Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven: Propaganda Film?

This page examines the action film Kingdom of Heaven, directed by Ridley Scott, and asks the question: has it intentionally been given a pro-Muslim slant that contradicts historical facts?

Think of this site as a resource; it is not intended to be an essay or article focused on a single theme. Instead, you will find on this page dozens of hard-to-find links, many surprising facts, little-known details about the film and a bit of analysis. But as for "answers" -- I'll let you draw your own conclusions.

(Thanks to JohnConnor, Nancy, and William for help with info and links.)


The Controversy Begins

The controversy over this film was first revealed in this eye-opening article in the British newspaper The Telegraph in January of 2004. In it, highly respected historians are quoted as saying the film is "complete fiction" and "panders to Osama bin Laden":

Sir Ridley Scott, the Oscar-nominated director, was savaged by senior British academics last night over his forthcoming film which they say "distorts" the history of the Crusades to portray Arabs in a favourable light.

The 75 million film, which stars Orlando Bloom, Jeremy Irons and Liam Neeson, is described by the makers as being "historically accurate" and designed to be "a fascinating history lesson".

Academics, however - including Professor Jonathan Riley-Smith, Britain's leading authority on the Crusades - attacked the plot of Kingdom of Heaven, describing it as "rubbish", "ridiculous", "complete fiction" and "dangerous to Arab relations".

The film, which began shooting last week in Spain, is set in the time of King Baldwin IV (1161-1185), leading up to the Battle of Hattin in 1187 when Saladin conquered Jerusalem for the Muslims.

The script depicts Baldwin's brother-in-law, Guy de Lusignan, who succeeds him as King of Jerusalem, as "the arch-villain". A further group, "the Brotherhood of Muslims, Jews and Christians", is introduced, promoting an image of cross-faith kinship.

"They were working together," the film's spokesman said. "It was a strong bond until the Knights Templar caused friction between them."

The Knights Templar, the warrior monks, are portrayed as "the baddies" while Saladin, the Muslim leader, is a "a hero of the piece", Sir Ridley's spokesman said. "At the end of our picture, our heroes defend the Muslims, which was historically correct."

Prof Riley-Smith, who is Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Cambridge University, said the plot was "complete and utter nonsense". He said that it relied on the romanticised view of the Crusades propagated by Sir Walter Scott in his book The Talisman, published in 1825 and now discredited by academics.

"It sounds absolute balls. It's rubbish. It's not historically accurate at all. They refer to The Talisman, which depicts the Muslims as sophisticated and civilised, and the Crusaders are all brutes and barbarians. It has nothing to do with reality."

Prof Riley-Smith added: "...There was never a confraternity of Muslims, Jews and Christians. That is utter nonsense."

Dr Jonathan Philips, a lecturer in history at London University and author of The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople...said: "The Templars as 'baddies' is only sustainable from the Muslim perspective..."

Dr Philips said that by venerating Saladin, who was largely ignored by Arab history until he was reinvented by romantic historians in the 19th century, Sir Ridley was following both Saddam Hussein and Hafez Assad, the former Syrian dictator. Both leaders commissioned huge portraits and statues of Saladin, who was actually a Kurd, to bolster Arab Muslim pride.

Prof Riley-Smith added that Sir Ridley's efforts were misguided and pandered to Islamic fundamentalism. "It's Osama bin Laden's version of history. It will fuel the Islamic fundamentalists."

...Sir Ridley's spokesman said that the film portrays the Arabs in a positive light. "It's trying to be fair and we hope that the Muslim world sees the rectification of history."...

This article was noted briefly in the blogosphere (most notably on Dhimmi Watch, and a short but funny parody of the script by Blogger Ben Kepple, who tossed a Buddhist into Scott's "nonsensical" religious Rainbow Coalition), but the film was still a year and a half away from release at that point, so there was otherwise little comment in the media.


