'Kingdom of Heaven' in wars with historians

Cinema Some 800 years on, the motives and manners of the Christian Crusaders and their Muslim enemies, who fought savage battles…

CinemaSome 800 years on, the motives and manners of the Christian Crusaders and their Muslim enemies, who fought savage battles for control of Christian holy places in the Middle East, still stir passionate debate.

The new battleground is Kingdom of Heaven, Ridley Scott's epic movie which has drawn praise from Muslim groups for its sympathetic portrayal of Saladin - the Kurdish commander of the Muslim armies - but been dismissed by a leading British academic as "Osama bin Laden's version of history".

Scott is unapologetic, saying he followed historical fact while admitting that cramming the events of more than 200 years into a single film meant some events were given greater significance than others.

"You try to give yourself as little [ poetic] licence as possible in terms of the seriousness of this particular point in history," Scott said at the European premiere of the $140 million blockbuster, which opens today. Asked about historians' squabbles over the film, many aired before it had even been made, he added: "Every historian is an expert."

At the centre of discussion is Scott's portrayal of Saladin and his Saracen forces, who defeated the Christian army at the Battle of Hattin in 1187 before taking Jerusalem.

Muslims who feel they have been the victims of aggression, notably because of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, will be particularly sensitive about the portrayal of Saladin, according to one Cairo-based academic.

"The general feeling here is that we are being targeted for destruction," said Mohamed el-Sayed Said, deputy director of the al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

Scott has been accused of being too sympathetic to Saladin and for demonising the Knights Templar.

Long before the film was finished, Prof Jonathan Riley-Smith at Cambridge University called it "nonsense" and "Osama bin Laden's version of history."

Dr Jonathan Phillips, lecturer in Crusading History at Royal Holloway University in London, who has seen the film, is less extreme in his criticism but says the portrayal of Saladin is simplistic.

"Saladin is as desperate [ as the knights], if not more desperate, to fight," he said. "What the film can't show is that he spent 13 years building a coalition . . . promising 'I will deliver Jerusalem'."

Dr Phillips's main problem with the film was its hero Balian, played by Orlando Bloom, who doubts the existence of God.

"The idea in the middle of the film is unhistorical and deeply inaccurate," Dr Phillips said.

"Bloom succeeds by rejecting God, but it just wouldn't work. If he stood up and drew those conclusions he would have been burnt as an agent of the devil.