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Mild Kingdom
Ridley Scott’s Heaven is not to die for

Related Links

Kingdom of Heaven's official Web site

Kingdom of Heaven and . . . Warriors of God

Given that he’s a historian, it’s no surprise that James Reston Jr. is a stickler for dates. At the moment, the date he’s concerned with is not October 2, 1187, the day Saladin recaptured Jerusalem from the Crusaders, an event highlighted in his 2001 book Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade. Rather, it’s November 27, 2001, the day he and producer Mike Medavoy signed a contract to make a film version of his book.

The film was never made. Instead, director Ridley Scott and Twentieth Century Fox studios made Kingdom of Heaven. After reading a draft of the script, he decided to sue.

But can history be copyrighted? Talking over the phone from his home in Chevy Chase, Maryland, Reston explains his case. "The point of this is, they wouldn’t have a film but for my book. You have to start with what they call a high concept. And for years and years, people in Hollywood have been trying to focus on the Crusades and figure out how to make a movie, but they could never get the concept."

Reston insists he had nailed that concept seven years ago. "Warriors of God was begun in 1998. It has become my signature in these historical projects that I take a novelistic approach to history, where characters, scene, and setting are very important. But it also has an important element of relevance to the current day, and I began in 1998 with the Third Crusade, which would be quite relevant to the Arab-Israeli situation. I started with the story of these fabulous characters of Saladin and Richard the Lionheart and proceeded to the Library of Congress for a couple of years and wrote this book, and it came out in May of 2001 and had a decent response from the reviewers and was selling nicely and all of that.

"And then came September 11, 2001, and you may remember on September 16, Dubya declared that we were going on a Crusade, something he’s been trying to live down ever since. And so the American people were desperate, in the wake of September 11, to read about Arab history, about Islam, and about the clash of civilizations between Europe and the Middle East, between Islam and Christianity, the Western Crusades versus the Western jihads. And there was this book, right in the middle of it, so it was kind of bizarre serendipity from my standpoint, and the book just went through the roof.

"Then in November of 2001, Mike Medavoy purchased the film rights to Warriors of God. Two weeks later, Medavoy, having heard through the Hollywood grapevine that Ridley Scott was interested in some sort of Crusade film, wrote him a letter in which he says, ‘I’ve got the rights to this book, let me send it to you, let’s go into business together.’ That’s in effect what the letter says. Several months later, Scott wrote back and said, no, we want to do our own project.

"What we now know is that in this period, when Mike Medavoy concentrates Scott’s mind on Warriors of God, his people come up with this high concept of doing this film on the Third Crusade, and it’s based on the first 100 pages of Warriors of God. It has as its main character Balian of Ibelin, and of those first 100 pages of Warriors of God, 10 focus on Balian. The three or four most important scenes of Kingdom of Heaven are taken directly from scenes in Warriors of God, and then, as a sort of in-your-face flaunting of the whole thing, they called their movie Kingdom of Heaven, which is the title of the second chapter of my book."

Very unchivalric. And the studio’s response to these charges? "Twentieth Century Fox believes the claims to be totally without merit."

We’ll see. Meanwhile, Reston fears the film will botch an opportunity to tell a terrific and instructive story. "One of the disappointments is that this is a magnificent story of history and it’s magnificently relevant to the current situation, and they’ve taken it and screwed it all up. They’ve done the Hollywood, typical things, try to make a love story out of this, a blacksmith and a princess, which is what they always do."

Reston suspects the film version will fudge or ignore all the elements of the book that illuminate our current historical situation. "There are a lot of lessons that come out of the Third Crusade that have been ignored by Bush, for example. One of the ironies of this is that the New York Times reported on January 9, 2002, that Karl Rove was suggesting that Bush read this book so he could understand what he was starting to get himself into. I don’t know whether he read it or not, I don’t know what Bush reads, but he certainly didn’t glean any wisdom from it."