"Every last thing in Jerusalem that drives men mad"

Thus it seemed right off the bat that the film was made to support the Muslim point of view. So -- what was the reaction of modern-day Muslims who had an early peek at the script? Not quite what Ridley Scott might have hoped for: an article in the August 12, 2004 New York Times (which is no longer available online at their site, but which you can read here) contained some rather surprising quotes from Muslim spokespeople, considering that the film was made specifically to appeal to them.

First off is Laila al-Qatami, who had a knee-jerk reaction to the mere "concept of a movie about the Crusades," which to her is beyond the pale just on general principles:

While the studio has tried to emphasize the romance and thrilling action, some religious scholars and interfaith activists who were provided a copy of the script by The New York Times questioned the wisdom of a big Hollywood movie about an ancient religious conflict when many people believe those conflicts have been reignited in a modern context.

"My real concern would be just the concept of a movie about the Crusades, and what that means in the American discourse today," said Laila al-Qatami, a spokeswoman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington.

She added: "I feel like there's a lot of rhetoric, a lot of words flying around, with prominent figures talking about Islam being incompatible with Christianity and American values. This kind of movie might reinforce that theme in the discourse.''

(One has the feeling that Ms. al-Qatami didn't even bother to read the script; she knew pre-emptively that it was unacceptable.)

The Times then tries to reassert the film's group-hug dhimmi status with a quick quote from a cooperative priest who says exactly what they want to hear:

The Rev. George Dennis, a Jesuit priest and a history professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, who was one of five experts provided with the script for ''Kingdom of Heaven,'' said he was impressed by its nuance and accuracy. ''Historically I found it pretty accurate,'' he said. ''I can't think of any objections from the Christian side. And I don't think Muslims should have any objections. There's nothing offensive to anyone in there, I don't think.''

Not so fast, George! UCLA professor Khaled Abu el-Fadl has plenty to complain about, despite your protestations and despite Scott's attempt to present Muslims as heroes and the Christians as villains:

But Khaled Abu el-Fadl, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies Islamic law, vehemently disagreed, calling the screenplay offensive and a replay of historic Hollywood stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims.

''I believe this movie teaches people to hate Muslims,'' he said. ''There is a stereotype of the Muslim as constantly stupid, retarded, backward, unable to think in complex forms. It's really annoying at an intellectual level, and it really misrepresents history on many levels.''

Mr. Fadl argued that the movie would reinforce negative attitudes toward Muslims in America. ''In this climate how are people going to react to these images of Muslims attacking churches and tearing down the cross and mocking it?'' he asked.

Later in the article, Ridley Scott grovels even lower, and tries to point out to his Muslim critics that he's done everything he can to excise any anti-Muslim bias:

Mr. Scott said..." There's no stomping on the Koran, none of that."

But towards the end of the article, the author Sharon Waxman accidentally hits the nail on the head: the film is not so much anti-Christian as it is anti-religion:

The only overtly religious figures are extremists: marauding Knights Templar on the Christian side and murderous Saracen knights on the Muslim side.
In its many scenes of devastation, the script shows intransigence on both sides. "Will you yield the city?" the victorious Saladin asks Balian. He replies: "Before I lose it, I will burn it to the ground. Your holy places. Ours. Every last thing in Jerusalem that drives men mad."


Death Threats

While the war of words was going on back in England and the US, over in Morocco where the movie was being filmed, the Muslim critics expressed the disapproval of Kingdom of Heaven a little more directly.

According to Canadian film magazine Tribute, the filmmakers received bomb threats during filming:

While on location in Morocco the production company even received bomb threats from Islamic extremists.

And according to this Wikipedia article about Ridley Scott:

In 2004, while on location in Morocco during the filming of Kingdom of Heaven, a movie about the Crusades, Scott reported receiving death threats from Islamist extremists.

Could these threats have influenced Scott -- consciously or unconsciously -- to cave in to the Muslims' demands and alter the film's viewpoint, either during filming or later during production?


"About as PC as You Can Get"

Faced with these early criticisms, it seems Ridley Scott may have gone to even greater lengths during the editing process to make the film even less offensive to Muslims.

