Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Crusades (1935)

Richard Hood: King of Crusaders

- Artists' depictions of the Crusades have been presented through songs, paintings, stories, and other forms of popular media for centuries. One way in which we do this in our day and age is through film and a particularly accessible film about the crusades is Cicel B. DeMille's 1935 epic adventure The Crusades.

DeMille is known for some of the most epic films in the Golden Age of Hollywood and many of his films often dealt with religion. The Ten Commandments (1959), Sampson And Delilah (1949), The Sign Of The Cross (1934), and The King Of Kings (1927) are perfect examples of DeMille's religiously toned epic films – if you need a guy to make you a religious epic in the 1930s, DeMille is the guy to do it. The Crusades certainly includes a heavy religious component (in this case, Christianity) but the way that the film depicts the rest of the Crusade narrative on screen is laughable at best.

The film centers on the English King, Richard "the Lionhearted," and his journey to the Holy Land to fight in the Third Crusade. But rather than tell a historically-based story of Richard's time in the Levant, the film tells a very fictionalized and watered-down account of the Crusades to seemingly heighten the entertainment factor of its action/adventure/romance story. In a nutshell: The Crusades sees Richard meeting and marrying Princess Berengaria on the route to the Holy Land to fight in the Third Crusade; however, Richard is forced to make a detour and rescue Berengaria when she is captured by the Muslim military leader Saladin who has fallen in love with her.

Anyone who knows anything about the crusades is laughing out loud right now - or, at the very least, is giggling a little bit inside. By changing the story into basically a Crusades-set Robin Hood story (where Robin Hood must rescue Maid Marion who has been kidnapped by the Sheriff of Nottingham), DeMille creates an average crowd-pleasing Hollywood story rather than an intelligent cinematic recreation of the Third Crusade.

The Crusades begins its historical faux pas with its depiction of its hero: King Richard. King Richard has been described at the time of the crusades as a brilliant military mind – a strong, imposing, and daring man in his early 30s. Also, Richard is known to have had great religious zeal, vowing to take up the cross after hearing of the aftermath of the Battle of Hattin and even using his own riches to finance the crusade. The Crusades, through actor Henry Wilcoxon's boring performance, does portray Richard as a young and strong swashbuckler of a King but the film glances over any sort of military know-how that Richard may have had. Richard is the film's hero and conquers many Saracen foes but there is little rhyme or reason (or any kind of strategy) to his attacks.

Also, Richard is not portrayed as the religious man that history describes. In fact, the film tries to add depth to the character by having Richard actually struggle with his faith. The main reason Richard even takes up the cross in the movie is so that he can get out of marrying King Philip's sister (as he heard a holy man say that all earthly oaths will be erased once a person takes up the cross) and he is only motivated to attack Acre and Jerusalem when his wife is taken by Saladin! King Richard comes off as more of a joke Errol Flynn imposter than a Lion King.

Other characters do not get historically sound representations either. The film's portrayal of King Philip II Augustus of France is the complete opposite to how history describes. Instead of portraying Philip as the (basically) sickly coward that he was, the character is turned into another mighty broad-chested European warrior through the performance of C. Henry Gordon. Through all of his cunning, big talk, and ultimate failures I have always found King Philip to be one of the more interesting players of the real Crusades and the fact that he does not get an accurate representation in The Crusades is quite disappointing.

Saladin also receives a highly inaccurate, romanticized and westernized portrayal. Ever since the time of the Third Crusade, Saladin has often been painted as a chivalric opponent by westerners and Ian Keith's performance of Saladin in The Crusades certainly falls in line with the "chivalrous hero of the West" style portrayal of Saladin. Rather than portray Saladin as the ruthless yet often merciful Muslim military mind, Keith and the film portray Saladin very similarly to a European crusader. The way he stands, the way he talks, and the way he interacts with the European crusaders is not very different than how the film's European heroes walk, talk, and interact. If he did not talk about Allah so much throughout the film, one would confuse him for a European ruler. By refusing to adapt the character according to how history describes him and creating yet another romanticized and westernized Saladin caricature, the film truly misses an opportunity in featuring an interesting antagonist.

The Crusades definitely paints a positive picture of the crusades and crusading, sometimes in very extreme ways. While the quite historically inaccurate and freaking weird love triangle between King Richard, Berengaria, and Saladin is the main focus of the film, Christianity is also clearly a primary element. The Crusades paints the European crusaders as having great zeal for their religion and thinking of nothing else when deciding whether or not to take up the cross and fight Muslims in the Holy Land. This aspect of the film is refreshing. Too many times, the Crusaders have often been portrayed as blood thirsty mobs with no motivation for their military pilgrimage other than to kill and to plunder. History finds that the opposite is true for most Crusaders. While undoubtedly some were in the fight for blood, riches and glory, the vast majority of Crusaders were actually motivated by religious fervor.

However, The Crusades, rather unfortunately, presents the Christian aspects of the crusades in a way that is far too glorified and clear cut. While the film does attribute solid faith-rooted motivations to its Crusaders, it does not explain the inner workings of how religion and politics started and fueled the Crusades; the Catholic Church basically misusing its own his high religious standing to send its own congregations to war. The Crusaders, according to the film, were not only motivated by their faith - which they were - but their wartime deeds were also paid off by some serious, life-changing religious experiences - which is hard to believe was the case.

One scene is especially interesting in how the film presents Christianity and the crusaders: after the battle for Acre, a soldier who is weak and dying in King Richard's arms blissfully finds solace in having "touched the 'True Cross.'" As Richard takes the soldier back to see the "True Cross" again, the film displays a small crowd of soldiers and religious men struck stiff with awe as they are showered in the thick white light of the "True Cross," crawling towards it like a grasshopper crawling to an outdoor streetlight. The scene is quite over the top and very funny (especially considering how many "True Crosses" there are *now* let alone how many there must have been at the time!) - but it certainly is the most memorable scene of the movie and highlights how the film associates the Crusaders with a great faith rather than with a lust for war. Truly getting a powerfully religious experience, these crusaders found what they were looking for on this crusade: not blood or riches but a religious experience.

Like most films, the primary focus of DeMille's 1935 film The Crusades is to entertain the viewer, which it ultimately does and does not at the same time. The film is well shot (earning a Best Cinematography Oscar nomination) and has some good action scenes (for the 1930s anyway – come one, when is it not fun to watch soldiers pour burning tar on an invading army?). However, The Crusades includes a heavy amount of dated cheesy humor and butchers history with its characters, making the story ridiculous.

CBC Rating: 5/10

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