Unlike, or so Reston claims, the makers of Kingdom of Heaven.

— PK

The Lord of the Rings has ruined film as a medium for historical spectacle. In the climactic scene of Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, as the army of 200,000 (actually 2000 Moroccans multiplied by CGI) jihadists under Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) spreads across the plain before the gates of Crusader-held Jerusalem, with countless pennants flying, the sky pierced by siege towers, the air ablaze with Greek fire, no one is going to say, "I wonder whether this is how it really was." Most will probably be saying that The Two Towers was a lot better.

Neither can Scott entirely blame the alienation effect of computer animation for removing this Kingdom from the bonds of earth and placing it not in Heaven but in the realm of video games. The truth is, history is bad box office. Many historians claim that the Crusades are the crucible in which all the elements of our modern-day conflict between West and East were formed. Who needs that kind of baggage to clutter up the marketing potential of a $140 million project?

Besides, it’s easier to patch together a cliché’d, easy-to-follow story by picking and choosing historical bits, revising them a bit, and making stuff up. People aren’t going to pay 10 bucks just for accuracy (they’re interested only in the weapons and the costumes anyway), especially if it reminds them of present-day events they are trying to escape. Better to keep your movie simple-minded, formulaic, and full of distracting action and leave any commentary in the background.

Scott can’t resist getting a little heavy-handed at times. Balian (Orlando Bloom), the blacksmith (a carpenter would be too obvious, also not very cinematic, has had a hard day. His son has died and his wife has committed suicide and is being buried at a crossroads, her head chopped off. And then Balian’s long-lost dad, Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson, in proto-Jedi form), shows up after mucking around in the Holy Land fighting Muslims for decades to reclaim his bastard son. Balian, disgusted, sends him packing. So can you blame our hero for impaling the disreputable local priest on a half-forged flaming sword and then setting him on fire?

Enough of that; it’s off to Jerusalem we go. Now pursued by the law, Balian accepts his dad’s offer to take over his Holy Land estate, and that plunges the simple blacksmith into the snake pit of Middle Eastern intrigue. On one side is King Baldwin (Edward Norton, spooky under a silver mask and sounding like Brando in Apocalypse Now), the reigning Crusader king of Jerusalem and a leper who along with Godfrey and some other right-thinking nobles wants to preserve the tenuous peace with Saladin and the Muslims and try to forge a Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. On the other are the effete (he’s French, or rather Frankish) and ruthless Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), who has designs on Baldwin’s throne, and the wacko Reynald (Brendan Gleeson, out-hamming Brian Cox’s Agamemnon in Troy), who with his army of Templars (Scott doesn’t mention that they’re monks directly answerable to the pope, figuring any one who’s interested will have read The Da Vinci Code) is just a fun guy who wants to kill infidels. Guy is married to Baldwin’s lovely sister Sibylla (Eva Green), and she and Balian fall in love, so he has even more reason to oppose Guy’s evil schemes, as if saving the world and his soul weren’t enough.

Some of this is even historical. Scott can’t quite tap-dance around the harsher aspects of the times (the Crusaders massacred 40,000 Muslims when taking Jerusalem in the First Crusade, for example), and his asides (William Monahan’s script is filled with would-be lapidary lines and throwaway details) suggest that an unrepentant secular humanist was behind the story. Indeed, Christian conservative groups are already beating the drums against what they perceive as Ridley’s image of Christian Crusaders as greedy and fanatical (okay, maybe not greedy) murderers who are outshone in nobility by Islam’s Saladin. (Massoud adds insult to injury by putting in the film’s best performance.) They’ll probably condemn Kingdom of Heaven without seeing it. So who will see it? Teenagers smitten with Bloom’s elfin looks who want to see him in an inert love story? Martial-arts fans who come for the swordplay? CGI addicts? I suspect not many are going to describe this film as history writ with lightning, and a lot more are going to wait instead for the final Star Wars episode.

Issue Date: May 6 - 12, 2005
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