Film: God Is in the Details

The creators of period epic Kingdom of Heaven strive for accuracy

Brian Vanaski

Defenders of truth: Kingdom of Heaven star Orlando Bloom (left) and director Ridley Scott

PASADENA, CALIF. — The Ritz Carlton Huntington is an opulent hotel under normal circumstances, a countryside estate built around outdoor pools and gardens. But to promote Ridley Scott's historical epic Kingdom of Heaven, 20th Century Fox transformed portions of it into a desert oasis out of the Middle Ages.

The hotel's sloping great lawn was turned into a wealthy orientalist's haven: A silk-lined tent had been raised, Persian carpets placed on the floor and huge bowls of food placed on the tables. In the banquet room above, a dessert chef begged visitors to try his mousse.

It's not uncommon for a studio to celebrate — and hype — a movie with an expensive party, especially when the movie in question costs $140 million. But in this case there was a slight disconnect. Kingdom of Heaven is not a cinematic dessert tray, even with "hottie" Orlando Bloom as its star.

It is a violent, often gloomy film about the Crusades, which inevitably means that it's about a clash between Christianity and Islam that continues today. The dangerous city and region in which Kingdom largely is set — Jerusalem in the Holy Land — are still troubled places. (Now, of course, the Jews, whose King David established Jerusalem as their Holy Land before the Christians or Muslims, and their state of Israel also are very much part of the equation.)

That means Scott (whose past films include Gladiator, Black Hawk Down and Blade Runner) and his crew had to be careful to get historical details right to fend off criticisms of inaccuracy. Scott and his screenwriter, William Monahan, also had to be careful in considering what exactly they wanted their film to say about religious wars. It's a touchy topic in the post-9/11 world, especially for a movie that needs to play well internationally in regions that aren't predominately Christian.

"How do you deal with it?" Scott says, repeating the question I put to him at the end of a group interview. "By understanding the subtext when you see the film. It's a pretty good ambassador of trying to ask the question, 'Why can't we decide to live together?' "

Kingdom of Heaven tries to avoid taking religious sides. Saladin, the Muslim leader who attacks Christian-held Jerusalem, is played sympathetically by Syrian actor Ghassan Massaoud. The film's Christian hero, Bloom's Balian of Ibelin, is portrayed as a reluctant warrior whose skepticism about the holiness of the Crusades at one point earns him a charge of blasphemy. "Every last thing in Jerusalem drives men mad," he says.

Scott, who is 67 and a knighted British native, speaks his words slowly, letting them trail away, almost as if he doesn't want to confront the contemporary implications of his subject. He has reddish-gray hair and a red-and-white goatee, which nicely complements his ruddy complexion.

As production on Black Hawk Down was winding down in 2001, Scott met with Monahan in New York to discuss a screenplay the latter had sold to 20th Century Fox called Tripoli. It was about the war with the Barbary Coast (northern Africa) pirate states in the early 1800s, in which the U.S. Navy under Stephen Decatur raided Tripoli harbor.

"While we were talking, he said his passion was the Crusades," Scott recalls. "It's always been my notion, ever since Charlton Heston rode away dead on horseback in El Cid, that I wanted to make a knight movie. And if you get into a knight movie, you've got to really consider the Crusades."

Scott commissioned a screenplay and, four years later, the result is Kingdom of Heaven. The film is set in 1186, during the third of eight Crusades. The religious campaigns started in 1095 when Pope Urban II urged European Christians to retake their Holy Land — Jerusalem, especially — from the Muslim rulers who first gained power some 400 years earlier. They did, but then found themselves hard-put to hold onto it during another 200 years of warfare. Ultimately, they failed.

In the Third Crusade, King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem attempted an uneasy truce with Saladin, whose surrounding troops outnumbered his. After he died, however, and his brother-in-law disastrously pushed for war, Saladin laid siege to Jerusalem. The city was defended by Balian against the prolonged assault.

To underscore just how seriously the film takes its religious history, 20th Century Fox did an extraordinary thing at the Ritz: It organized a morning seminar on the Crusades in a ballroom. Present were author Donald Spoto (The Hidden Jesus: A New Life); Hamid Dabashi, an Islamic history scholar and professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University; and Nancy Caciola, medieval history professor at University of California-San Diego. All that was missing was the college credit.

"The pilgrimage to the Holy Land was seen as a spiritual metaphor for the journey into the next life," Spoto explains from a chair on the stage. "It was held as an ideal for every Christian pilgrim."

But, he says, it went terribly wrong. "The Crusades were a hopeless and complete failure for everyone involved. My humble opinion is slaughtering infidels in the name of Jesus was the biggest blunder any Christian can endeavor."

Journalists at the hotel also took a museum-like guided tour of the film's armor, costumes, furnishings and scale models. While computer-generated images play an important role in the film (Scott says there was a total of 800 special-effects shots, 350 of them major), much effort was put into the creation of actual objects. And here Scott took the attitude that God is in the details.

For instance, the walled city of Jerusalem was built on a studio set in Morocco — 6,000 tons of plaster with 56-foot-high walls. Special effects were used to add domes and minarets. The crew made four catapults that the Muslims use to fling lethal objects at the besieged defenders of Jerusalem. "The trebuchets, the big ones, would flip a 100-pound ball about 100 meters. And they were surprisingly accurate," Scott says.

As much effort went into the craftsmanship of small objects as massive weaponry. An ornamental war mask worn by Baldwin IV (a tragic figure who had leprosy and kept his face covered) was modeled on the face of Michelangelo's "David" and embossed with a pattern first seen on a Spanish vase.

Still, for all of this, success will depend on whether Bloom can carry the film in an adult heroic role, like Russell Crowe in Scott's Gladiator or even Heston. The studio is counting on it — billboards for the film all around Los Angeles tout him as the superstar selling point.

For the thin, dark-haired 28-year-old British actor, who has co-starred in youthful roles in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Pirates of the Caribbean and Troy, this is a crucial transition. He also had a small part as a soldier in Scott's Black Hawk Down.

"I certainly wanted to take this role into the realm of being more of a man," Bloom says, also before a small group of journalists here. "It was a coming-of-age period for Balian, and certainly it was for me to be the frontrunner in a Ridley Scott movie." ©

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