Cecil B. DeMille’s The Crusades is one of those wonderful Hollywood historical epics that has almost nothing to do with actual history. As a movie, though, it’s hugely entertaining.
Released by Paramount in 1935 and costing $1.42 million (DeMille uncharacteristically running over budget and behind schedule) the movie was one of DeMille’s biggest commercial flops. DeMille was mystified by its failure and always believed it was a good movie.
Ostensibly The Crusades deals with Richard I of England and his involvement in the Third Crusade, although mostly it focuses on the relationship between Richard and his bride, Berengaria of Navarre. It incorporates certain incidents and characters from earlier Crusades and mixes real history with a good deal of extravagantly imaginary material.
In real life the disastrous defeat of the Crusader army at the Horns of Hattin in 1187 and the subsequent capture of Jerusalem by Saladin provided the impetus for the Third Crusade.
The subject matter was well chosen given that the Third Crusade pitted the greatest and most celebrated Muslim leader, Saladin, against the greatest and most celebrated Christian leader of the era, King Richard I (Richard Lionheart) of England. Both Saladin and Richard are heroes not just of history but of legend and romance and both certain qualify as larger-than-life characters.
The first half of the movie focuses almost entirely on Richard’s complicated marital difficulties and the plots hatched against him by jealous rivals among the many kings and princelings taking part in the Crusade.
The action finally kicks in when Richard besieges the city of Acre, held by Saladin. From that point on there’s a great deal of action, interspersed with an extremely fanciful romantic triangle involving Richard, Saladin and Berengaria. Richard has vowed to take Jerusalem and Saladin has vowed to stop him and neither man has any intention of backing down. The ending, about which I propose to say nothing, is likely to come as a considerable surprise.
Both Richard and Saladin begin the story as ambitious and arrogant men of violence (although tempered in both cases by a sense of honour). As the tale progresses they become more human and eventually they develop a mutual respect. It’s perhaps a little surprising to encounter actual character development in a movie like this.
Visually this movie has all of DeMille’s many strengths as a director. His framing of shots is exquisite and imaginative. DeMille was not a great believer in moving the camera unless he really needed to do and mostly he didn’t since he was a master of the art of creating a sense of movement and dynamism within a static frame. As always the more complex his shots and the more extras he has involved in them the more impressive DeMille’s skills become.The siege of Acre in this film is one of his great cinematic achievements.
The sets are magnificent of course.
The Crusades is a movie about war, love and religious faith. On the whole, despite the liberties it takes with history, it’s remarkably successful and it looks magnificent. A very underrated movie by a great director. Highly recommended.