In 1986, Oscar-nominated production designer Arthur Max ("Gladiator") visited Jerusalem in the midst of the intifada.
"People told me not to go almost everywhere, but I went everywhere," said Max, who is Jewish. "Of course, some of the Old City was closed off for security reasons, but I went to the Western Wall and into the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. And I stood on top of the Jaffa Gate and I looked out over what to me always had been a name, and suddenly I felt connected to my heritage, a close connection to all the Jewish history I had studied as a bar mitzvah.
Max drew on those feelings to recreate medieval Jerusalem for "Kingdom of Heaven," in which the protagonists also journey to Jerusalem to connect to their religious roots. The Ridley Scott film revolves around a crusader (Orlando Bloom) swept up in the 12th-century battle between Christian King Balian and Muslim leader Saladin.
If Scott is known for dissecting heroes braving fierce odds in movies such as "Alien" and "Gladiator," Max's Jerusalem is an epic (and besieged) character in its own right. While Jews are relegated to extra roles, the city itself is stunningly depicted in detailed close-ups and otherworldly vistas.
Scott, for his part, wanted Jerusalem to appear as "the romantic, golden city," not because of the color of its stone but because the film's characters "saw it as a metaphor for idealism," he told The Journal.
"The message is that for our heroes, Jerusalem is a symbolic, iconic place that represents God's city," Max said. "Because of my background I felt compelled to 'get' the city, not so much scholastically as emotionally correct."
As he began researching his production design, Max again visited the Old City and snapped photographs from atop the perimeter walls.
"But there was too much intrusion from later periods; too much commercial and industrial clutter," he said.
For inspiration, he instead turned to 19th-century romantic painters, such as David Roberts, who had depicted the city using dramatic lighting and visual exaggeration. An 1853 work by the German artist Auguste Loeffler became a key image for the film: "It's a wide view of distant Jerusalem under stormy skies but with sunlight breaking through," he said. "You see these whitewashed and golden walls of the city gleaming in the light, but all around the landscape is forbidding. And I showed this painting to Ridley and he said, 'That's it, the golden city on the hill under siege, threatened by all the dark forces around it.'"
To recreate this romanticized Jerusalem, Scott agreed the real city wouldn't do -- not just because of the commercial clutter but because of the congestion and the political unrest. Instead, he decided to build his set outside the Moroccan town of Ouarzazate, at the foot of the Atlas Mountains, an area in which he had shot segments of "Gladiator." He and Max spent days bouncing around the desert in an SUV until they discovered a wide plain upon which they could construct "Kingdom's" centerpiece set: the exterior of Jerusalem.
Over five months in 2003, Max and his 350-person crew molded 6,000 tons of plaster into more than 28,000 square meters of wall on the arid plateau.
"We modeled our physical set on the oldest military structures of Jerusalem, such as those located in the Citadel, also known as the Tower of David," he said. "But while we built large sections of walls and ramparts, with computers we digitally added the rest of the city, based on scanned images of ancient ruins, iconic Jerusalem structures such as the Dome of the Rock -- all inspired by the 19th century painters."
Max, 59, led his multinational crew with ease, in part because of his own diverse background. Speaking precisely in an accent that is half-American, half-British in a phone interview, he said his Sephardic family fled Spain during the Inquisition, spent centuries in Belarus, and eventually landed in New York, where Max grew up in a Reform family but was bar mitzvahed in an Orthodox synagogue. Since then he has lived in Rome and London, and calls himself a "Wandering Jew."
On the set, he regaled his crew with tales, remembered from his childhood religious studies, of how Jerusalem had been conquered and reconquered since the destruction of the First Temple.
In contemporary Jerusalem, the conflict continues, prompting Max and Scott to draw parallels between the film and current events.
"It's like we keep replaying history," Scott said. "The holy wars are the fundamental basis of Jerusalem today."
"Kingdom" itself has been under siege from various factions. Scott received death threats from extremist Islamic groups while on location in Morocco; Christian conservatives in the United States will reportedly protest the film, which they feel depicts crusaders as less than chivalrous, and some Jews will dislike one character's observation that in Jerusalem, "no one has claim and all have claim." (Scott, too, feels "the city should be shared, not belonging to one country or another.")
Max, for his part, believes the movie does not take sides.
"Surely the film is a plea for tolerance, and against extremism of all kinds," he said.
"Kingdom of Heaven" opens today in Los Angeles.