| (From left) Eva Green, Ridley Scott and Orlando Bloom
Ridley Scott's new blockbuster, Kingdom of Heaven, could hardly be more topical. It shows Muslims resisting Christian invaders, battles raging in wind-whipped deserts, ancient cities under siege and civilians cowering.
Ok, so all this screen mayhem is meant to be happening more than eight centuries ago, but doesn't it sound like recent news from Iraq'
Well, the movie is not meant to show that Christians and Muslims have been at one another's throats for centuries. Rather, by dwelling on the extended, turbulent holy war known as the Crusades, Ridley said he hoped to demonstrate that Christians, Muslims and Jews could live together in harmony ' if only fanaticism were kept at bay.
To that end, for all the furious battle scenes in Kingdom of Heaven, Scott and screenwriter, William Monahan, have tried to be balanced. Muslims are portrayed as bent on coexistence until Christian extremists ruin everything. And even when the Christians are defeated, the Muslims give them safe passage to Europe.
'It's actually about doing the right thing,' said Scott, 67, whose screen combat experience includes directing 1492: Conquest of Paradise, Black Hawk Down and Gladiator. 'I know that sounds incredibly simplistic. It's about temptation and avoiding temptation. It's about ethics. It's about going to war over passion and idealism. Idealism is great if it's balanced and humanitarian.'
If so, the Crusaders got a few things wrong. From 638 AD, when Muslims first occupied Jerusalem, both Christians and Jews were permitted to visit their holy sites. Then, in 1095, responding to an appeal from the Byzantine Christian Church in Constantinople, Pope Urban II organised the First Crusade to liberate Jerusalem. Four years later, those crusaders seized the city, massacring almost all its inhabitants in a bloodbath invoked to this day.
Seven more crusades were waged, bringing European monarchs, lords, knights and their armies of devout followers to fight ' and settle ' in an area stretching between what is today Syria and Egypt. The Muslims responded with their own sporadic jihads until finally, by 1291, the Christians had been driven out.
It's hard not to wonder, is this really a good time to show warring Christians and Muslims as entertainment'
'I think it's the perfect time for the movie, because it doesn't paint one side or other as being the goodies or the baddies,' insisted Jeremy Irons, one of several actors who appear as crusaders. 'It just shows human nature getting in the way of possible peaceful coexistence. I don't think it will anger either side. I think it will make both sides think.'
Of course, the backers of Kingdom of Heaven, 20th Century Fox, are hardly in the business of offering $140-million lessons in history and morality. The film focuses on a particularly dramatic moment between the Second and Third Crusades, when the Muslims retook Jerusalem. This real history is wrapped in a fictional love story and presented as a rich spectacle of costumes, horses, swords and endless desert.
The facts are that during a period of relative peace, Baldwin IV, the young king of Jerusalem, again opened the city to all faiths. But after his death in 1185, militant Knights Templar began attacking Muslim desert convoys. In response, the legendary Muslim warrior Saladin, leading an army of 200,000, laid siege to Jerusalem. Balian of Ibelin, the Christian knight who surrendered the city on October 2, 1187, is the movie's hero.
Little is known about the real Balian. Played by British actor Orlando Bloom, Balian is handsome, loyal, brave and the perfect match for King Baldwin's stunning sister, Sybilla, played by French actor Eva Green (The Dreamers). Their clandestine love blossoms, but everything else soon falls apart. In the final confrontation with Saladin, played by veteran Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud, Balian gives up, as huge boulders and balls of fire batter the walls of Jerusalem.
'He ultimately surrenders Jerusalem to Saladin to save the lives of the people,' said Bloom, 28. 'The conduct of the knight is: be brave that God may help thee; speak the truth even if it leads to your death; and safeguard the helpless. That is the oath, and he follows it to the bitter end.'
Still, there is a political message, one that Green, 24, interpreted with characteristic French directness. 'It's a movie with substance. It's very clever and brave, and I hope it will wake up people in America.' To what' 'To be more tolerant, more open towards the Arab people,' she said.
Well, it wasn't exactly what Scott had in mind, but why not'