Bound for ‘Heaven’?

Pic has been accused of short-shrifting real history

Given the Islam-Christianity conflict that’s central to Ridley Scott‘s Crusades epic “Kingdom of Heaven,” the film’s release across the Mideast was nonetheless generating huge interest — and nervous speculation.

Pic opened on 21 screens in the United Arab Emirates, nine in Lebanon, six in Kuwait, three in both Qatar and Jordan and on single screens in Bahrain, Oman and Syria.

“We’re expecting admissions of over 100,000 in both Lebanon and the U.A.E.,” says Hiyam Itani of Circuit Empire, which is handling the pic for Fox in the Mideast. “People are really interested in it. They can relate to the story and the religious aspects. After all, it happened here.”

But the film has also been dogged in recent months by accusations that it short-shrifts real history. Jonathon Riley-Smith, one of Britain’s leading authorities on the Crusades, labeled it “Osama Bin Laden’s version of history” and said, “It will fuel the Islamic fundamentalists.” Islamic professor Khaled Abu Fadl of the U. of California accused the film of “teaching people to hate Muslims.”

But so far the pic has avoided such labels across the region, and interest has been raised even further thanks to its positive depiction of Saladin, played by Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud.

It’s the first time a Syrian actor has starred in a blockbuster, and Massoud will attend the Syrian preem.

“The press are really celebrating his performance,” says Itani.