Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Crusades (1935)

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.

In the film Richard’s motivation is joining the Crusade is rather odd - it is the only way he can be released from his betrothal to Alys, sister of Philip II of France. Unfortunately by the time Richard’s army reaches Marseilles he’s run out of money and his army has run of food. King Sancho of Navarre comes to his rescue, supplying Richard with all the supplies he needs. There’s just one condition - Richard must marry Sancho’s daughter Berengaria (Loretta Young). Richard agrees but there will be trouble as a result, given that Alys has decided to accompany him on Crusade.

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.

Henry Wilcoxon is surprisingly good as Richard – he’s terribly heroic of course, but he does bring also bring out his fundamental irresponsibility and hot-headedness, and his somewhat shabby treatment of Berengaria, so there is more to the characterisation than you might expect. The only thing wrong with Wilcoxon is that he doesn’t quite have the charisma that a hero of an epic needs. Ian Keith is very good as Saladin, although again it’s a performance that lacks that vital spark of charisma. 

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.

As Berengaria Loretta Young is very pretty and outrageously noble and self-sacrificing. Most of the supporting players are adequate, although C. Aubrey Smith is perhaps just a little hammy (as he always was) as a Christian holy man. DeMille’s adopted daughter Katherine DeMiIle is delightfully spiteful as Alys.

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 most interesting thing about the movie is the message it conveys. For a movie about war it’s actually very pro-peace. And for a movie about a clash between religions it’s actually a plea for religious tolerance. DeMille hired Harold Lamb, an historian and a fine writer of historical fiction, as a technical advisor on the film. Lamb’s historical fiction is notable for its even-handedness towards other cultures and his influence can I think be seen in the script. 

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment