: 900 pieces of horse tack, 400 pieces of camel tack, 3,500 tassels for hundreds of elaborate flags made from thousands of meters of fabric.

Simon Atherton, the film's weapons master, visited European museums to absorb details of the period's weapons. His department crafted some 10,000 spears, 5,000 swords, and "many, many shields." Mr. Atherton's crew also made a small leather pouch for every actor in the film, including some 2,000 extras. "Everybody wanted a place to carry their cell phones," he said.

The movie was filmed on location in Spain and in the extreme conditions of the Moroccan desert. The cast and crew constantly battled scorching heat and crippling sand storms. "It was like war, really, making this film," production designer Arthur Max said.

Some 2,000 extras trekked through the desert to form an army that Mr. Scott digitally enhanced to appear as 200,000. Set designers built a quarter-mile-long replica of Jerusalem in the desert, which was also digitally enhanced and enlarged.

The film's strangely modern characters seem out of place in the remarkably realistic medieval setting.

But Orlando Bloom told WORLD that the movie was more about today than yesterday, and that it preaches a message about modern-day conflicts. "We are all equal, no matter what our race, religion, or sexuality," Mr. Bloom said. "It's all about humanity. . . . Surely that's what God-whatever your God is-would say."

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