Long live Ridley Scott. I never thought I’d say this. Gladiator had a screenplay that might have come from the Boy’s Own Paper. Black Hawk Down showed the Arabs of Somalia as generically violent animals. But when I left the cinema after seeing Scott’s extraordinary sand-and-sandals epic on the Crusades, Kingdom of Heaven, I was deeply moved – not so much by the film, but by the Muslim audience among whom I watched it in Beirut.
I know what the critics have said. The screenplay isn’t up for much and Orlando Bloom, playing the loss-of- faith crusader Balian of Ibelin, does indeed look – as The Independent cruelly observed – like a backpacker touring the Middle East in a gap year.
But there is an integrity about its portrayal of the Crusades which, while fitting neatly into our contemporary view of the Middle East – the moderate crusaders are overtaken by crazed neo-conservative barons while Saladin is taunted by a dangerously al- Qa’ida-like warrior – treats the Muslims as men of honour who can show generosity as well as ruthlessness to their enemies.
It was certainly a revelation to sit through Kingdom of Heaven not in London or New York but in Beirut, in the Middle East itself, among Muslims – most of them in their 20s – who were watching historical events that took place only a couple of hundred miles from us. How would the audience react when the Knights Templars went on their orgy of rape and head-chopping among the innocent Muslim villagers of the Holy Land, when they advanced, covered in gore, to murder Saladin’s beautiful, chadored sister? I must admit, I held my breath a few times.
I need not have bothered. When the leprous King of Jerusalem – his face covered in a steel mask to spare his followers the ordeal of looking at his decomposition – falls fatally ill after honourably preventing a battle between Crusaders and Saracens, Saladin, played by that wonderful Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud – and thank God the Arabs in the film are played by Arabs – tells his deputies to send his own doctors to look after the Christian king.
At this, there came from the Muslim audience a round of spontaneous applause. They admired this act of mercy from their warrior hero; they wanted to see his kindness to a Christian.
There are some things in the film which you have to be out here in the Middle East to appreciate. When Balian comes across a pile of crusader heads lying on the sand after the Christian defeat at the 1187 battle of Hittin, everyone in the cinema thought of Iraq; here is the nightmare I face each time I travel to report in Iraq. Here is the horror that the many Lebanese who work in Iraq have to confront. Yet there was a wonderful moment of self-deprecation among the audience when Saladin, reflecting on his life, says: “Somebody tried to kill me once in Lebanon.”
The house came down. Everyone believed that Massoud must have inserted this line to make fun of the Lebanese ability to destroy themselves and – having lived in Lebanon 29 years and witnessed almost all its tragedy – I too founds tears of laughter running down my face.
I suppose that living in Lebanon, among those crusader castles, does also give an edge to Kingdom of Heaven. It’s said that Scott originally wanted to film in Lebanon (rather than Spain and Morocco) and to call his movie Tripoli after the great crusader keep I visited a few weeks ago. One of the big Christian political families in Lebanon, the Franjiehs, take their name from the “Franj”, which is what the Arabs called the crusaders. The Douai family in Lebanon – with whom the Franjiehs fought a bitter battle, Knights Templar- style, in a church in 1957 – are the descendants of the French knights who came from the northern French city of Douai.
Yet it is ironic that this movie elicited so much cynical comment in the West. Here is a tale that – unlike any other recent film – has captured the admiration of Muslims. Yet we denigrated it. Because Orlando Bloom turns so improbably from blacksmith to crusader to hydraulic engineer? Or because we felt uncomfortable at the way the film portrayed “us”, the crusaders?
But it didn’t duck Muslim vengeance. When Guy de Lusignan hands the cup of iced water given him by Saladin to the murderous knight who slaughtered Saladin’s daughter, the Muslim warrior says menacingly: “I did not give you the cup.” And then he puts his sword through the knight’s throat. Which is, according to the archives, exactly what he did say and exactly what he did do.
Massoud, who is a popular local actor in Arab films – he is known in the Middle East as the Syrian Al Pacino – in reality believes that George Bush is to blame for much of the crisis between the Muslim and Western world. “George Bush is stupid and he loves blood more than the people and music,” he said in a recent interview. “If Saladin were here he would have at least not allowed Bush to destroy the world, especially the feeling of humanity between people.”
Massoud agreed to play Saladin because he trusted Scott to be fair with history. I had to turn to that fine Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf to discover whether Massoud was right. Maalouf it was who wrote the seminal The Crusades through Arab Eyes, researching for his work among Arab rather than Crusader archives. “Too fair,” was his judgement on Kingdom of Heaven.
I see his point. But at the end of the film, after Balian has surrendered Jerusalem, Saladin enters the city and finds a crucifix lying on the floor of a church, knocked off the altar during the three-day siege. And he carefully picks up the cross and places it reverently back on the altar. And at this point the audience rose to their feet and clapped and shouted their appreciation. They loved that gesture of honour. They wanted Islam to be merciful as well as strong. And they roared their approval above the soundtrack of the film.
So I left the Dunes cinema in Beirut strangely uplifted by this extraordinary performance – of the audience as much as the film. See it if you haven’t. And if you do, remember how the Muslims of Beirut came to realise that even Hollywood can be fair. I came away realising why – despite the murder of Beirut’s bravest journalist on Friday – there probably will not be a civil war here again. So if you see Kingdom of Heaven, when Saladin sets the crucifix back on the altar, remember that deafening applause from the Muslims of Beirut.