A question from a soft-spoken young woman continues to speak loudly in my memory. It was a Sunday afternoon in January, and I was part of a panel discussion about Middle Eastern films; my colleagues were college teachers and political activists. The woman wanted to know: If a current movie were to portray a Muslim as a clichéd villain -- say, a bomb-carrying terrorist -- would there be much of an outcry? My answer, a somber no, was soon overshadowed. An older man in the audience stood up to make his thoughts known.
"Who do you think flew the planes into the World Trade Towers?" he asked everyone matter-of-factly. "Who do you think are cutting off the heads of Red Cross workers?"
The woman, a Muslim, was stunned into silence by his words, and so was the small group of panelists. The man's point was clear: The United States is at war in Iraq and the Middle East, and life during wartime means any negative portrayal of one's enemies is fair game.
I thought about that young woman recently after watching Kingdom of Heaven, director Ridley Scott's gigantic drama about the crusades.
In the film, set in 1185, Balian (Orlando Bloom) is a blacksmith from rural France who travels to Jerusalem to fight in the decades-long war between the Christians and the Muslims. He serves the doomed King Baldwin IV, who took the throne of Jerusalem in 1174 at age 13 and eventually signed a truce with the Muslim leader Saladin.
Kingdom of Heaven is entertainment. So there's a love affair with Baldwin's exotic sister, the Princess Sibylla (Eva Green), and desert battles with thousands of people, huge medieval war machines, siege towers and catapults.
But the reason I hope the young Muslim woman watches the movie is to witness a major Hollywood release that promotes acceptance among the warring groups and portrays Muslims as ambassadors of peace. She and many others are in for a welcome surprise.
The religious right and American Christians continue to take center stage in politics, but how do they feel about a summertime blockbuster that portrays Christians as villains? The Templar knights -- portrayed as the right-wing or Christian fundamentalists of their day -- carry their ornate crosses. They talk of "killing a Muslim to get to heaven."
At a time when the Catholic Church has elected a cardinal who calls other faiths "gravely deficient," the knights' arrival on-screen is noteworthy.
Watch a TV commercial for Kingdom of Heaven, and the film appears anti-Islamic and brimming with stereotypes of Muslims. Imagine Fox News coverage if 20th Century Fox, another one of Rupert Murdoch's companies, wasn't the film's distributor.
Watch the film, and Kingdom of Heaven is pro-Islam and portrays Muslims as heroes and proponents of peace. Granted, the body count for Muslims is staggering, yet Saladin is the true ambassador for peace and the story's hero.
The commercials are a bait and switch. It's as if someone at Fox thinks people would avoid a film preaching tolerance after a weekend where eight U.S. troops were killed in Iraq.
American troops remain in an Iraq that grows more dangerous each week. If one is to believe the White House rhetoric, a modern-day crusade is underway today. If one is to believe the message of Kingdom of Heaven, people of Christian and Muslim religions can peacefully share a city, if not the world.
Kingdom of Heaven takes place during a brief era of truce between the Christian and Muslim cultures, between the second and third crusades. But will there ever be another time like that?
Kingdom of Heaven earned $20 million over the weekend in U.S. theaters and another $56 million overseas. Those are not blockbuster-like grosses.
Still, that's a lot of hearts and minds at the theater. Whether they leave with a different opinion than they came in with is another matter.