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's 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."
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 20 seconds!
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 US$130 million "Kingdom,"
it falls into the nauseatingly formulaic, far from revelatory,
Hollywood might offer the definitive film about the Bubonic
Plague. Audiences can watch in minutes the five years during the
mid-14th century when one-third of Europe's population died of
excruciating pain. Imagine extreme close-ups of digitized, swollen
lymph glands and black, pus-loaded skin, alongside skeletal-looking
actors practicing Stanislavskian techniques for the camera on
movie captures only a sliver
of Saladin's essence, since the
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.
After a Hollywood
focus group critiques the film, the producers might add a Black
Death romance between two young, albeit endemic 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!
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?
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.
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 theater-goers 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).
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?
"Kingdom of Heaven" benefits from divine timing, especially in
the 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.
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 per cent increase in the violation of American Muslims' civil
rights in 2004 from the previous year, alongside a 52 per cent
rise in actual or planned hate crimes against Muslims ("Unequal
Protection: The Status of Muslim Civil Rights in 2005").
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
belly dancers, 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"
September 11, 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.
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).
watching "Kingdom of
To challenge Hollywood's status quo
aesthetic, I propose that studio
executives take a business gamble
and present Arabs and Muslims as
characters comparable to my
own family, who also experience love,
tragedy and life's other
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).
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.
This article originally appeared at the Counterpunch website Mar
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
two months working for the United Nations Development Programme
in Syria. She can be reached at: [email protected]