It has been nearly four years since Islamic terrorists attacked the United States, prompting the country's Christian president to declare a "crusade" against terrorism. So, with heated rhetoric and serious casualties rising on all sides, Sir Ridley Scott could not help but know that he was taking on a huge responsibility when he forged ahead with Kingdom of Heaven, his new epic about the original Crusades and the people on both sides who fought in them.
Speaking to a roomful of mostly Christian reporters, Scott—whose films include Gladiator, Alien and Blade Runner—recalls tackling similar themes in Black Hawk Down, his film about a disastrous American military operation in Somalia. That film was originally scheduled for release in early 2002, but after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington D.C. just months before, the release date was actually moved up.
"Whilst that was happening," says Scott, "I had already talked to [Kingdom of Heaven screenwriter] Bill Monahan, whose pet subject is just this period. I think we would have made this film with or without the Gulf War and with or without 9/11, basically."
The new film, which opens this week, does not actually take place during one of the Crusades, but in the years between them, just prior to the Third Crusade. Scott says the film was deliberately set during this period so that it would end on a "here we go again" note, with King Richard the Lionheart setting out on his own military mission after the film's battles have come to an end.
"Unfortunately we don't seem to learn from history, do we?" he asks. "And you'd think we would. The very last line [in the film] says it's still going on in the Holy Land, we're still searching for settlement. It's a recycling process that has gone on for 1,000 years."
Scott says he was drawn to Monahan's "passion" for the Crusades and the issues raised by them; and he was particularly drawn to the fact that the film's protagonist, Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom), is a doubter on a spiritual journey who goes on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to atone for his sins and finds himself swept up in the politics of the Holy City.
"This character is on a spiritual journey, to reinforce or not his doubts about the existence of God," Scott says, adding that he identifies with Balian's skepticism. "I'm agnostic, which means 'not sure,' right? So I'm not sure. How many people at this table are agnostic? Put your hands up!"
Scott grins as one reporter tells him he's in the wrong room. "I'm agnostic because I went through the usual process of parents insisting you go to church and yet they didn't," he continues. "So there's me, sitting in the chairs, thinking, 'Jeez, why am I here? I'd rather be playing tennis, seriously.' And then I was an altar boy, and then it was a year before my parents realized that I actually hadn't turned up to become an altar boy, and in fact, I was indeed playing tennis for a year on Sunday evenings. So that's when they said, 'I guess that's not for you,' and I said, 'Not really.'"
Scott is quick to emphasize that, while he may have his doubts about religious systems and institutions, he doesn't have a problem with faith, per se—and he notes that Jesus himself, according to at least some interpretations of Luke 17:21, says the kingdom of heaven is within people themselves.
"The word 'religion' is only a label," says Scott. "What lies behind that, the most important thing of all, is the word 'faith'. You either have faith, or you don't have faith, or you have degrees of faith—and if you have degrees of faith, then you become agnostic. You're kind of in-between or you're on the fence."