The Crusades (1935)

When generations of pedants have complained about historical inaccuracy in the movies, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Crusades could have been an effective and instructive Exhibit A for their cause. Fidelity to the historical record and delicacy in approaching a thorny religious and social epoch be damned: DeMille transferred his tried-and-tested homiletic vision of history from the ancient Roman arena of The Sign of the Cross (1932), paired it with the kind of quarrelling semi-screwball romantic drama he was fond of, and charged headlong into the fray. The screenplay, by Harold Lamb, Waldemar Young and Dudley Nichols, tosses out all mention of the first two crusades, and contrives to present a figure clearly based on Peter the Hermit (C. Aubrey Smith) inspiring Philip II of France (C. Henry Gordon) and Richard the Lionheart (Henry Wilcoxon) to wage war against the Saracens.

The Muslims are portrayed, apart from an evolving Saladin (Ian Keith), as haughty, swarthy, bloodthirsty fanatics gleefully selling Christian girls (including nuns!) into slavery, inspiring a typical DeMille mix of suffering piety and drooling anticipation of depravity, after capturing Jerusalem in an orgy of slaughter and icon-burning. The Hermit, after witnessing the city's rape by Saladin's conquering army (libellous nonsense: Saladin and his followers were far better behaved than the First Crusade's men, who butchered Muslims and Jews indiscriminately when they captured the city a century earlier), warns Saladin that he will go to Europe and preach Crusade, and he soon enlists Philip, but Philip, worried that Richard might prove a threat to his kingdom while he’s away, tries to yoke him by seeing him safely married to his sister Alice (Katherine DeMille), as Richard’s old man Henry II had planned. Richard’s portrayed as a ye-olde redneck with rough manners and rougher religion, and he opportunistically takes the Cross as an opt-out clause to avoid that unpleasant union.

The joke’s on Richard, however: leading his merry yeomen to war, Richard is compelled by the King of Navarre (George Barbier) to marry his daughter Berengaria (Loretta Young), in exchange for desperately needed provisions when the Crusader army is encamped at Marseilles. Richard’s so contemptuous of the forced arrangement that he refuses to attend the wedding, sending his dopey troubadour (Alan Hale - who else?) with his sword to seal the deal. This only cements the bad impression Berengaria’s had of Richard’s character, after witnessing his coarse behaviour with his army, but when he finally catches sight of her before setting sail, of course, he’s suddenly not eager to leave her behind. Their growing mutual adoration after such an inauspicious start proves both counterpoint and catalyst to much of what follows, as Richard’s determination to keep Berengaria as his wife infuriates Philip and threatens to split the Crusader fellowship, and the beautiful, diplomatic western woman bedazzles Saladin.

In spite of DeMille’s own dismissive memory of it as a box office failure, The Crusades was a hit, though perhaps not big enough to make back its great production costs immediately, and it solidified the director's comeback from a string of early sound-era flops. On the whole it’s a big, bristling entertainment, even if its greatest strength is indivisible from its biggest flaw: the affair of Richard and Berengaria takes up a vast chunk of the narrative. Subplots, like Conrad of Monferrat’s (Joseph Schildkraut) efforts to sell out Richard for Prince John’s (Ramsay Hill) benefit, don’t add up to much. Wilcoxon’s swaggering, virile, actually carefully nuanced performance as a rude yet redeemable Richard, and Young’s swooningly lovely look and fine feel for her character as embodiment of all the Christian virtues, are excellent, and they work up exactly the right kind of compelling love-hate tension to sustain the story. DeMille’s heroines usually came in two shapes: wilful and rebellious, needing to be taken down a peg, or righteous, modest, and lovingly martyred. Berengaria blends both varieties, seeing off Richard's unwelcome attentions in her tent by grabbing his sword and trying to swat him with it, but finally willing to go out and be killed by the Saracens to cease the quarrelling over her consuming the Crusader cause, and giving herself to Saladin to save Richard (yes, that's made up too, as if you didn't know).

