Were you not close enough to a Great King to see how to imitate one ? — Saladin
Ridley Scott belongs to a category of blessed directors who have the talent of combining visually stunning cinematography with a great art of storytelling. A true craftsman, he loves nothing more than “creating worlds” as he often reiterates in his interviews.
Having worked in commercials for the first half of his career Sir Scott (recently knighted by Queen Elisabeth II) stunned the film industry with his first feature film The Duelists an epic set at the time of the Napoleonic wars starring Harvey Keitel and Kieth Carradine. This first film earned its director an Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1977. Ever-since shooting this critically acclaimed cult film, Scott has not stopped pushing the boundaries of creativity, from sci-fi's like Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982) to historical epics like Gladiator (2000) (which successfully renewed the “sword and sandals” genre very much ignored by the film industry since the 1960's).
Scott strikes again by setting his next film Kingdom of Heaven in Medieval Europe and Palestine at the time of the Crusades. The challenge of adapting the Crusades to the Big screen has been on Scott's agenda for more than 20 years. Originally the rights to the story were bought by Arnold Schwarzenegger who was to produce and star in the film after gaining fame with successful medieval vehicles in the 1980's based on the Conan the Barbarian franchise. Production was postponed however and Schwarzenegger finally abandoned the rights of the original screenplay to Scott.
Conventional filmmaking wisdom experience holds that Epics are probably the most difficult type of movie to direct. The pay off at the box office is always in doubt (consider Troy and Alexander) and making them is no picnic. The difficulty resides not only in the logistics involved as well as the risky budgets but in conciliating an intimate narration interweaved within a larger historical scale. This is rarely accomplished with success. William Whyler's Ben Hur (1959) or Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1962) are certainly the two best examples which come to mind of success in this genre. The scripts for these films were based on two successful novels written respectively by General Lew Wallace and Howard Fast. As for Medieval History, one of the best Hollywood productions is Anthony Mann's El Cid on the Spanish Hero Rodrigo Diaz who unified Spain against the Muslim invasion in 1099 A.D.
Scott's $135 million film was shot in Spain and Morocco and depicts a 12th century Muslim-Christian battle for Jerusalem during the Third Crusade. Produced by 20 th century Fox Kingdom of Heaven is an epic adventure about a common man (Orlando Bloom) who finds himself thrust into a decades-long war. A stranger in a strange land, he serves a doomed king, falls in love with an exotic and forbidden queen Sibylla (Eva Green), and rises to knighthood. Ultimately, he must protect the people of Jerusalem from overwhelming forces — while striving to keep a fragile peace. The film spins out a clash of personalities, cultures, regions and religions. What fascinates Scott this time is the pure, severe code of the knight. “The knight was the cowboy of that era,” he says . “He carried with him degrees of fairness, faith and chivalry — right action.”
The movie, which is due to open May 6th, has already stirred some controversy. Some religious figures and academics are concerned that a film about the Crusades, a term once used by US President George W Bush to describe the war on terror, will fuel the idea of an intractable clash of civilizations between East and West. They say it could fuel animosity towards Islam in the West and heighten suspicions of the West in the Muslim world.
Five scholars of various faiths, given a copy of the script by the New York Times , reached opposite and predictable conclusions. The Catholic thought it was fair; the Muslim cried foul. Whatever the truth of the film, it's bound to provoke extreme reactions at a particularly sensitive time. “I'm a moviemaker, not a documentarian,” Scott says. “I was brought up on Ingmar Bergman, and in � The Seventh Seal' and � The Virgin Spring', he brilliantly touched on areas where you can talk about religion without any discomfort. I try to hit the truth. We try to show both sides in a very balanced light. We employed Muslim actors in three major roles. Ghassan Massoud, who plays Saladin, is a Muslim scholar, and he was very happy with the balance.”
In Scott's movie, Saladin, the Muslim leader is “a hero of the piece”. Interestingly Saladin is one of very few figures of the time of the Crusades that has managed to be positively described in both Western and Eastern sources. Born in Tikrit in Iraq as a son of the Kurdish chief Ayyub he is famous for having recaptured Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187. All through his career he used mainly Kurdish officials as his closest partners.
As for other characterizations, the script also depicts King Baldwin's brother-in-law, Guy de Lusignan, who succeeds him as King of Jerusalem, as “the arch villain.” A further group, “the Brotherhood of Muslims, Jews and Christians,” is introduced, promoting an image of cross-faith kinship. The Knights Templar, also known as the warrior monks, are portrayed as “the baddies”. As for the plot in this movie, “At the end of our picture,” Says Scott, our heroes defend the Muslims, which was historically correct.” .
Paradoxically it is precisely this version of the Crusades that is criticized by both Western and Eastern scholars and historians. Mr. Riley-Smith, the Dixie professor of ecclesiastical history at Cambridge University, called the plot “complete and utter nonsense.” He said it relied on the romanticized view of the Crusades propagated by Sir Walter Scott in his book “The Talisman,” published in 1825 and now discredited by academics. Jonathan Philips, a lecturer in history at London University argues that by venerating Saladin, Scott is following both former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and the late Syrian President Hafez Assad. Both leaders commissioned huge portraits and statues of Saladin, who was actually a Kurd, to bolster Arab Muslim pride. Mr. Riley-Smith adds, “Mr. Scott's efforts were misguided and pandered to Islamic fundamentalism. It's Osama bin Laden's version of history. It will fuel the Islamic fundamentalists. Amin Maalouf, the French historian and author of “The Crusades Through Arab Eyes,” (See below) said: “It does not do any good to distort history, even if you believe you are distorting it in a good way. Cruelty was not on one side, but on all.” However Massoud, the Syrian actor who portrays the Muslim Leader, points out that “Saladin fights battles, but he also enters into dialogue. We want to show that dialogue can be much better than war.”
Scott counters critics by saying “We are trying to be fair, and hope that the Muslim world sees the rectification of history. It's a serious look at the subject and the fascinating things about these two parallel religions which come into conflict. It is not a hack-and-thrust with a lot of sword fighting.” As for Orlando Bloom, the film's Star defended his director at the British Independent Film Awards: “Ridley wanted it to be historically tenable. He even took the script and the storyboards to the Moroccan government to get an Islamic government's official seal of approval on the nature and content of the film. He wanted to tell the story without all the inaccuracies that would offend the Muslim world. It is amazing that such a successful film-maker can show such levels of humility.
Despite the inevitable controversy and necessary debate it could generate Kingdom of Heaven nevertheless promises to be a spectacle supported by a talented cast including Orlando Bloom (certainly the Errol Flynn of his generation), Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, and Eva Green. The stunts and amazing digital effects enabling the visualization of spectacular battles should complete the entertainment.
Kingdom of Heaven will be released on May 6th 2005 Worldwide and awaits the public's verdict.
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Authors Notes: Computer Graphics have immensly increased the possibilities of visualizing sets in a cost effective way. Also stunts involving a cast of thousands as in the classic epics are today reduced to several dozen stuntsmen who perform different movements which are captured by captors set on their bodies. The movements are then reproduced on a computer model for each stuntman. The models thus generated graphically are then multiplied giving the illusion of an army fighting on the battlefield. Not only is this technique cost effective avoiding the use of an entire army of extra's in the battle scenes but it also minimizes the use of dangerous stunts which often cost the lives of men and horses in epic films of the 1960's. In the Kingdom of Heaven not all sets are digital but partially digital – that is sets were partially constructed for real and then completed by photocomposition. Also in other cases production used existing Medieval Castles such as that of Loarre in Spain. Computers don't always replace authenticity �