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Cecil B. DeMille
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Cecil B. DeMille
The Third Crusade as it didn't happen. King Richard Coeur de Lion goes on the crusade to avoid marrying Princess Alice of France; en route, he marries Berengaria to get food for his men. Berengaria.is captured by Saladin, spurring Richard to attack and capture Acre. But Saladin, attracted to her, takes her on to Jerusalem, and Richard is in danger of assassination. Written by
Rod Crawford <email@example.com>
Conrad of Montferrat is depicted plotting at the French and English courts when he was already on the other side of the Mediterranean, gallantly defending the city of Tyre. His character, activities and the circumstances of his death are misrepresented and altered throughout. See more »
To begin with, being a fan of the epic genre, I had always wanted to check this one out and, in fact, was very pleased when Universal released it as part of their 5-Disc Cecil B. De Mille collection; however, since I already owned both THE SIGN OF THE CROSS (1932) and CLEOPATRA (1934) via TCM showings, I kept postponing the purchase of this set until I acquired the lot through a friend of my father's! Having been duly impressed with those two De Mille spectaculars, I had intended to watch this immediately (I got the film around the middle of last year) but for various reasons I even had to exclude it from my Christmas viewing I could only get to it now that Easter is approaching!
Incidentally, the 5th of March happened to mark the centenary from the birth of actor Rex Harrison, who had starred as Saladin (the villainous 'infidel' of THE CRUSADES) in KING RICHARD AND THE CRUSADERS (1954), which I recorded off Italian TV (even if I had already watched it and in spite of its poor reputation) expressly for the purpose of accompanying my viewing of De Mille's film! Anyway, THE CRUSADES is another notable achievement (from the days prior to the epic heyday of the 1950s and 1960s) which goes to prove yet again that De Mille was perhaps cinema's greatest purveyor of hokum disguised as inspirational art for the masses (even if this particular example, reportedly, flopped at the box-office).
The central relationship between gorgeous Loretta Young (such strong female presences abound in the director's work) and De Mille regular Henry Wilcoxon (an unusually handsome, and Godless, Richard the Lionheart amusingly referred to by Saladin as "The Lion King"!) goes through some interesting, yet oddly believable, tangents during the course of the film. Starting off in antagonistic vein more typical of then-current screwball comedies (he even prefers carousing with his men to their wedding ceremony, where his place is eventually taken by the royal sword!), it develops into one that borders on amour fou which could jeopardize the outcome of the whole crusade (it's actually comparable to the bond-to-the-death between Roman centurion Fredric March and Christian slave Elissa Landi in the earlier THE SIGN OF THE CROSS)! The excellent supporting cast includes, among others, Ian Keith (as Saladin), Joseph Schildkarut (typically sneaky as one of the Christian rulers), C. Henry Gordon (as the French King, whose sister Katharine De Mille the director's adopted daughter Richard has deliberately spurned), Alan Hale (as Richard's minstrel/sidekick, a Little John type that would soon become his trademark), C. Aubrey Smith (as the old hermit who is challenged by the overly confident Saladin at the beginning of the picture to rally the Christian countries in a crusade against his forces and, later, made hostage and chained to a cross to bar passage to the advancing army, he asks Richard to proceed with the attack regardless!) and Mischa Auer (in an early role as a monk).
While the script obviously eschews the Robin Hood legend that has become associated with Richard and the Crusades (the Douglas Fairbanks version of 1922 about that popular outlaw figure, in fact, spends more time with him as a knight than the proverbial 'Merrie Man'!), subtlety is still the last thing one would hope to find in a De Mille pageant. In fact, Young's abduction by the Muslims (with her dressed as a sentry in a suicidal bid to end the discord between the various royals!) is pretty contrived; similarly, the fact that Young is contended in the terms laid down by Saladin for the truce with the Christian world is pure Hollywood. With this in mind, the dialogue (co-written by Dudley Nichols) is consciously stilted throughout albeit featuring such good lines as Saladin's defiant claim to the monarchs gathered in their tent, "There is room enough in Asia to bury all of you!"
Made after the dreaded (and stifling) Hays Code came into force, it's not as bloodthirsty as the afore-mentioned THE SIGN OF THE CROSS even so, the battle scenes are quite realistic (with the clanging of heavy steel being heard as the opposing armies clash in a confusion of warriors and horses) and may well have influenced Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander NEVSKY (1938). There is one evident display of viciousness here on an isolated member of Schildkraut's treacherous army as a clutch of Muslim riders (appearing on the scene to rescue the cornered Wilcoxon at the instigation of Saladin himself, in the hope of thus winning Young's love) fall on him en masse with their spears. Boasting superlative photography (Victor Milner's work in this capacity presented the film with its sole Oscar nomination) and massive crowd scenes, the film survives as tremendous entertainment even after all these years. Incidentally, it seemed common practice in spectacles of the era to provide villains of the Muslim persuasion as can be gathered from the likes of ABDUL THE DAMNED (1935; a British production I first watched over Christmas), THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER (1935), THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE (1936) and GUNGA DIN (1939).
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