The Crusades

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THE CRUSADES doesn’t go plural with its righteous ransacking, sticking to the Third Crusade of 1189-92, with its host of historically feted and familiar opponents. Over 125 noisy minutes it also lays siege to subtlety, as the 1935 blusterbuss was produced & directed by the Prince of Phony Piety, Cecil B. DeMille.

Exhorted by ‘The Hermit’, an array of European royalty lead their men to recapture Jerusalem from the Saracens. Christians vs. Islam, in the good old days of B.O. (before oil), when wholesale religious massacre was Noble and Sanctified.

Written by history author and subject-expert Harold Lamb and cagey industry veterans Waldemar Young and Dudley Nichols, the talky screenplay is okay outlining the playground basics and arraying the leading sword salesmen. Then it does the usual disemboweling of details, character futzing (coddling or besmirching) and event-scrunching.

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The three main characters are England’s Richard I, better known as Richard the Lionheart (Henry Wilcoxon); Berengaria, Princess of Navarre (Loretta Young, 22) who Richard marries, which fractures the Crusade alliance since he was supposed to wed the sister of the French king; and the Islamic Sultan, Saladin (Ian Keith) who defends Acre and Jerusalem against the Europeans. To the script’s credit, the legendary Saladin is portrayed with dignity and honor.

The cast is fine, even with some dated oratorical style and despite DeMille’s kiss-you-with-an-anvil direction. The ‘hearty’ ‘jabber is wearying, as are the numerous lusty singalongs. There’s an awful lot of gabbing before things finally get around to impalement and fire-dousing during the siege of Acre and the followup assault on Jerusalem. The former action, setbound and done on a medium scale, is not bad; the latter at least goes on location (the Paramount Ranch in then-underpopulated Agoura, California) for some cavalry clashing, though at one point there’s a jarring continuity goof when the activity switches from forest to desert (“the hix in the stix will never catch it, C.B.”). DeMille’s noted indifference to safety got a lot of extras hurt.

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Victor Milner’s cinematography was Oscar-nominated–he does make a glowing Loretta forever Young. Overrunning its budget by a whopping $336,000, it  was laid on at a cost of $1,420,000 (times 18 for today).  Results brought it to #9 for the year, but still posted a loss of $795,000, a showing that disappointed His Highness of Cecil, who expected more from the peasantry. Wilcoxon’s turnaround from lead to supporting player was part of the piece treaty. **

In the cast buffs can spot Alan Hale (comic no-relief as a troubadour), C. Aubrey Smith (exhorting with passion as ‘The Hermit’, fictional but based on Peter the Hermit, a less-than-kindly sort, unless you’re into slaughter), Joseph Schildkraut (conniving Conrad, Marquis of Montferrat), C. Henry Gordon (conniving King Philip II of France), Katherine DeMille (the director’s daughter, as Philips irritated sister, Princess Alice of France), George Barbier (conniving King Sancho of Navarre), Mischa Auer (a quiet monk), J. Carrol Naish (Saracen dog auctioning off Christian woman as slaves), John Carradine, Addison Richards and 20-year old hopeful Ann Sheridan (slave girl, third from left).

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* Author of 20 popular non-fiction history books as well as a dozen novels, Harold Lamb lent his copious research and undoubted enthusiasm to the project. He’d already done three books on the subject and may well have been dismayed by how the other contributors fudged things up. Or he may have just shrugged, said “Hooray for Hollywood” and taken the check, since he later did distortion duty for DeMille on The Plainsman and both versions of The Buccaneer. 

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As for Cecil B.’s take on accuracy, this, from his memoirs: “Audiences are not interested in dates, they are interested in events and their meaning. We chose the year 1187 as the focal point for our story, but did not hesitate to bring in elements from other Crusades before or after that exact time…The history conveyed…was simply that there was a time when Christian men, kings, knights, and commoners, with motives ranging from the purest faith to the blackest treachery and greed, left their homes by the thousands and sought to wrest the Holy Land from its Moslem possessors, who were not, as the propaganda at the time would have it, infidel dogs, but highly civilized and chivalrous foe-men…One of my objectives [was] to bring out that the Saracens were a cultivated people, and their great leader, Saladin, as perfect and gentle a knight as any in Christendom.”

83279a23f088a486f3bf67f158f24c98--loretta-young-vieraMeanwhile, Richard, who perhaps should have been nicked with ‘Richard the Blood Thirsty’ comes off better in the movie than he did in real life. One (of many) historical tidbits left out was that after Richard & pals took Acre, they decapitated 2,700 Moslem prisoners.

** “We’ve been blind. We were proud dearest when we took the cross in our pride, we fought to conquer Jerusalem. We tried to ride through blood to the Holy Place of God. And now… now we suffer. ” DeMille’s medieval foray into Christian uplift and Saracen smiting had numerous—and better—epics jousting for fan favor in ’35—Mutiny On The Bounty, The Lives Of A Bengal Lancer, Les Miserables, A Tale Of Two Cities, Captain Blood, The Call Of The Wild and The Last Days Of Pompeii. 

At 24 here, this was only one of two films DeMille’s adopted daughter Katherine was cast in by the old man–12 years later she had another small part in Unconquered.

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