Saturday, April 30, 2005

And the speculation continues (until release)...

Crusading for a Kingdom
Angela Baldassarre

For decades filmmakers have been using the Crusades as a bankable topic, from the myriad Robin Hood movies to Monty Python’s hilarious “Holy Grail.” And thanks to CGI technology, making an historical epic today has become remarkably “affordable,” as Ridley Scott discovered while making his Oscar-winning “Gladiator.”

For those unfamiliar with medieval history, the Crusades began in 1095 when Pope Urban II urged Christian Europe into a frenzy to reclaim the holy city of Jerusalem, conquered by Muslim armies that swept through the Middle East in the 7th century. Thousands answered the call, from kings to peasants, and successive waves of Crusaders made their way eastward over the next 200 years, laying siege to ancient cities, founding kingdoms, and sowing the seeds of religious conflict for centuries to come. Jerusalem was retaken in the First Crusade (there were eight in all), and several generations of Christian princes ruled there. But by the year 1186 the kingdom was rife with dissension, and the Muslims’ growing power threatened its very existence, maintained only by replenishing the garrisons with fresh forces from Europe.

In 2002, Scott and brother Tony’s company Scott Free had joined forces with 20th Century Fox to produce pictures. The project Scott was hoping to make was “Tripoli,” the story of how U.S. soldier William Eaton joined forces with an exiled king to overthrow the corrupt ruler of what is now Libya. But when his “Gladiator” star Russell Crowe was unable to commit to the project because of scheduling conflicts, Scott shelved the picture but remained impressed with the script written by William Monahan who suggested the director consider making a film about the Crusades instead.

“It’s a very rich time in history,” says Scott. “If you examine those 200 years historically, you see every possible shade of human behaviour. You can go in and almost surgically choose the moment you want to explore.”

Monahan had long been fascinated by the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, especially the reign of Baldwin IV. “It was a period of equilibrium between the Crusader state and the Muslims,” he notes. “There is a balance of power. It is partly a practical truce, but there is also a kind of fascination between the cultures.” The mutual respect for peace was maintained by King Baldwin IV and Saladin, who were both at odds with extremists in their respective camps.

Monahan worked from primary sources, using firsthand accounts (in translation) by people who were present while history was being made, and avoiding interpretations written over the subsequent centuries. His research revealed that King Baldwin and Saladin did indeed achieve an unprecedented truce between their societies, during which all three of the great monotheistic religions were practiced freely in Jerusalem.

The script, originally titled “The Crusades,” dramatizes an episode shortly before the Third Crusade, when Jerusalem and much of the Holy Land were ruled by European knights, drawn to crusading by religious fervour and the promise of land and riches in an exotic realm. Their story centres on one of those knights, Balian of Ibelin, who becomes a hero, standing firm against treachery in the Christian alliance, and leading the people of Jerusalem in a gallant defense against Saladin’s vast Saracen army. In Jerusalem, Balian falls in love with the princess Sibylla, King Baldwin’s sister and the reluctant wife of the power-hungry baron Guy de Lusignan.

Securing a budget of $100 million, and a January 2004 production start in Morocco, the film was given a greenlight. (Landing the production was a major coup for the Moroccan government, which had been courting Hollywood epics following a wave of suicide attacks that killed 41 people in Casablanca in June of 2003.)

The casting process took several months, and after accepting the fact that Crowe would not be able to play any role in the pic, the director hired Orlando Bloom to play Balian. Scott saw Bloom's potential when he cast the then-unknown actor to join the ensemble of "Black Hawk Down." "Peter Jackson’s 'Lord of the Rings' hadn't yet come out, and Orlando proved himself to be an excellent actor in a strong ensemble that included Josh Hartnett, Eric Bana and Ewan McGregor," Scott said. “Orlando is a very honest, outgoing person. That’s who he is. He’s also very good physically in the field. He fell out of a helicopter for me in ‘Black Hawk Down.’ He can do all the things that I required him to do, but I think his honesty and earnestness give him a distinct level of authenticity in the role of Balian.”

As to Bloom, “I got to live every boy’s dream,” he says. “A knight, quite simply, gets the girl, gets to be everything he is meant to be. Balian is a reluctant hero on a quest, which is the best kind of hero, for my money.”

The next major role was that of Sibylla, and though Scott initially considered Kiera Chaplin (great-granddaughter to Charlie), he hired French actress Eva Green whom he admired in Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers.”