On April 24th, user "JohnConnor" posted an interesting comment on Little Green Footballs in which he describes how a friend of his who is working on the production of KoH had seen a rough cut and pronounced it heavily biased in favor of Muslims. In a later email, "JohnConnor" elaborated on his discussions with this friend:

My film technician friend told me a couple of weeks ago that he'd seen most of Kingdom of Heaven and that it was 'about as PC as you can get' with the Moslems portrayed as noble good guys and the Knights Templar as the evil bad guys who ride around hacking down innocent muslims while shouting things like 'Kill a moslem and go to heaven!'

He also said a lot of it had been heavily cut so as not to offend muslims.

He said that ...the completed film was basically an action film and compared its believability and intellectual level to 'The Black Knight', a piece of 50's hokum in which Alan Ladd plays an English knight who thwarts a plan by the evil Sir Palamides (Peter Cushing in blackface) to help the Saracens invade England.

When I asked my friend who told him the film had been cut [to be pro-Muslim], he looked very uncomfortable (obviously not wanting to breech a confidence 'on the record') and he finally said it was 'backroom chatter' and 'common knowledge' and that it had 'even been written about'. He confirmed that the general impression was that it had been cut down so as not to offend muslims... .

The London Evening Standard for April 28 says Scott 'had to chop more than an hour from the final cut, and it really shows.' The article doesn't explain what was cut or why. ...

While my friend had originally pointed out (unprompted) that the final cut was loaded in favor of the moslems (who were portrayed as 'too good to be true'), when pressed to elaborate, he tried to downplay this aspect by claiming the film was 'naive', 'fast food for the eyes, 'forgettable' and an 'undemanding, easy to watch action film like 'Blackhawk Down.'

He said it was 'basically a western.' Interestingly, Ridley Scott has described it in similar terms.


Update: Beautiful Atrocities

I just became aware of another excellent posting about Kingdom of Heaven here on the blog Beautiful Atrocities, which has even more intriguing links about the film's political bias and historical background about the Crusades.


Update: Debbie Schlussel

Columnist Debbie Schlussel has just written a good overview of the Kingdom of Heaven controversy, with more disturbing details.


"The Most Honorable, Most Gentlemanly Characters"

Starting a few months ago, the filmmakers started giving private screenings of the nearly completed cut to various groups, in hopes of setting the proper tone for the film's coverage. The goal seemed to be to convince the Muslim activist groups that the film was thoroughly dhimmified now, and to show "nuanced" film critics that it was not a gung-ho racist action flick. And it seems the film had the proper effect this time around.

The Muslim pressure group CAIR was given a private screening, in an effort by Scott to convince them the film was pro-Muslim. CAIR came through as hoped, and gave Kingdom of Heaven their pro-Islam stamp of approval:

"Our overall impression is that 'Kingdom of Heaven' is a balanced and positive depiction of Islamic culture during the Crusades," said CAIR-LA Communications Director Sabiha Khan. "Muslims are shown as dignified and proud people whose lives are based on ethics and morality." Khan said one of the film's positive messages, that Muslims and Christians can live together in peace, will provide an opportunity for increased interfaith dialogue.

"It is unfortunately a rare occasion when a Muslim filmgoer can leave the theater feeling good about a movie's portrayal of Islam," said CAIR National Communications Coordinator Rabiah Ahmed, who also attended the Los Angeles screening.

Actress Eva Green (who plays the plot's sole love interest) gave a quote to the New York Times on April 24 (again, the Times has made the article only fee-accessible):

Still, there is a political message, one that Ms. Green, 24, interpreted with characteristic French directness. "It's not like a stupid Hollywood movie," she said by telephone from Los Angeles. "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.

This original article at Islam Online tries its best to put on a facade of neutrality, but right off the bat they reveal their bias with sentences like this one, in which they say that Jerusalem (referred to by its Arabic name, Al-Quds) is "occupied" territory:

The film, by "Gladiator" director Ridley Scott, depicts a 12th century Muslim-Christian battle for Al-Quds (now occupied by Israel) during the Third Crusade...

