The Quest of Sir Ridley Scott
- 2005 2 May
In England, he’s known as “Sir,” as in, Sir Ridley Scott – a title that speaks to the knighthood that the English-born Scott received in 2003 for contributions to the arts.
In America, however, he’s considered a cinematic genius – a director whose films populate our cultural landscape as much as they do the Hollywood award scene. In 2000, Scott secured himself a place in history with "Gladiator," which won five Oscars out of a total 12 nominations, including Best Picture. The next year, "Black Hawk Down" depicted the American conflict in Mogadishu, Somalia, earning Scott his third Academy Award nomination – and galvanizing a generation of young soldiers to enlist.
It’s something that even Sir Scott could not have predicted.
Born in Northumberland, England, Scott studied graphic design and painting then graduated with honors from London’s Royal Academy of Art, where he completed his first film. He joined the BBC as a production designer and was soon directing television programs for the network.
Scott eventually directed more than 3,000 commercials, receiving notable awards for his work, then in 1978 made the leap to the big screen with "The Duellists," a Napoleonic War saga which received the coveted Jury Prize at Cannes. But it was Scott’s second film, the cutting-edge science fiction thriller, "Alien" (which earned an Oscar for Visual Effects) that brought Scott to the forefront as a leading director.
He followed up with "Blade Runner," which many consider to be a landmark masterpiece. Other films have included "Legend", "1492: Conquest of Paradise" and "Thelma and Louise," which received five Academy Award Nominations – including Scott’s first as Best Director. With his brother, Scott made "White Squall"; "G.I. Jane" and "Hannibal." He also helped create visual effects for "Shakespeare in Love", "Babe: Pig in the City", "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone" and "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider."
Now, Scott is tackling another subject – the Crusades – and like many of his projects, this film is both political and filled with men at war with one another, as well as with themselves.
“I’d always wanted to make a movie about knights and medieval times, the Crusades especially,” Scott said, during a recent promotional tour for "Kingdom of Heaven." “Historically, the knight – like the cowboy or the policeman – represents a person on the leading edge of his culture at a particular time. These figures have always given us great opportunities to tell stories that carry the attributes of a hero. And one of the most important is that the character carries with him his own degrees of fairness, faithfulness and chivalry.”
Set between the First and Second Crusades, in 1186, "Kingdom of Heaven" tells the story of Balian (Orlando Bloom), a young blacksmith who has just lost his wife and child – and with them, his faith. Although Balian has little interest in the religious wars raging in the faraway Holy Land, they are brought close to him with the arrival of a group of knights in Balian’s village. Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), a renowned Crusader and friend of King Baldwin IV, announces that he is Balian’s father and invites his son to join him in Jerusalem.
“He doesn’t offer him land,” said Bloom. “He doesn’t offer him money. He offers him family. He offers him the chance to be his son, working for him in the Holy Land.”
Although Balian has no desire to go, circumstances soon force him on this pilgrimage, where he hopes to find forgiveness. He travels with other knights and mercenaries, who teach him to fight, and also with the Hospitalier, a knight-confessor who was part of a monastic brotherhood that catered to the needs of Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land.
Soon, Godfrey knights Balian and bids him to keep the peace in Jerusalem. But once there, Balian discovers that not only are the Christians at war with the Muslims, they are also at war with themselves. Although King Baldwin tries to maintain order, he is doomed to die young, and plans for his throne – as well as his sister, the beautiful Sibylla (newcomer Eva Green) – threaten them all.
“There is an array of complex itineraries in Jerusalem, a lot of them self-serving,” Scott says. “Everyone is pushing and shoving after their own agendas.”
Typically, the film portrays Muslims as righteous, but it also represents Christians fairly. There are evil Muslims and evil Christians, but also good men in both camps. And, while the righteous Christians are pacifists – which underscores the film’s political message – this is not dealt with in a heavy-handed way. Moreover, given the fact that the Crusades were some of the bloodiest years in church history, they would be difficult to justify with any Biblical agenda.
“The greatest difficulty was how you tell this story, particularly in these given times,” Scott said.
Plans were underway for the film prior to the Gulf War, right before 9/11. Scott had already made "Black Hawk Down" and was waiting for an appropriate time to release that (which turned out to be Christmas). But, Scott said, "Kingdom of Heaven" would have been made with or without the Gulf War, and with or without 9/11.
“It’s the passion of the period – the passion of the idea of what drives a person, a knight, to pursue his doubts that he has about his faith. This character is on a spiritual journey, to reinforce or not his doubts about the existence of God,” he said.
In some ways, Balian’s journey mirrors that of Scott who, while professing to agnosticism, also indicated that he is on a quest for truth – something depicted in most of his films.
“Agnostic means not sure, right? So I'm not sure, and the idea is valid. It's a question,” he said. “I’m agnostic because I went through the usual process of parents insisting I go to church – and yet they didn't. So there’s me, sitting in the chairs thinking, jeez, why am I here, when I'd rather be playing tennis. I decided fairly early on that I simply wasn’t certain about this – because I wasn’t getting specifics. I wasn’t getting voices, I was feeling no different.”
It is perhaps not surprising then, that at the end of the film, Balian remains an agnostic. The hero has found answers, but he has not ended his journey. And neither, apparently, has Scott.
Starring Orlando Bloom, Liam Neeson, Eva Green, Brenda Gleeson and Jeremy Irons, 20th Century Fox's "Kingdom of Heaven" releases nationwide on Friday, May 6, 2005.
Photos © 20th Century Fox