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Kingdom of Heaven - This story has reverberations for today

Feature by: Jack Foley

THE use of religion in movies has long been a source of controversy due to the sensitive nature of certain religious leaders.

Take The Passion of the Christ, for instance, which sparked all manner of accusations upon its release in 2004.

Or the upcoming blockbuster, The Da Vinci Code, which is sure to provoke more furious debate about the nature of Catholicism, given the controversy already surrounding the book upon which it is based.

Another film to have fuelled religious fervour is Ridley Scott's Crusades epic, Kingdom of Heaven, which has been accused of being anti-Islamic by certain religious leaders.

The film is set during a pivotal point in The Crusades, during a time when a rare peace existed that was continually threatened by the political manoeuvring of key figures on both sides of the conflict.

The Crusades were first mounted in 1095, following a rallying call from Pope Urban II to reclaim the holy city of Jerusalem, which had been conquered by Muslim armies 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 - during the period Kingdom of Heaven is set - the kingdom was rife with dissension, and Saladin's growing power threatened its very existence.

Scott's depiction of events, however, has split both sides of the religions it depicts.

Dr Khaled Abou El Fadl, professor of Islamic law at the University of California, for instance, predicted the film would provoke hate crimes.

While Cambridge academic Professor, Jonathan Riley-Smith, labelled it 'Osama Bin Laden's version of history' and warned it 'will fuel Islamic fundamentalists'.

Scott, however, remains defiant, describing such claims as 'absolute rubbish'.

He insisted that many of the people making the claims 'have not seen the movie' and defended his motives for making it by saying:

"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."

He was backed by one of the film's co-stars, Jeremy Irons, who comments in the production notes: "It is an era which has a lot of parallels in today's world: how the Christians deal with the Muslims, how the Muslims deal with the Christians, how they use each other, what their real agendas are.

"This story has reverberations for today."

Whether the arguments surrounding the film damage its box office potential remain to be seen - although controversy tends to work in a movie's favour.

Critically, the film has divided people. Some have labelled it a tedious affair that is poorly scripted, thereby trivialising such key historic events.

While others have hailed it as a return to form for Scott, who has delivered another stunning epic in the Gladiator tradition.

Certainly, interest seems high, given that the European premiere (on Bank Holiday Monday, May 2), attracted over 1,000 fans to London's Leciester Square in a bid to see its principal star, Orlando Bloom, walk the red carpet.

Bloom was a surprise choice to headline such an important movie, given his young age and the fact that he had yet to lead a film of this magnitude.

But Scott had little doubt about the actor's ability, having previously worked with him on Black Hawk Down.

"Orlando is a very honest, outgoing person," explains Scott. "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 and 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."

Bloom, for his part, maintains that he is tremendously grateful for the opportunity and thanked the many fans who turned out to see him in Leicester Square for helping to vindicate Scott's decision to cast him.

"I felt so privileged to be surrounded by this cast and to work so closely with Ridley," he commented, in a recent interview.

"To see how he works and create something with him. He has this uncanny ability to take history and merge it with contemporary society's idea of what they want in a movie; he juxtaposes politics with truth, and if you come from truth you really get to the crux of the matter.

"His films are a feast for the eyes, but they also leave you questioning and wondering, with a sense of purpose. It's truly extraordinary and I feel incredibly lucky."

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