Dances with Wolves for Muslims

Ridley Scott’s spring blockbuster

Ridley Scott’s medieval blockbuster Kingdom of Heaven has plenty of twenty-first century touches, but the retrospective public confessional is not one of them. If Scott’s Knights Templar Reynald de Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson), Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), and their fundamentalist legions had been wholly of this age, they would no doubt have described their thuggery in bestselling books, accompanied by appearances on a Crusader version of Oprah.

Take this contemporary version of Crusader narrative: “Capture bin Laden, kill him and bring his head back in a box on dry ice,” says former agent Gary Schroen, quoting his orders from the CIAs counter-terrorism chief as he prepared to enter Afghanistan. “And the rest of the lieutenants, you can put their heads on pikes.” Schroen deadpanned back to his boss, Cofer, “I think I can come up with pikes to put the heads of the lieutenants on, [but] dry ice, well have to improvise.” Apparently the spymaster boss wanted bin Laden’s head in a cardboard box “to show the president.” So far, so Hollywood.

Of course, it was President George W. Bush’s use of the word crusade five days after September 11 to describe the war on terror that outraged the Muslim and secular worlds, played into one of bin Laden’s longstanding themes, and fueled criticism of Bush’s marriage of church and state. The president was following a grand tradition of seizing upon the Crusades and their central characters for political purposes: Historians place the use of the term “new Crusade” to the end of the Ottoman Empire, and a French military governor is said to have proclaimed “Behold Salah al-Din, we have returned!” after World War I, referring to the Levant. On the other side, Saddam Hussein and Syrias Hafez Assad championed the Kurdish hero.

No doubt, this backdrop gave some grounding to the media campaign for Scott’s $130 million epic, as did reports that death threats were issued during the shoot in Morocco. Journalists hyped the sensitivity and timeliness of the project; by the time the film came out, audiences stepped into the cinema alerted to its historical potency.

And as is traditional with the outraged, many had honed their opinions before the film even finished shooting. Jonathan Riley-Smith, the renowned “Crusades expert” at Cambridge University, ensured himself instant quotability: “It’s Osama bin Ladens version of history,” he told London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper in January 2004, citing the films supposed depiction of Muslims as civilized and the crusader army as brutes, and basing his analysis on early versions of the script. “It will fuel the Islamic fundamentalists,” he added.

“It’s President Bush’s version of the Crusades,“ countered Khaled Abou el-Fadl, a professor of Islamic law at UCLA, a few months later. “It supports the movement in this country by conservative Evangelical Christians who believe Muslims should be grateful for the Crusades, just as they should also be grateful for Iraq and Afghanistan.” Others, presumably internalizing the fear factor, simply expressed their general unease about the airing of any project about the Crusades.

As the lunatic fringe of film website chat rooms quickly descended into rants about Islam and the Middle East, Twentieth Century Fox, the studio behind the film, was forced to act. The studio brought on board Grace Hills Media, a Los Angeles public relations firm with a history of marketing controversial films to Christian opinion-formers, to sell the film to religious groups ahead of its release.

Once the film actually premiered in May, most strident critics were forced to backtrack. Scott’s epic promoted an ideal of a tolerant multi-faith Jerusalem with almost evangelical zeal. The noble, urbane Salah al-Din (Ghassan Massoud) is goaded into war by Christian extremists; Balian and Imad (Salah al-Dins future chronicler) swap the greetings “Assalam alaykum” and “Peace be with you” with affable, knowing ease. Scott wasn’t prepared to dwell too much on politics, but at a London preview of the film reflected, “The clothes change and the weapons change…But people stay the same. And that’s the really disappointing thing.”

Abou el-Fadl was reportedly gratified that an angry Muslim mob scene had been dropped; Parvez Ahmed, on the board of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) was sympathetic to the film and curiously hoped that Kingdom of Heaven will do for Muslims what Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves did for Native Americans — humanize a perceived other. While some attempted to have a go at Scott’s obvious middle-of-the-road politics — ”Kingdom of Diplomats more like,” sniffed one Middle Eastern distributor — the film’s efforts to do the right thing politically meant that critics were forced instead to round on its inauthenticity.