It is this exact attitude -- defining Jerusalem as de facto an Arab possession -- that leads to the controversy in the first place. Later in the article, critic David Poland jumps on the dhimmi bandwagon and praises the film for its pro-Muslim slant:

But David Poland, an American film critic, said ... that the film depicts the Muslims as the "most honorable, most gentlemanly characters."

"And they win with dignity and respect for those they vanquish..."


"An Important Muslim in New York"

This very informative article in Lebanon's Daily Star from March 16 of this year has two key quotes. The first is from Ridley Scott himself who says,

"My screenwriter Bill Monahan spent a lot of time consulting with Muslim historians and scholars of the time, not least because accuracy is so important in a historical film.

"Obviously, then, we were concerned with the character of Saladin and getting it right because he is such an important figure in Muslim culture."

So, Scott admits that the film essentially adopts the Muslim point of view, and also unwittingly reveals that he accepts the Romantic-era notion of Saladin as a hero -- a notion which almost everyone concurs was dreamt up by "orientalist" Europeans and only later adopted by Muslims.

The second quote is even more disturbing:

"You know I showed the final film to an important Muslim in New York and he loved it. He called it the best portrayal of Saladin he had seen," he [Scott] says.

That man was Dr. Hamid Dabashi, Professor of Hagop Kevorkian Iranian Studies at New York's Columbia University.

So who is Dr. Hamid Dabashi, this "important Muslim in New York" whose approval so pleased Scott? (Note that Scott's assessment was a little off the mark: according to this article on the ContactMusic Web site: "Muslim scholar Hamid Dabashi says, 'There are a few inaccuracies, in that he has probably made Saladin look too heroic.'") Dabashi is one of the professors in the center of a fierce controversy at Columbia regarding anti-Semitic behavior on the part of professors. Dabashi was lambasted in the film Columbia Unbecoming as bullying his students and having and extreme anti-Israel bias, and is quoted in the link above:

Another major player in Columbia's Mideast studies brouhaha is Hamid Dabashi, a former chair of the department, who depicted Israelis as follows:

"Half a century of systematic maiming and murdering of another people has left its deep marks on the faces of these people...There is an endemic prevarication to this machinery, a vulgarity of character that is bone-deep and structural to the skeletal vertebrae of its culture. No people can perpetrate what these people and their parents and grandparents have perpetrated on Palestinians and remain immune to the cruelty of their own deeds." (Al Ahram, Sept. 23, 2004)


"There Will Be Hate Crimes Committed"

But there's always one holdout, and in this case it looks like our old friend Khaled Abou El Fadl at UCLA still hasn't agreed to the talking points. An extremely revealing article by Beth Pearson entitled "The Real Crusades, Part 1" appeared in the Glasgow Herald on March 31st of this year, though it seems to have been removed from their site. Luckily, the full text was reposted here on the Islamic site "The True Religion." Much of the article revolves around an interview with UCLA Professor Khaled Abou El Fadl, who takes the exact opposite position of almost everyone else; he claims the finished film is extremely biased against Muslims:

"There's no doubt in my mind people are going to come out of this movie disliking Muslims and Arabs more than they already dislike them," says the professor of Islamic law at the University of California.

"In my view, it is inevitable -- I'm willing to risk my reputation on this -- that after this movie is released there will be hate crimes committed directly because of it."

Robert Spencer has a thorough fisking of the Glasgow Herald article posted here on his Dhimmi Watch site. (The Houston branch of CAIR also reprinted a portion of this article here, perhaps [as Spencer speculates] to remind everyone to keep an extra-sensitive eye out for post-KoH hate crimes, real or concocted.)

Part 2 of Beth Pearson's article "The Real Crusades" remains accessible (though the Glasgow Herald site may not load properly on all browsers), and is almost entirely composed of an interview with Dr. Carole Hillenbrand, a professor at Edinburgh University whose main career focus is to present the Islamic side of history:

"On the level of culture and social custom, it's quite clear that the Muslims were superior," says Hillenbrand.



