“Yon duh is duh cassle of my fodda?” proclaimed Tony Curtis in “The Black Shield of Falworth,” informing audiences that during the Medieval days, warriors spoke with a Brooklyn accent. Fifty one years later, Hollywood has again demonstrated its proclivity for Middle Ages movies. In recent years, actors with Curtis’ quality of articulation have splashed blood on the silver screen in “Camelot,” “Excalibur,” “First Knight,” “Braveheart” and of course, the anti-Hollywood “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
What other period in world history offers filmmakers the chance to toss in elegantly armored knights on horseback and fair-haired (and well made up) maidens who swoon at the feet of the heroes? Modern “bang bang” action flicks lack the drawn-out battle scenes enhanced by intricate swordplay, ax fighting and flying arrows launched by thousands of extras. Medieval epics, however, seem to justify the overuse of the Special Defects departments who specialize in staging the oozing of unnaturally thick blood, which editors inter-cut with shots of ruby-encrusted golden chalices and panoramas of imposing fortresses. All that in twenty seconds!
Director Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven” doesn’t delve deeply into the causes of the Crusades, peoples of two continents engaging in wholesale bloodshed and destruction. In 1095, the zealous Pope Urban II called on Christians to reclaim Jerusalem from “the kingdom of the Persians, an accursed race” (according to Robert the Monk, Historia Hierosolymitana). However, this latest film does reveal in 145 minutes a five centuries-long war of aggression that grew out of religious fanaticism-not Islam, by the way. For all the initial press surrounding the $130 million “Kingdom,” it falls into the nauseatingly formulaic, far from revelatory, big-budget picture.
Next year, Hollywood might offer the definitive film about the Bubonic Plague. Audiences can watch in minutes the five years during the mid-fourteenth century when one-third of Europe’s population died of excruciating pain. Imagine extreme close-ups of digitalized, swollen lymph glands and black, pus-loaded skin, alongside skeletal-looking actors practicing Stanislavskian techniques for the camera on their deathbeds!
After a Hollywood focus group critiques the film, the producers might add a Black Death romance between two young, albeit edemic starlets, who make love without popping each other’s boils-as a cello-heavy soundtrack steers the viewers to proper emotions.
20th Century Fox’s “Kingdom of Heaven” brings us back to the 12th Century, and a soul searching journey of Balian of Ibelin, a blacksmith turned knight. Played by the heartthrob Orlando Bloom, our hero experiences a crisis of faith following his wife’s suicide. His previously unknown father, Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), bestows him with a title and Balian journeys to the perilous Holy Land in search of an elusive “better world.” We feast our eyes on a National Geographic journey à la “Lawrence of Arabia” of boundless, curvaceous golden deserts. Along the way, Balian notices “exotic” veiled Islamic women and men prostrating in prayer. Eventually, as the movie’s website summarizes, Balian “serves a doomed king [the leprous King Baldwin IV], falls in love with an exotic and forbidden queen [Sibylla, a romance exemplifying Hollywood’s creative licensing to spice up actual history] and rises to knighthood.” Whew!
Scott utilizes oceans of extras wearing intricately designed costumes with emblems of the Crescent and Cross. The costumes help us distinguish the manpower advantage on the battlefield of the Kurdish Saladin’s Saracen forces, over the comparatively smaller force of Frankish armies defending Jerusalem, joined by Balian.
Bloom’s Balian, however, pales when sharing screen time with Saladin, played by the Syrian actor/director Ghassan Massoud. His strong jaw, penetrating dark eyes and commanding statesman presence dominate the movie. Saladin re-conquers Jerusalem in 1187 after theatergoers watch and almost sniff the smoke-filled, gruesome reenactment of the Battle of Hittin.
While “Kingdom” doesn’t imply that one side employed more violence than the other, it does highlight Saladin’s talents as a diplomat. The film shows his adroit negotiating skills rather than portraying him as simply a power hungry man of war. Saladin assures Balian upon his surrender that all Christians will have safe passageway to worship in Jerusalem. In truth, according to Amin Maalouf, author of The Crusades through Arab Eyes, on the day that Saladin entered the Holy City on October 2, 1187, “his emirs and soldiers had strict orders: no Christian, whether Frankish or Oriental, was to be touched. And indeed, there was neither massacre nor plunder” (p. 198-199, Schocken Books).
The movie captures only a sliver of Saladin’s essence, since the corporate-controlled studios apparently don’t believe that an Arab can carry a picture. But we do witness a generous man who mobilized Arabs and Muslims to fight for Jerusalem. Indeed, rather than seeking vengeance or gold, a greater, idealistic objective emerges: creating a united Islamic community where other faiths could also coexist in peace. Ultimately, Saladin personified leadership, that rare quality noticeably absent in modern day Arab and Muslim political circles.
