The King of Morocco isn’t one to loan out his armed forces willy-nilly. But hosting the production of an epic movie that pits Christians against Muslims during the 12th-century Crusades — subject matter that has the potential to antagonize people in his exact corner of the world — is an event that calls for extraordinary measures. So when Ridley Scott opted to shoot Kingdom of Heaven mostly in Morocco, the king offered up his mounted cavalry to star in the movie’s intricate battle sequences — and his personal security detail to look after the filmmaker. Not that there were any particular fears; compared to some Islamic countries, Morocco is relatively peaceful. But as with all matters on Kingdom, caution was key. ”You try to carry your goodwill with you,” says Scott, 67, who also shot Gladiator and Black Hawk Down in the North African nation. ”I love Morocco. I’ve worked with the Moroccans now three times in five years, so I trust them.”
Although Scott and Twentieth Century Fox say there were no specific terrorist threats made against the production, the itchy state of international affairs kept many on edge as the movie was being filmed in Spain and Morocco between January and June of last year. Less than two months after Scott started shooting in Spain, for example, terrorists bombed Madrid’s train system, killing nearly 200 people. While the production itself was never attacked, Kingdom — about a French blacksmith (Orlando Bloom) who becomes a knight, inherits a Holy Land town from his noble father (Liam Neeson), romances a princess (The Dreamers‘ Eva Green), and defends Jerusalem from legendary Arab hero Saladin (Syrian star Ghassan Massoud) — did endure some verbal salvos.
Certain cultural and spiritual leaders feared the film would whitewash a bloody period in history; others worried that Kingdom might further inflame current religious strife. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, for instance, contacted Scott early on, asking him to avoid propagating negative stereotypes of Muslims. The group discussed its qualms with the director and is now pleased with his finished product. ”His contribution is really quite laudable,” says the ADC’s Laila Al-Qatami. ”He’s presenting something unprecedented: a complex and human representation of Muslim characters.” Scott also screened the film — whose prominent villains are the militant Christians behind centuries of bloodshed in the medieval Middle East — for Christian organizations. In a statement, Bob Smithouser, editor of Focus on the Family’s magazine Plugged In, said that Kingdom ”deserves credit for carefully avoiding the wholesale vilification of either Christians or Muslims. . .. The movie is not extreme or malicious.” Fox Filmed Entertainment chairman Jim Gianopulos hopes the picture will spark a productive dialogue. ”It’s actually the best time for a movie like this because of its contemporary relevance,” he says, adding that detractors should remember that the film’s heroes are both Christian and Muslim.