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.
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."
Mr. Scott, once an altar boy who now calls himself an agnostic, approaches God and faith in the film from a doubter's point of view. Balian is a pilgrim before he becomes a hero, and he embarks on the Crusade to "find forgiveness from God." By the time he reaches Jerusalem he tells his most trusted advisor: "I've lost my religion."
Balian's advisor and fellow knight, the Hospitaler (David Thewlis), provides the core of the film's religious theme when he defines faith by telling Balian: "Holiness is right action. . . . It's the decisions that you make every day."
The hero takes up a creed of right action and conscience, and the film commendably exalts the virtues of honor, chivalry, defending the helpless, and speaking the truth. But these Christian notions are removed from the context of biblical Christianity as man relies on himself for determining and doing what is right instead of looking to the Scriptures and relying on Christ's work. In fact, while the hero insists on fidelity in some areas, he follows his flesh in others, committing adultery with the wife of the future king.
Mr. Scott paints a vision of "the kingdom of heaven" as a peaceful world in which every man does what he thinks is right, and all beliefs are upheld as equally valid. The film's final line captures the likelihood of such a world: "The quest for the Kingdom of Heaven remains elusive."
Historical scholars in Ridley Scott's native England gave The Kingdom of Heaven less than rave reviews in the weeks leading up to its release. Jonathan Riley-Smith, one of Britain's leading authorities on the Crusades, called the film's plot "rubbish," ridiculous," and "complete garbage."
Thoughtful moviegoers with a reasonable understanding of the Crusades will find revisionist threads running through the film's plot and characterizations. But those same moviegoers will also find a film that's solidly acted and visually compelling, though often jarringly violent.
Orlando Bloom, the film's star, said he was eager to "step up and be a man" when he auditioned for the lead role in The Kingdom of Heaven. The 28-year-old Brit, just five years out of acting school, had already landed a string of major supporting roles, including Legolas in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Will Turner in Pirates of the Caribbean.
Mr. Bloom carries the burden of a lead role well, delivering a performance that is both disciplined and understated, and manages to pull off some of the film's more unrealistic moments with believable conviction. The supporting cast, including Liam Neeson and Jeremy Irons, turn in reliable performances, providing the film with needed weight. One of the film's most striking performances comes from Edward Norton, who plays the role of the leprous King Baldwin entirely from behind an eerie metal mask.
Mr. Scott, who also directed Gladiator, stages battle scenes that are both mammoth in scope and impressive in detail. The faint of heart should beware: The film's combat scenes are gruesomely bloody in places, earning the movie an R rating for "strong violence and epic warfare."
The real Crusades
The history of the Crusades is a saga of heroism and cruelty, unintended consequences and bad theology-but not simply imperialistic Western aggression against Muslims. Not only Palestine but Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, and North Africa-all part of the Christianized Roman Empire-were vibrant centers of faith and theology before the Muslims conquered them in a crusade of their own.
· Islam, born in Arabia in a.d. 600, spread by the sword. Jerusalem was conquered in 638. The conquest of Africa began in 647. Jihad invaded Europe in 712 with Muslims conquering Spain. Muslims moved into France, but Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours in 732 finally stopped them. Otherwise, the rest of Europe might also have fallen.
· In the 11th century Islam again gathered its military might. Eastern Orthodox Christians in what was left of the Byzantine Empire-centered at Constantinople-begged the Western church for help. Pope Urban II called the first Crusade in 1095. (There would be eight in all, the last in 1270.)
· The First Crusade won back Jerusalem and established intermittent European kingdoms in the Middle East. Eventually the Muslims defeated the Christians. From the beginning the Crusades were tainted. Frenzied mobs slaughtered thousands of Jews. Armies originally sent to protect the Byzantine Christians instead plundered them, even sacking Constantinople. When Jerusalem was finally taken, its whole population-Muslims, Jews, and Christians-was put to the sword.
· With the invention of indulgences, the medieval church motivated Crusaders. Those who fought the enemies of God were given passes from purgatory. Thus the Crusades were sold as holy wars, identical to the Islamic jihads.
· Muslims again attacked Europe just as Martin Luther was opposing salvation by indulgences. The Ottoman Turks conquered Greece, the Balkans, and Hungary, and besieged Austria. The Pope declared a defensive crusade. Luther, despite the threat to Christendom, opposed it. "All the pope accomplishes with his crusading indulgences and his promises of heaven is to lead Christians with their lives into death and with their souls into hell," he wrote. The Holy Roman Emperor dared not act against Luther. He needed the evangelical princes to help him throw back the Turks.
· Ex-Crusaders brought back to Europe the language and literature of the Greeks. This led to the Renaissance, the rediscovery of the Greek New Testament, and the unleashing of God's Word.
-Gene Edward Veith