It’s only a movie. Or is it?

Sunday’s Washington Post has an interesting piece about the new Crusades epic “Kingdom of Heaven,” coming soon to a theater near you.

Unsurprisingly, in these post-9/11 times, it’s already generating controversy.

“It’s Osama bin Laden’s version of history. It will fuel the Islamic fundamentalists,” the eminent Crusades historian Jonathan Riley-Smith of Cambridge University complained to the Telegraph in January 2004 after encountering some initial PR for the film.

“I believe this movie teaches people to hate Muslims,” UCLA Islamic law professor Khaled Abou El Fadl told the New York Times in August after reading a script the newspaper had provided, which he saw as riddled with stereotypes.

On the other hand the Council on American-Islamic Relations said the film offers “a balanced and positive depiction of Islamic culture during the Crusades.”

Resisting the temptation to comment on the movie before actually seeing it, I’ll just note Riley-Smith’s prediction that it will “fuel” Islamic fundamentalists.

Haven’t we been here before?

Just last year there were dire warnings that Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” would fuel antisemitism. Some of the warnings came close to suggesting that audiences would storm out of the theaters and launch pogroms.

I never saw “Passion,” though a number of those who did said its depiction of the Jews’ involvement in the crucifiction of Jesus was antisemitic. Others disagreed. But the point is, in terms of fueling active hatred of present-day Jews, I suspect “Passion”‘s role was negligible.

I also seem to remember warnings a few years ago that the film “Michael Collins,” about the Irish independence fighter, could stir up fresh sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. Again reports of impending troubles were greatly exaggerated.

And there were similar worries that the 1970s TV miniseries “Roots”– with its portrayal of Africans being captured and shipped as slaves to America– could spark racial violence.

I’m sure there have been other warnings since the time more than a century ago that someone figured out how to make pictures move on a screen. After all watching a movie can be a powerful, emotion-stirring experience.

So it’s tempting to say that these periodic alarms are overblown. But what about the Nazi propaganda films of Leni Reifenstahl and others? Many of them were produced with the express purpose of provoking hatred, and they were far from harmless. But can anyone point to an example of a commercial historical movie actually “fueling” widespread hatred?