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New Epic Film <i>Kingdom Of Heaven</i> Revisits Historical Christian-Moslem Battle

A chapter in the history of the Crusades - the 200-year struggle over the Holy Land between opposing armies of European Christian knights and Arab Moslems - is vividly brought to life in an epic film by Oscar-winning director Ridley Scott. Alan Silverman has a look at Kingdom Of Heaven.

Set eight centuries ago, Kingdom Of Heaven follows the exploits of Balian, a young French blacksmith drawn into the Crusades when he learns his father is a knight and veteran of battles for Jerusalem.

"Ultimately, he's on a journey of spiritual discovery," Blooms explains.

Orlando Bloom, a matinée idol thanks to The und this character's motivation deeply spiritual, though not necessarily religious.

"He goes on a journey of spiritual discovery," explains Bloom. "He meets his father who gives him an opportunity to leave his homeland to find and live in a new world; but I think he's a man who suddenly assumes all this responsibility that he wasn't expecting and wasn't looking for. All he's really trying to do is find answers to some of the bigger questions in life, which is 'why?' and 'how do I cope with this?' In the process he gets knighted, which means he has to live by the code of the knight and I think Balian follows that code all the way to the end ... to the last.

He still questions his religion and 'why;'" the actor adds, " he still has a big question mark over his head, but he's a pretty morally upright and upstanding kind of guy."

Many true events are depicted in Kingdom Of Heaven, especially the decisive battle in which the legendary Moslem leader Saladin and his Saracen armies recapture Jerusalem. However director and producer Ridley Scott admits taking dramatic license.

"As a dramatist, I've got to make decisions with the writer and it's always a trade-off: shall we do this or that? We agonize over it," explains the producer. "None of this stuff happens easily. The man who surrendered Jerusalem to Saladin was Lord Balian of Ibelin; but (he) was kind of obscure. Very little was known of him. Therefore, everything back from that, right to the very beginning, is fiction."

Nancy Caciola is associate professor of history at the University of California, San Diego and an expert on medieval Europeans. She takes the filmmakers to task for taking liberties with the view of liberty - especially religious attitudes - prevalent in that time.

"I think the film, in a lot of ways, has a very interesting presentation of the material culture of the Middle Ages," she says. " I mean the texture of life, the way that the city looks dusty, the way the clothing is represented: the whole texture of life, I think, is very well done. However, I think the movie is also trying to appeal to modern sensibilities in a way that it must and it is presenting or emphasizing a more tolerant version of interfaith dialog that I think is not the dominant viewpoint in the Middle Ages. In point of fact, I think the idea of religious pluralism is really quite a modern one."

Filmmaker Scott, however, insists that Kingdom Of Heaven is not a metaphor for today's Middle East conflicts. Having shot part of the film Morocco (using members of that nation's military in his battle scenes), Scott says he was keen to be fair in the depictions of both sides in the struggle.

"I think you can look at almost any point in history and find a counterpart for today. So you can look for that, but I'd rather not make it that neat," he says. "I was right into this anyway before 9/11. I did Blackhawk Down before 9/11, so I was fascinated already with the Middle East, which has a beautiful culture. I've been there three times to make movies and this last time, remember, I'm making this film with, on average, 1800-2000 Moslems every day. The king had read the script and approved.

The international cast of Kingdom Of Heaven includes Liam Neeson as Balian's father, Sir Godfrey; Jeremy Irons is the Christian king's trusted adviser, Tiberias; and Syrian film star Ghassan Massoud plays the legendary Saracen leader Saladin.