From Arab sheikhs and Muslim terrorists to belly dancers and mysterious women swathed in burqas, Hollywood depictions of Muslims don't generally ring true. But a film opening this Friday may offer a less clichéd view of Muslims, even as it embellishes history.
In Ridley Scott's new medieval epic, "Kingdom of Heaven," after Muslim forces have retaken Jerusalem from the Christians, their leader Saladin strides through a room full of battle debris, only to stop at the sight of a fallen cross. He gently picks up the Christian altarpiece and sets it on a table.
This gesture, as much as any fights or dialogue in the film, delivers a key message about the Crusades: Muslims were human beings, as capable of honor and faith as any Christian in that period, and by implication, says Mr. Scott, in today's world, as well.
"Given that [President] Bush has used the word 'crusades,' " understanding the subtext of the film is important, says the British director. "It is kind of an ambassador asking the question: 'Why can't we all live together?' "
The film's complex and human portrayal of both Christians and Muslims is cause for a small sigh of relief among Muslim scholars and activists in the United States, many of whom say Hollywood just can't get it right when it comes to portraying Middle Easterners.
"Western films usually don't depict Arabs and Muslims as having full lives, families, personalities, or emotions," says William Russell Melton, author of "The New American Expat: Thriving and Surviving Overseas in the Post-9/11 World." In films ranging from "Aladdin" to "The Mummy" to "Rules of Engagement," Muslims are usually "portrayed as simplistic, illiterate, one- dimensional, angry, hateful, untrustworthy and, of course, dirty," he says.
Even before 9/11, says Sabiha Khan, communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Los Angeles, "when Muslims or Arabs are portrayed on-screen, there are usually gross stereotypes like the wealthy sheikh, the oppressed women, the Muslim terrorist." After the screening of "Kingdom of Heaven" last week, CAIR issued a national statement of support for Scott's film.
Much work is still to be done, say Ms. Khan and others. Political instability in the Middle East for the better part of the past century, as well as a fundamental lack of familiarity with the world's 1.3 billion Muslims, are big contributors to Hollywood's use of cultural shorthand. While films such as "Heaven" suggest change is afoot, the progress is slow.
"We are the most recent large minorities to come to the United States," says Khan, pointing to the first wave after the fall of the Shah of Iran and the second wave after the Gulf War. Just as earlier minorities in history, such as Italians and Irish, were stereotyped, "we are seen in popular entertainment, just not in the right way," she says. "This is our hazing period."
Historians often quibble with Hollywood when it comes to depicting cultures. "Heaven" is no exception. Although Scott, during a trip to Las Vegas to pitch his film to theater owners, was quick to point outthat the work is not a documentary. He says he made every effort to get period details accurate, but adds, "doing history in a movie is always a mixture of intelligent fact and conjecture."
Given the current relevance of religious warfare and historic figures, the era of the Crusades is touchier than most, scholars say. "He's tinkering with history that is far more dangerous to get wrong than, say, gladiator history," says Thomas Asbridge, senior lecturer in medieval history, Queen Mary, University of London. "People in the Middle East feel that the Crusades have real resonance today," says the author of "The First Crusade," pointing in particular to the modern view of Saladin. Leaders from Egypt to Iraq see him as the avenger of Islam. "All these men are obsessed with creating parallels with Saladin." Saddam Hussein, he adds, "placed his own picture on bank notes opposite Saladin and even sponsored children's storybooks that talked about himself as the second Saladin."
Seriously inaccurate history is not much better than overtly negative images, adds Mr. Asbridge. He cites a central message of the film, that both Saladin and the doomed young Christian king of Jerusalem were trying to coexist in peace, the "kingdom of heaven" referred to in the title. This is nothing but "a pretty fiction," says Asbridge. "The unfortunate reality is that neither side was looking for lasting peace. They did use diplomacy, but it was only part of the game. There is no question, historically, that Saladin wanted to reconquer Jerusalem."
Scott's film, well-intentioned as it is, may be only a baby step in the right direction, others say.
"The portrayal of Arabs may have gotten more complex since the days when every terrorist in an action movie had to be an Arab," says Kevin Hagopian, senior lecturer in media studies at Pennsylvania State University. "But I'm always concerned about the simplistic notion of what is positive. If Saladin is a great warrior and a person possessed of great native wisdom and a man of passionate religious fervor, then what we're now talking about is not so much a positive image as a sympathetic stereotype. At what point are American mediamakers going to start looking at Arabs as people and not as stereotypes, whether positive or negative?"