Movie Commentary: Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Crusades” August 24, 2010Posted by rwf1954 in Cecil B. DeMille, historical fiction, movie commentary, the crusades, Uncategorized.
Tags: Cecil B. DeMille, commentary, comments, Crusades, historical accuracy, historical fiction, movie commentary, movies, Richard the Lionheart, Saladin
Before Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven,” Hollywood made two other crusades epics, the 1935 Cecil B. DeMille black-and-white production of “The Crusades,” and the 1954 “King Richard and the Crusaders,” with Rex Harrison as Saladin. This post will discuss the Cecil B. DeMille effort.
(I have written about the Ridley Scott movie: “Kingdom of Heaven:” Sorting Fact from Fiction.”)
Honestly, it feels a little rude and unfair to beat up on an old movie. But one measure of the success of a piece of art, and that includes film, is how that piece of art stands the test of time. So while wanting to respect a revered film-maker like Cecil B. DeMille, we cannot drop standards when looking at his work.
Looking at historical accuracy in “The Crusades,” we find so much that is blatantly wrong that it is easier to point out the few accuracies:
- The admirable, noble qualities of Saladin are largely present in “The Crusades.”
- The peace terms that end the movie are essentially the same terms that ended the Third Crusade” (the conflict between the forces led by Richard the Lionheart and Saladin). The movie turns around one major detail involving the peace—in “The Crusaders,” Saladin refuses to allow Richard to enter Jerusalem; in truth Richard was invited to go but refused to go to the city he had failed to recapture for Christianity.
- Richard does refuse to marry Alice, sister of King Philip II of France, and instead marries Berengaria of Navarre, though the true circumstances are completely different from those depicted in the movie.
- In the film, Conrad of Montferrat comes across as a slimy schemer against Richard’s interests. And Conrad certainly was an enemy of Richard during the Third Crusade, though not in the way depicted in the movie.
- Richard the Lionheart does marry Berengaria on the way to the Middle East (He meets up with her in Sicily and marries her in Cyprus), and she comes with him to Acre and stays with him throughout his time in the Middle East. (She never does join him in England.)
Cecil B. DeMille was known for huge spectacles, and at times, “The Crusades” lived up to that reputation. But more often, this black-and-white film looked like a filmed stage-play shot on hastily constructed soundstages. Also, as in “Kingdom of Heaven,” DeMille has us viewing flaming balls. Though they look dazzling on screen, they are not accurate historically. The Muslims had Greek fire, which was delivered as a liquid. The action is often underscored with huge choruses and fanfares, backing up moves made by the Christian forces, seeming to glorify the Christian military activities. This seems out of place given the current attitude toward the crusades, as misplaced wars of religious fanaticism. So even as a spectacle, the movie falls short.
But the worst part of “The Crusaders” is the mess made of history. I will offer a long list of my biggest grievances—and this does not reflect all the inaccuracies:
- The initial preamble for the film mentions Saracens sweeping from Asia into Jerusalem, as if they came from somewhere else, leaving aside the fact that Muslims ruled Jerusalem from 638 until 1099, when Christians “swept” down from Europe to take the city. The preamble almost seems to take its information word for word from the exaggerated propaganda used to galvanize support in western Europe for what became known as the crusades. That propaganda was at best a stretch of the truth, and often utterly false.
- The movie has Saladin ordering “gospels cast into the flames” without even making a passing reference to the “People of the Book” concept of Islam.
- Philip II of France commits to the crusades before Richard, with Richard depicted as a reluctant crusader only taking the vow to avoid marrying Philip’s sister Alice. In fact, Richard committed to the crusade before Philip or Richard’s still-living father Henry II of England. Because of this, Richard was open to criticism for taking the cross as a prince, before consulting with his father.
- Blondel (played by Alan Hale, who would go on to play the skipper in the television series “Gilligan’s Island”), did not go on the crusades as shown in the movie. Legend has it that Blondel found Richard by serenading castles in central Europe while Richard was held for ransom by the German Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI.
- At one point in the movie, Richard says “I am content in England.” Richard spent very little of his reign in England. Between the crusades, his captivity in central Europe and dealing with the battles to retain his holdings in France, Richard’s priorities during his reign kept him out of England.
- In a peculiar and gross departure from history, Conrad of Montferrat schemes with Richard’s brother John all the way up in England. His aim is to take the throne away from Richard so John can make him King of Jerusalem. There is not a hint in the historical record that Conrad’s concerns went that far northwest, or that John had any dealings with him.
- In the movie, Richard marries Berengaria in Marseille to get food for his forces in the movie. Richard sends Blondel in his place and has Berengaria marry his sword as a proxy. In fact, Richard married Berengaria in a lavish ceremony in Cyprus, with enthusiasm. Richard had an eye for the pomp of his office and tried to dress and look the part of a glorious monarch. Some elements begun during his coronation ceremony in 1189 still exist in British coronation ceremonies today.
- Alice and Berengeria are on board the same ship for the Holy land! (Alice was nowhere near the Third Crusade.)
- The arrival at Acre by Richard and Philip offers no sense of the long stalemate that had existed at the siege of Acre months before their arrival. The battle of Acre seems to start when Richard and Philip arrive.
- The film has Philip arranging direct talks with Saladin; Saladin comes to the crusader camp where he is greeted by German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (died the year before) King William of Sicily (died a few years before) as well as other European rulers from as far away as Russia. In fact, Richard asked Saladin for direct talks, but Saladin refused, telling Richard that kings do not meet face-to-face while at war.
- The film does a fine job of depicting the famous scene from The Talisman during which Richard breaks an iron bar with his sword, while Saladin slices a thin cloth with his sword. This is a masterful invented scene by author Sir Walter Scott, showing the different attitudes toward power by the two leaders. But this scene is completely fictional as these two men never met personally.
- All of the Berengaria storyline; her attempts to go between the lines at Acre, her pleas for peace, her capture by Saladin, her offer to marry Saladin if he will save Richard’s life—this is all utter nonsense.
- To be frank, Berengaria’s fictional captivity sends the film off the rails. Richard’s forces take Acre by storm (Acre was actually taken through a negotiated surrender) after which Richard immediately starts toward Jerusalem to rescue Berengaria (Richard’s forces went through a difficult summer march down the coast before getting into position to march on Jerusalem).
Cecil B. DeMille and the writers of “The Crusades” seem to take the historical crusades as a point of departure for an adventure epic. Though references were still made to the crusades at that time, the period did not generate the same sort of controversy that it does today, so it seems less attention was paid to historical accuracy or the sensibilities of people who could be interested in the period, particularly as it might relate to the present day.
I think for film aficionados, this would be considered an obscure old film, nearly eighty years old, and not mentioned as one of the great classic films of the 1930s, with good reason. Those who do view it? We hope they don’t think they’re getting a history lesson!