“The year: 1187 A.D. The Saracens of Asia swept over Jerusalem and the Holy Land, crushing the Christians to death or slavery.”
The Crusades is the name of a 2023 comedy that was recently released, and it’s a comedy in the Animal House tradition, and it’s what you’ll get if you try to do any quick title searches on that name. But buried beneath all of that beer and vomit, you might discover a more obscure (today) film from 1935 directed by the mythic Cecil B. DeMille. And you won’t find any frat parties or beer kegs anywhere in this historical epic. The time and place are the Christian Crusades to liberate Jerusalem from the Muslim tyrant Saladin, the onetime Sultan of Islam. While this is far from DeMille’s most enduring work, the fact that we’re still talking about it nearly a century later says something for its lasting impression. I’m not sure the latest raunchy comedy will be remembered 100 weeks from now, let alone years. It’s another in Kino Lorber’s efforts to resurrect the classics and not-so-classics from a bygone era. It’s the kind of cinematic history that many of us just can’t get enough of. So pop the film into your modern player and find yourself transported to some other place … and time.
Saladin (Keith) has conquered Jerusalem and rides the streets basking in the glory of his victory. Christian women are being sold in the marketplace, while the remaining soldiers are killed or imprisoned. As he takes in the scene, his convoy comes upon an old man in tattered clothes holding a cross. The Hermit (Smith) warns the Sultan not to rest easy, because the armies of Christ will arrive to take back the sacred land. Saladin laughs and allows the old man to go free, believing him to be no threat to his kingdom. So the Hermit goes forth to the Christian kings of France and England and rouses the crowds to the point that these kings are swept up in the fever to free Jerusalem. For King Richard (Wilcoxon), it’s a chance to get out of a promise to marry the daughter of French King Philip (Gordon) who is also his cousin. It appears that taking up the cross to fight for Christ relieves one of all other commitments, at least that’s what the Hermit says.
As the armies are raised and march toward their goal, they are short of food and weapons. Enter Berengaria, Princess of Navarre (Young), the small country they now pass. Her father, the King (Barbier) promises those supplies if he marries his daughter. This time King Richard obliges, but as an insult sends his sword as a stand-in at the wedding. Apparently English code allows this, and the deal is struck, but the Princess feels somewhat slighted. Of course, Princess Alice (DeMille), the original betrothed, isn’t aware of this shotgun … or shall we call it a sword wedding, and is surprised when the Princess displaces her from her royal travel accommodations.
Meanwhile Richard’s brother John (Hill) is conspiring to take his throne and sends assassins in the ranks to see it done. And then there’s Philip threatening to pick up his toys and go home in a huff if Richard doesn’t cast aside his new bride and marry Alice. The Princess really buys into the cause and attempts suicide, believing it will take away this huge distraction to the battle. Instead she’s captured by Saladin, who promises to allow Richard his life and call a truce if she agrees to be his wife. In the end a truce is reached, but Saladin realizes she will never love him and releases her, and she becomes an advocate for the Christians. No real happily ever after here, and some of the story is quite accurate to the historical record. Don’t get carried away; it’s not a history lesson you’ll get here, but a look back into a time when films were just transitioning to something very different.
The 1930’s saw sound finally reach motion pictures, but the old ways would take a few years to change the process of making films. The Crusades is a “talkie”, but it’s more of a hybrid than a true sound motion picture. There are plenty of title cards delivering narration and action to you via text. There are also several scenes that actually play out like a silent film. You see characters talking, but you can’t hear the dialog, and the story is literally told through those title cards. This was truly an industry in transition, and films like The Crusades offer us the “missing link” between the silent and sound eras. This isn’t one of DeMille’s best films, but it’s an historical tressure trove to the true student of the medium.
DeMille pulled a little Francis Ford Coppola bit of nepotism here, and he saves himself a few bucks in the process. He gave the role of the Princess to his daughter Katherine as a Christmas present. Saved some dough on the Christmas list and on the film’s budget. What a guy.
DeMille was a bit disillusioned following the apparent failure of the film at the box office. It was his last film under the contract he had with Paramount, and he considered both retiring and/or finding another way to raise the money and produce his own films. In the end none of that worked out, and he signed a new deal with Paramount eventually. DeMille also saw his stock sour among stuntmen. A lot of people got hurt badly during production, including one man having his leg crushed. DeMille was apparently blind to the image he was developing when he just pushed them to work harder with very little care for safety measure. In fact, DeMille himself became very ill during production and spent weeks in a hospital bed where he used nurses to model costumes.
It’s quite an interesting film to watch and likely won’t appeal to the casual film fan. It can be a hard watch if you’ve become to jaded by modern filmmaking. DeMille was a harsh taskmaster, but his films live on nearly a century later. You can argue the methods or just watch the films. “Shall men fight because they travel different roads to him?”