Saladin Dressing

Posted by sepoy on May 16, 2005 · 7 mins read

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]:

In contrast, The Crusades was a favourite film in Muslim countries. It profoundly affected Egyptian Prime Minister, Col. Gamal Abdal Nasser and his best friend General Abdel Hakin Amer. When DeMille and Henry Wilcoxon were introduced to them while in Egypt making the second The Ten Commandments, General Amer enthusiastically confessed:

"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.


cheetah | May 16, 2005

I think it is about time the West stopped being apologetic for the Crusades. I long for the day when Islamic intellectuals and artists apply the same level of criticism and introspection to the Islamic Crusades; the conquests, Jihads and wars of expansion, which involved the persecution of non Muslims, the active destruction of opposing religions and their places of worship. But that day is not coming soon, because Muslim intellectuals dont have the ability to introspect and take a calm critical look at the history of Islamic civilization. They are too comfortable wallowing in the sense of their victimhood and self pity, unwilling to face the fact that Islam is an Imperial civilisation that participated in horrific Imperial crusades. Until then, the West should stop the self flaggelation

haroon | May 17, 2005

I am always amused by Arab nationalists, whether really pan-Arab or only strategically so, latching onto Salah al-Din, a Kurd, for their cause. Most amusing is Saddam, who liked to identify with the Kurd while treating the modern-day Kurds with vile contempt. It was unfortunate that KoH did not point out the multi-ethnic character of Salah al-Din's armies and generals...

Chrysostomos | May 17, 2005

I just got done reading another person's observation on KOH. I thought he made some very good points, at least from a Christian perspective in regards to the movie. I encourage you to visit the site. I plan on writing about this view within the next few days at my own blog. Thanks for your words, I will have to check out the Cecil B. DeMille version. Here's the link to that blog: Rd. Chrysostomos

farhad | May 17, 2005

something not related to this post....i thought George Galloway gave an unbelievable testimony in US senate comt. I dont care if he has taken money from Saddam regime or not... but the way he took them on and the way he reminded them of their double standards is remarkable! I dont think they were expecting something like this at all or they were?