Scott and Scott?

Several writers have observed the similarities between Ridley Scott's treatment of the Crusades and the plot of the 1825 novel The Talisman by Sir Walter Scott, which is famous for introducing the notion of Saladin as a Romantic hero:

An interesting feature is the character of Saladin - portrayed as virtuous and moral, in contrast to some of the despicable European nobles in the story. This is a feature of Romanticism, but perhaps also a reflection of a rising interest in the West with the Orient.

When the film was still in its early stages, a comment on JihadWatch by user "Jerry Gordon" speculated that perhaps Ridley Scott and Walter Scott are related; could this possible family connection be a motivation behind Ridley Scott's glowing depiction of Saladin?

Posted by: Jerry Gordon
Sir Ridley Scott, no doubt a descendent of famed 19th Century author Sir Walter who wrote The Talisman, should be forced to put an editorial warning at the opening of his film, now a work in progress. The warning should clearly state that this is fiction and that no such confraternity of Christians, Jews and Muslims existed in fact at the time of the Crusades and that both Crusader and Muslim jihadist behavior was uncivilized. Any failure on his part to make the merest of changes so as not to distort "historical accuracy" should result in a giant "dhimmi" award....

I have no idea if this is true, but it is an interesting speculation.

(As a possibly relevant sidelight, an historian claims that Scott plagiarized the script of the film from the pro-Saladin book Warriors of God.)


Controversy Grows

Here's a turn of events that may indicate the war of words over this film may just be starting: at the Internet Movie Database Message Board for Kingdom of Heaven there had been a brutal back-and-forth flame war going on between Muslims and historians over the film's biases, but the entire thread seems to have been deleted by the administrator (at least at the time of this writing):

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One wonders just how extreme the arguments had become.

And in a further indication of just how controversial this film may become, this article in a British Christian online magazine claims that Christian groups may attempt to boycott the film (which, in my opinion, is usually a bad idea, and ends up in the long run garnering more publicity for a bad film).

The May 1 Washington Post has a summary of the latest controversies here (though the article doesn't seem to load properly on all browsers).

Roger Ebert, on his May 1 Ebert and Roeper at the Movies TV show, claimed he had been receiving emails from Muslims asking him to condemn the film for not being sufficiently pro-Muslim. Ebert seemed mystified, and gave the film a "thumbs up" anyway, claiming that to his liberal eyes, the movie seemed more than even-handed. (Editorial aside: this interchange is typical of modern Left/Muslim relations, in which the Left does its best to appease Muslim demands, and act confused when the Muslims reject the appeasement as not enough. Perhaps the Left should realize: it may never be enough.)


"The Christians Lose"

This article from London's Evening Standard (requires free registration) has a fitting wrap-up quote from Scott:

"Religious difference, right now, is causing a great lack of understanding, so I felt it was important to show that not all Muslims are bad, and that not everyone in the West is good."

Faced with Christian aggression, the film's Arab leader, Saladin, demonstrates enormous tolerance.

Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven has bad, warmongering Christians and good Muslims. How does the director defend his crusade epic against the charge that it is just 'Bin Laden's version of history'?

And the fact that Saddam Hussein invoked the historical figure as a role model "just shows that, after 1,000 years of history, the idea of him prevails".

As for the story's villains, the hawkish Knights Templar, Scott admits they "are what you might call the Right-wing or Christian fundamentalists of their day". He had no wish to celebrate the crusaders' cause, or to dress it up for Western audiences. "I try not to make pictures that do the whole ra-ra thing. The Christians lose. That's history."


Kingdom of Heaven Film Sites

The official Kingdom of Heaven Web site

Theatrical trailer for Kingdom of Heaven and "Production featurette" mini-documentary about the making of Kingdom of Heaven

Internet Movie Database Kingdom of Heaven site