How, I asked myself after seeing the film, would Saladin have responded to the new affronts on Islam, or conversely, the state of leadership in the Arab States? Would he have rolled over in his grave after hearing Saddam Hussein or Osama Bin Laden invoke his name when declaring their intentions to defend Islam from Western invaders? Could he have even conceived that Tikrit, his birthplace, would become known as part of what US forces in 2003 dubbed the “Sunni Triangle,” in response to Iraqi resistance to foreign occupation?
Minimally, “Kingdom of Heaven” benefits from divine timing, especially in light of the persistent tensions between Israelis and occupied Palestinians. President George W. Bush didn’t exactly win the hearts and minds of Muslims when he called the prevailing war on terrorism a “crusade,” followed by launching the US invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq to further justify his alarming word choice.
Muslims watching “Kingdom of Heaven” in Damascus, where Saladin is buried and which faces Washington’s wrath and threats to invade, might well ask: “Is Bush the equivalent of Pope Urban II? Are we facing new Crusades?” Such questions resonate with five Muslim US citizens detained in December 2004. US authorities “interrogated, fingerprinted, and photographed [them] at the Buffalo-Canadian border as they returned home from an annual Islamic conference in Toronto” (The Council on American-Islamic Relations, CAIR). Concurrently, in a report released by CAIR on May 11, 2005, the organization found a 49% increase in the violation of American Muslims’ civil rights in 2004 from the previous year, alongside a 52% rise in actual or planned hate crimes against Muslims (“Unequal Protection: The Status of Muslim Civil Rights in 2005”).
Hollywood standards have always reflected US policy. So, it’s hardly surprising that studio-backed films typically depict Arabs and Muslims as dark-haired sheiks, characters named Aladdin or Muhammed, or as bellydancers, oppressed women, terrorists or members of families with terrorist connections (as seen on Fox TV’s drama, “24”). “Kingdom of Heaven,” however, presents moments that break the stereotype, exemplified by Balian’s simplistic observation: “How similar their [Muslims] prayers are to ours.” The camera zooms in on a respectful Saladin picking up a cross from the ground instead of desecrating it. Hopefully, by depicting the tolerant, humane aspects of the Islamic faith, Scott will help counter the Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly “Islam is the problem” smut.
Following September 11th, Islam also got hijacked by the dastardly deeds committed by some fanatics. Indeed, 9/11 opened the racist door for mainstream media ideologues like Coulter, who says “Arabs lie” (Time Magazine, April 25, 2005) and spews generalizations about “Islamic terrorism,” as though the two words are interchangeable.
Coulter’s toilet-tongued disciple, the very blonde Debbie Schlussel, panned “Kingdom of Heaven” for being too soft on Muslims at the expense of Christians. Quoting one of the film’s Christian crusaders, who declares, “To kill an infidel is not murder. It’s the path to Heaven,” Schlussel continues: “Gee, I know a religion that proclaimed and practiced that from time immemorial through today-and it’s not Christianity. Hint: It begins with an “I,” ends with an “M,” and has an “S-L-A” in the middle” (“Kingdom of Heaven: Bin Laden’s Slanted Crusade Movie,” May 5, 2005, http://www.debbieschlussel.com/columns/050505p.htm).
Because the film does not propagate Schlussel’s “Muslim vs. Christian” version of events, U.S.-based organizations like the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and CAIR have praised “Kingdom of Heaven” for its “balanced portrayal of the Crusades.” However, it’s not historically or aesthetically sufficient that Scott doesn’t fall into the crude stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims. The very epistemology of “Kingdom” suggests Western “superiority.” Lebanese academic Asad Abu Khalil’s website states: “I was … most unhappy, when the hero of the movie [Orlando Bloom’s Balian] … took over his estate, and with typical Western ‘genius’ taught those inferior Arabs how to dig for water, as if they had not been doing that for centuries” (Reuters, May 9, 2005).
To challenge Hollywood’s status quo aesthetic, I propose that studio executives take a business gamble and present Arabs and Muslims as contemporary, multi-dimensional characters comparable to my own family, who also experience love, tragedy and life’s other dramatic offerings. Muslim families whose lives do not revolve around juicy terrorism subplots live in Los Angeles, Sioux Falls or Aleppo, just like other humans. Granted, viewers of such a film might get bored without choreographed bloodshed amplified by digital surround sound at the local movie theater, but to quote the reoccurring battle cry in “Kingdom of Heaven,” I have a feeling that “God wills it.” We don’t need a war to find out.
FARRAH HASSEN, a Political Science graduate from Cal Poly Pomona University, was the associate producer of the 2004 documentary, “Syria: Between Iraq & And A Hard Place,” with Saul Landau. She recently spent 2 months working for the United Nations Development Programme in Syria. She can be reached at: FHuisClos1944@aol.com