The supporting cast is reduced to standing around watching them for great lengths of the film, but Keith’s pithy Saladin, Schildkraut’s fine, if rather wasted, mincing villainy, and the director’s daughter Katherine’s charismatic bitchery as Alice, all make an impression. Cecil’s over-large sense of character and gesture, as well as in narrative scope and production values, is always apparent; unrealistic as it certainly is, he communicates a sense of gravity and consequence in his visions of great kings and armies massing for earth-shaking purposes, through the vitality of his picture-book historicism. But the film is three-quarters finished before it reaches its major action set-piece, a fittingly chaotic, bloodcurdling vision of the siege and capture of Acre, the Christian armies marching en masse through the night wielding torches like a sea of truth, singing a hymn in readying to do battle, before colossal siege machines trundle forth, vats of flaming oil pour down on hapless soldiers, and Richard and his fellow armoured knights plough their way through ranks of Saracens.

DeMille seems a little stylistically unsure of himself on occasions, however. Although an epic scale was always the selling-point of his films – the absence of a major star here confirms that he could take that chance – the Paramount production is sometimes rather set-bound, corralling hordes of extras mostly through cramped-looking, pasteboard studio recreations of the historical milieu. The startling size of DeMille’s silent films, and his later works, is absent. The drama isn't as crisp as in its immediate precursor, Cleopatra (1934), and where that film sped through the civil war of Antony and Octavian in one blistering montage, here DeMille seems uncertain of how far he can push violent action for its own sake. The direction and editing of the Acre siege and the battle of Arsuf zip by with concussive, comic book-like rapidity; there's not much sense of tactics or cause and effect in terms of fighting a battle, but offer instead illustrative, furiously edited vignettes of thrilling, horrible war. As spectacle, in their sense of visual organisation and cause and effect to what, they nevertheless belong on a par with what Michael Curtiz and the Warner Bros. production teams were accomplishing on films like The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), and indeed Eisenstein’s work on Alexander Nevsky (1938), a film which might suggest more than a little inspiration drawn from DeMille’s example. DeMille’s constant use of blurring superimpositions and under-cranking renders the shots of clashing masses of cavalry are however hysterical and over-busy. His integrated action direction is more confident and fluent in the following year’s The Plainsman, and perhaps that’s why he chose to remember The Crusades as a failure.

Still, DeMille’s concise eye is apparent in moments like when Richard takes the cross, his followers holding up the hilts of their swords, a mass of cruciforms that renders the idea of “holy war” compellingly literal, and the charged image of the Hermit, captured by the Saracens, being riddled with arrows like St Sebastian, boiling the ideals and iconography of martyrdom down to a singular moment, driving the Crusaders to explosive rage. DeMille can even work up a scene as seemingly throwaway and silly as Berengaria’s being forced to marry a sword into a raw emotional and historical drama, through mystic lighting and rhythmic cutting. Whilst the film’s approach to the ideals of Crusading is for the most part platitudinous, he does present a spellbinding sketch in which wounded, desperate Crusaders climb a staircase to glimpse a fragment of the True Cross, reaching towards blessedness with their final exhausted breaths.

It’s all utterly cornball, of course, and the parochial depiction of Christian nobility against heathen sleaze fails to lay the groundwork for a late tilt at fair exploration of equivalency of faith. Berengaria declares that “So what if we call him Allah or God? Shall men fight if they travel different roads to him?”, and Saladin dismisses Richard’s desire to be a Christian hero because he has no faith at all. Richard only finds God right at the conclusion when he’s lost his kingdom, most of his army and his wife, and has instead stumbled on the way of peace and true religion as a wellspring within one’s self, not in holy places. Not convincing as history, perhaps, but a fitting conclusion, and it does succeed, perhaps, in communicating the way the Crusades altered Europe’s sense of itself and its religion. In this way, then, De Mille doesn’t entirely let down his subject.

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