“Ridley is such a humble person,” observes Green. “As massive in scope as this film is, he makes it very easy and very simple to work with him. He also understands how vulnerable an actor can be and creates an atmosphere of security around you. His calm and energy make you stronger. He never shows a moment of anxiety or tension.”

Many in the cast accepted character roles on the basis of Monahan’s script and the chance to work with Scott. Jeremy Irons, who appeared in a commercial directed by Scott two decades earlier, actively sought out the director after reading the script. “It was everything you want a big action movie script to be,” says the actor who plays Tiberias, military advisor to King Baldwin. “I wanted to be a part of that. If you’re going make a big movie, with heart and with enormous potential for huge things happening, the director you want to work with is Ridley. I think he is making a film unlike anything he’s done before.”

Scott insisted that all the Muslim roles be played by Muslim actors. Ghassan Massoud and Khaled Nabawy, who portray Saladin and the fanatical Mullah, are major stars in the Arab world. “It is a very special experience for me to work with Ridley on this film,” comments Massoud. “It must be a very special experience for any actor from the East to play with a director like Ridley Scott. We respect how he thinks about this film, about the characters and the story.”

Liam Neeson was always in Scott’s mind to play Godfrey of Ibelin, the hero’s father. The role he took on in the film carried over naturally into the cast interactions as they made their way across locations in Spain and Morocco. “When you have this many actors, they form a community very quickly,” Scott notes. “Liam was always a kind of leader to that little group. Even though he’s not that different in age from a lot of the cast, he was very much a father figure to many of them.”

Other major actors include David Thewlis as the Hospitaler, Godfrey’s spiritual counselor and military aide; and Brendan Gleeson as the bloodthirsty Reynald of Chatillon.
By the time production began in January of 2004, the film’s title was changed to “The Kingdom of Heaven.” And though the producers found few snags during filming, they got stuck when shooting in Spain where the Catholic Church refused their request to film in the former Grand Mosque of Cordoba, which is now a Christian cathedral.

Church authorities said the plans of Scott would "interfere with religious life". The director wanted to use the cathedral, known as the Mezquita, but a church spokesman said "the 200 people and the false door and walls and all the props would interrupt the religious life of the Mezquita for roughly a month, which would be disorderly and excessive."

The issue assumed political overtones, with politicians of the traditionally communist-run city strongly criticizing the Church and the Right wing for not seizing the opportunity to promote Cordoba. Carmen Caldo, the local culture official, and the mayor, Rosa Aguilar, made private petitions to the bishop to reconsider while strongly attacking the Church for not allowing filming.

"It seems we are losing a great opportunity and I am surprised the Church will not lend the city a helping hand," said Ms Caldo.

But the producers’ biggest headache began last month, just weeks before the film’s release. Author James Reston Jr., author of "Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade," claimed that Scott had stolen his research to make the "Kingdom of Heaven," and demanded that all production, publicity and advertisement relating to the film cease, pending a negotiated settlement of grievances.

Reston argued that the studio and screenwriter Monahan violated American and international copyright law by using Balian as well as other "events, characters, scenes, descriptions and character tensions" in the film that were "strikingly similar" to his narrative history. Reston's book concentrates on the Third Crusade, in which Richard the Lionheart meets and is eventually defeated by Kurdish sultan Saladin.

"The reality is that your client's book concentrates upon Richard the Lionheart and Saladin, and Balian is not a significant part of the text," read a five-page rebuttal letter from Fox, adding that the character Balian was only mentioned on about 10 pages of Reston's text.

The letter continued to state that the studio used other original historical sources and secondary works, including the three-volume work "History of the Crusades" by Sir Steven Runciman.
"I suppose there is a legal argument," responded Reston, "that [Monahan] had it in mind all along, that they knew of Balian of Ibelin, that he got all this from somewhere else, reading 1950s Cambridge, England, stodgy old histories. But I don't think so."

Reston claimed that in December 2001 producer Mike Medavoy optioned his book and sent a letter to Scott reading, "There are lots of great characters in this story — think 'Lawrence of Arabia' and 'A Man for All Seasons’." Scott allegedly rejected the offer since he already had his own Crusades project in the works. Three months later, Reston learned that Scott was working with Monahan on a film about the Crusades of the 11th century. It wasn't until August 2004 that Reston discovered that the project would actually be set during the Third Crusade — the time period of the events in his book — renewing his suspicions.

Reston has yet to file a lawsuit.