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Movie Commentary: “Richard and the Crusaders” August 26, 2010

Posted by rwf1954 in historical fiction, movie commentary, the crusades, The Talisman, Uncategorized.
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(Richard Warren Field wrote the award-winning novel,
The Swords of Faith. Read why this book will make a great movie.)

As I commented in my post about the 1935 movie “The Crusades,” there were two crusades epics that came out of Hollywood before “Kingdom of Heaven.” In this post, I’ll discuss the second of the two movies, “King Richard and the Crusaders,” released from Warner Brothers in 1954.

(I have written about the Ridley Scott movie: “Kingdom of Heaven:” Sorting Fact from Fiction.”)

The cover of the movie describes it as from “the epic pages of Sir Walter Scott’s The Talisman.” “King Richard and the Crusaders” takes a lot of liberties with the classic Sir Walter Scott novel as well as with the history of the period. If I tried to analyze this movie by accounting for all the departures from history, and then all the departures from The Talisman, this post would be long and tedious, possible sleep inducement material for insomniacs. So my comments about the movie will be broad comments, leaving readers the option of reading my detailed essay “Sir Walter Scott’s The Talisman: Sorting Fact from Fiction” (http://www.richardwarrenfield.com/essay-The%20Talisman.htm) for more information on the history depicted in The Talisman.

“King Richard and the Crusaders” certainly derives its basic story, tone and approach to the crusades from the Sir Walter Scott classic. Scott stated in the preface to his book that “it may be said, in general, that most of the incidents introduced in the following tale are fictitious; and that reality, where it exists, is only retained in the characters of the piece.” The movie takes the same approach:

  • Richard retains his dynamic, tempestuous personality, though he seems older and less physically imposing than the way Richard the Lionheart is usually depicted.
  • Saladin is played by a darkened Rex Harrison as a charming, sophisticated man, a man who at one point says he is “learning” from “robbers” who have come to take lands away from Muslims. This Saladin refers to learning about chivalry, and seems to be the best practitioner of the chivalric code during the story, more accomplished at chivalry than any of the westerners, including Richard. It is not likely that Saladin thought of himself that way at all.
  • Conrad of Montferrat remains one of the two key villains in the story. The real Conrad was no friend of Richard, but his true story is more complex—more fraught with twists and turns—than his story in The Talisman or “King Richard and the Crusaders.”
  • There are not too many changes in the depiction of King Philip II of France, Duke Leopold of Austria, Richard’s wife Berengeria or the hero of the story, Sir Kenneth of Scotland—their characters remain basically the same as in the Scott classic except for Edith Plantagenet who makes strong appeals for peace during the movie.
  • Sir Walter Scott had Templars as part of an evil alliance with Conrad of Montferrat. In “King Richard and the Crusaders,” we have the “Castle-lains,” and their master, Sir Giles Amory. This group seems to be a complete invention, historically, and even a departure from Scott’s novel. They appear to be a combination of the Templar and Hospitaller knights of the period.

“King Richard and the Crusaders” certainly has the agenda of advocating peace between Christians and Muslims. Much of that agenda is spoken by the fictitious cousin of Richard, Edith Plantagenet. There is a lot more talk about how to bring hostilities to a peaceful conclusion than on who should rule Jerusalem. That was certainly Sir Walter Scott’s concern as well. But back at the timeof the crusades, Muslim rule of Jerusalem would not have been considered a minor issue, and the historical Richard leaving the area without taking Jerusalem was considered to him, and most western Christians, as a failure.

The Talsiman and “King Richard and the Crusaders” also toy with alliances between the forces of Richard and Saladin to fight other worse evils. In “King Richard and the Crusaders” they unite at the end to rescue Edith Plantagenet who has been taken hostage by the evil Castle-lains (there is no such hostage taking episode in The Talisman). This raises an issue that I believe says more about the time the movie was made than about the history the movie purports to depict. The movie (and Scott, but the movie takes the concept much further) portrays good Christians, chivalrous Christians (Edith, Kenneth and most of the time, Richard), and evil, scheming, duplicitous Christians (Conrad, Sir Giles Amory and the Castle-lains). It is almost as if the filmmakers, maybe trying to speak for society, are saying “we have good Christians and bad Christians—we are not flawless, and we are willing to admit and rectify our flaws.” This movie was made as colonialism came to an end, and many former colonies, a number of them Muslim, became independent. It is as if the “ruling class” religion was trying to say “we honor our faith, but admit we have not always been perfect practitioners of it.” Muslims depicted in “King Richard and the Crusaders” are noble, good people, seldom explored with any character depth. In fact, Saladin is the only real Muslim character we get to know with any familiarity, and he seems more western than many of the westerners. This movie did not focus on the nature of Muslims or Islam. The focus was introspective, not directed in any comprehensive way toward non-Christians.

There were a few other moments that brought a smile to my face because of their complete disregard for history:

  • In an early scene, King Richard makes a big issue of Sir Kenneth speaking Gaelic, not English. As people who know basic history are aware, Richard didn’t even speak English; he spoke French!
  • In “King Richard and the Crusaders,” Saladin proposes single combat with Richard to resolve their differences in the Middle East. This would more likely have been a Richard proposal. Forty-nine year old Saladin, often in poor health at this stage of his life, would have been at a serious disadvantage against the younger, larger, stronger, more athletic Richard.
  • In the movie, Saladin proposes a marriage with Edith Plantagenet to make peace. Historically, during negotiations, Richard offered his sister Joan in marriage to Saladin’s brother, al-Adil, a proposal that Saladin thought was a jest (it probably was not a serious proposal, and never came to fruition, though technically Saladin accepted the proposal).
  • In a scene late in the movie, Saladin seems anxious to marry Edith Plantagenet to gain power in Europe. The historical, Saladin had his hands full trying to fuse his Egyptian, Syrian and other Middle Eastern lands together into what would be known as the Ayyubid Empire. Europe at the time, especially western Europe, was considered a backward place. Saladin would have had little interest in gaining power in Europe.

As I have mentioned. “King Richard and the Crusaders”—its approach to The Talisman and the crusades period of history—says as much about the time it was made as about the period it depicts. There is a desire for a rapprochement with the diverse ethnic and religious groups gaining independence. Acknowledging good and evil among Christians was certainly considered an important part of achieving this objective.

“King Richard and the Crusaders” (DVD, image is from the VHS)

“King Richard and the Crusaders” (DVD, image is from the VHS)

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