It is through Richard the Lionheart that we get Saladin [neÈ Salah ud Din Ayyubi] into Western cinema. In most cases, these were small roles or even just dialogue. His character was peripherally important to the story of King Richard – the noble savage who personified the purity that eluded King Richard’s crusading brethern. Hence, in over a dozen film adaptations of Richard the Lionheart since 1923, Saladin appears as a cast role in about four.
The most important one for our purposes today is Cecil B. DeMille’s 1935 The Crusades – the first major cinematic portrayl of Salah ud Din. About his Saladin, DeMille is quoted to have said, “One of my objectives [was] to bring out that the Saracens were a cultivated people, and their great leader, Saladin, as perfect and gentle a knight as any in Christiandom.” NYT in its review credited DeMille with having a “great deal of nerve”. DeMille’s Crusades failed to make much money and his vision of Salah ud Din more or less vanished. Yet, it became a very popular film in the Muslim world. Kozlovic, in his paper on DeMille, quotes from Lionheart in Hollywood by Henry Wilcoxon [who worked with DeMille for over 30 years]:
“Mr DeMille, Mr. Wilcoxon, you will perhaps remember a movie you made called The Crusades?” “Oh, yes,” Mr. DeMille said, as he at last felt his feet touch firm ground. “I made that one in 1935.” “Quite right,” Amer said, “and Mr. Wilcoxon here starred at Richard Coeur-de-Lion.” We nodded. “Well, perhaps you did not know that The Crusades was a very popular film in our Muslim country – due to its fair presentation of both sides and its portrayal of Saladin as a great and holy leader of his people. So popular, in fact, that it ran for three years in the same theater. And during those three years, when Colonel Nasser and I were first in military academy, we saw The Crusades perhaps as many as twenty times. It was our favorite picture. “That’s very gratifying,” Mr. DeMille said, thinking the speech was over. “It’s always been my favorite as well.” “Just a moment please,” Amer said gentley. “Colonel Nasser was so taken with the character of the Lionheart in your movie that he told everyone in the military academy that when he grew up he was going to be just like that, and that’s how the other boys came to call him Henry Wilcoxon!”
In 1963, Youssef Chahine’s marvelous Nasserian-propoganda El Naser Salah el Dine, picked up DeMille and, set forth Salah ud Din as an Arab nationalist hero who manages to unite the Arabs – not for religion but for nation. In DeMille, Salah ud Din was the noble savage who cast the waywardness of the Crusaders in sharp relief, in Chahine, he becomes the solitary hero who has the character and wisdom to look past the walls of intolerance and hatred [of Chahine's later dis-enchantment with the Nasserian revolution see Adieu Bonaparte].
The solitary figure of the idealistic and principled Salah ud Din imagined by DeMille or Chahine is not new in historical or literary imagination. We can start with Dante’s Inferno – “And saw alone, apart, the Saladin”, where Salah ud Din is the lonely Muslim in Limbo. We can trace this almost-positive portrait throughout medieval histories and literature but we will leave that aside for some other time. Let’s keep going with the cinema to Kingdom of Heaven [Cole and Angry Arab are reviews worth reading]. This depiction of Salah ud Din continues the theme of goodness but, mechanically, is quite subdued.
Salah ud Din, as all the characters in KoH painfully enunciate, is more-or-less a cardboard figure of the principled adversary. His screen time is limited as is his agency. At first, I thought that he was in disguise as the non-descript Arab who is set free by Balian [as here]. That would have been quite interesting. But, no. That was just a General of Salah ud Din, who emerges, later, clad in black. We have already heard of him numerous times from his Christian adversaries before we see him – mostly in terms of respect. Later, we see scattered scenes of his impassive face. He seems to be a hands-on kinda guy – personally dispatching Reynald, walking over to negotiate with Baldwin and Balian [what was up with the weird two-fisted proclamation about the worth of Jerusalem at the end?]. The scene where he stands, in stark relief, all-in-black against the all-in-white King Baldwin [and, later, the grey Balian] was great. He is a pragmatist, yielding the assualt on Jerusalem only when Balian proclaims that he will lose most of his army trying to take it. He is prepared to slaughter all but tells Balian that he will guarantee the safe exodus of civilians and crusaders. When he enters Jerusalem, he picks up the fallen cross and sets it right.
The fact that Salah ud Din is portrayed well is par for his record on the silver screen. To properly read KoH, we must look at how the other Muslims are protrayed in the movie. The fact that Balian, from cold and stoney France, has to teach the desert dwellers the facts of canal irrigation irked me. There were never any “faces”, nor “word-less characters” among the Arabs. The camera did not linger on anyone besides the crusaders. We had aerial shots of the Moroccan army beating against the gates of Jerusalem. If those inside the castle were fighting to save the women and children, what were those outside the castle fighting for? ["Jerusalem means nothing. It means Everything"]. I do appreciate that a big studio summer film can come out criticizing religion and the crusaders in such an overt fashion. But, for once, I would like Muslims to be more than shadow-puppets of the guilty liberal conscience.