True, the film does require a healthy suspension of belief, visibly in terms of the landscape — obviously non-Levantine to anyone who’s paid attention during the news. With Orlando Bloom’s character Balian of Ibelins leap from blacksmith to knight comes a sudden, exhaustive knowledge of war that almost matches that of brilliant tactician Salah al-Din; he struggles with his religion and flirts with agnosticism in a contemporary fashion. Scott freely admits that, when it came to Balian, he embroidered the historical figure for cinematic purposes — or, rather, sewed it almost from scratch.

Other historians go further, asserting that the whole concept of religious tolerance is redundant in a film about the Crusades — a charge strongly refuted by Scott. Scholar Hamid Dabashi, an Islamic history advisor on the film, believes that Scott was “after locating a common humanity beyond religious affiliation.” But he does so not despite peoples faith, but through it.

Dabashi is wary of loading a film like Kingdom of Heaven with heavy baggage. (After all, as Scott himself has said, “I try to make movies — I’m not a documentarian.”) “No one goes to see a film by Ridley Scott to learn about the historical nuances of the Crusades,” the academic and author told Bidoun, “as indeed no one goes to a historian of the Crusades to learn the craft of turning the existential anxieties of the age into a work of art.”

Indeed, the parts that cynical western hacks have decried as unrealistic, or simply too sentimental — such as at the end of the film, when Salah al-Din, taking control of a ransacked Jerusalem, bends to pick up a crucifix lying on the floor of a church — have been applauded in the Arab world.

In an interview with Bidoun, Syrian star Ghassan Massoud explained how the gesture came about: “The original plan was that I walked past. However, I spoke to Ridley and told him, Salah al-Din would never have left it there. He respected Christianity and Christians — many of those in his army were Christians, and so were several of his advisors. Ridley listened to me and agreed with my suggestion.” His reading of Salah al-Din as a statesman rather than a religious warrior — a political leader of an Islamic empire — fits snugly with Scott’s vision; the actor, not quite as on-message as Scott, compared the film directly to today’s politics. “Is there a victorious leader in this world today who starts a dialogue?” asked Massoud. “No, unfortunately there isn’t, and we all know who has the victory and the power, how he uses this power and how he abandons diplomacy and politics and uses grenades as means of dialogue. So, no, there isn’t a modern equivalent of Salah al-Din. And yes, we need more than one.”

For Massoud, the film is a “major step in the process of improving the image of Muslims and Arabs in the West…to this day [many people] see all Arabs as the nineteen people who carried out 9/11.” Dabashi sees Scott’s film as “one of the rare recent works in which a positive, and even affectionate, image of Arabs and their culture and history is quite evident. In one conversation between Salah al-Din and King Baldwin IV, or between Salah al-Din and Balian, or between Salah al-Din and Imad, you see far more dignity and complexity to their respective characters than is evident in the entire spectrum of the US media coverage of the daily news around the world.”

Indeed, perhaps it says something about the dearth of positive or meaningful Middle Eastern content in Hollywood films that this blockbuster flick has been seized upon as some kind of educational tool or historical document. Likewise the excitement caused by Ghassan Massoud’s role — a speaking one, no less!

Jack Shaheen, author of Reel Bad Arabs, a seminal study on the role of Arabs and Muslims in Hollywood films, believes that in spite of the prevailing ideology about Muslims and Islam, Scott made a noble effort to defuse hatred. “This,” he told Bidoun, “is especially pleasing as Scott has demeaned Arabs in his movies in the past — see Gladiator and GI Jane, for instance. They worked extremely hard to make sure that the Muslim world couldn’t point at Kingdom of Heaven and say, ‘Here you go again.’”

Critics have tended to agree that five years ago, whoever had been at the helm, the Saracens would have been portrayed differently. “Of course, if the film had made the Muslim characters onedimensionally bad, it probably would’ve been more successful in the US, as it would’ve played to people’s expectations and fears,” says Shaheen. (Fox International’s Tomas Jegeus has admitted that the film garnered more publicity, and better coverage of the themes and message of the film, internationally than in the US.)

Is the film indicative of some kind of positive trend in Hollywood? Shaheen believes that, post-9/11, there have been some subtle positive changes, but that the image of Arabs in Hollywood films is much the same. “I was a consultant on Three Kings, and I thought it was a major breakthrough, but one year later Hollywood gave us Rules of Engagement and it was a huge hit. What can I say?”