13th century Christian "Children's Crusade" as a hormonal teen road trip
I've long been fascinated by the so-called "Children's Crusade," historically described as peaceful march to Jerusalem launched around the year 1212 by a charismatic teen Christian who traveled from town to town in medieval France and Germany, recruiting young people to accompany him to the site of Jesus' grave because "God told me to."
Polish writer Jerzy Andrzejewski wrote a 1960 novel about the Children's Crusade, which was adapted as the screenplay for 1968's La Croisade Maudite, aka Gates to Paradise.
Directed by Polish auteur Andrzej Wajda, the obscure gem unfolds as a sort of 13th century Road Trip, with youthful hormones and selfish impatience trumping nearly all of the (supposedly) pious preoccupations of their handsome leader Jacques (blonde heartthrob John Fordyce, constantly and comically running his fingers through his Beatlesque moptop).
What makes the storytelling so intriguing is how each of the main characters tells their own tale in the form of (frequently alarming) confessions to the one adult accompanying the children, a former Crusader turned monk who seeks to atone for the many murderous since he committed while still a knight.
The monk is portrayed by Lionel Stander, who'd later play Max on the TV show Hart to Hart, here resembling an unfortunate amalgam of Yogi Berra and Buddy Hackett.
Thusly, we end up seeing the same events through several different POVS, each slightly askew from the others ala Rashomon.
In one notable case, the biographical story told to the monk by the somewhat devious beauty Blanche (egged on by her apparent boyfriend Alexander) differs radically from the more truthful account that we get to see in her private thoughts and recollections.
Blanche is portrayed by the almost impossibly beautiful Pauline Challoner, best known for the vintage Titanic drama A Night to Remember and the highly regarded (and epically ahead of its time) 1969 Spanish horror classic La Residencia, aka The House That Screamed, said to be Dario Argento's main inspirations for Suspiria.
Blanche seems to be the one teen who holds all the pieces of the puzzle that led to the beginning of the Children's Crusade.
However, only after several more accounts are unfolded via the recollections and confessions of the other children closest to Jacques does it become clear what REALLY sparked and drives the epic march on Jerusalem.
Among the cast is young Jenny Agutter (Logan's Run), shortly before she was hired by Nicolas Roeg to star in the woefully obscure lost-in-the-Australian-outback epic Walkabout (1971).
As the supposedly devout and pious young maiden Maud, she pours her heart out to the audience while hanging from a tree (oddly presaging a similar scene in Walkabout), revealing that she's in love with the kids' charismatic leader Jacques as is just about everyone else at the front of the parade, males and females alike, including/especially Blanche's sexually omnivorous boytoy Alexander (Mathieu Carrière).
Is Maud's obsession with Jacques and her determination to always march at his side the only reason she's on this pilgrimage? What about Blanche's and Alexander's likeminded libidos? Or have they too been called upon by God to free Jerusalem?
The latter notion seems backed up by the fact that none of the kids were willing to follow Jacques until MAUD spoke up and defended his vision, in a passionate life-changing speech that we can only see, not hear, with powerfully persuasive words that for some unexplained reason (divine intervention?) - not a single child can remember.
Agutter is most prominently featured in the first half hour of the film, though she's instantly upstaged within her own flashback when Pauline Challoner's flirtatious character Blanche skips into the frame and announces her intent to make love to the reclusive and handsome shepherd Jacques (the libidinous goal of just about everyone other than the adult monk, who becomes increasingly horrified by the ungodly hormones raging all around him as the march progresses).
Challoner would play a similarly rebellious teen the following year The House That Screamed, continuing an intriguing body of work that dates back to playing a somewhat Carrie-like "killer kiddie" in a 1961 episode of the TV thriller One Step Beyond called "The Tiger."
Stunningly beautiful (imagine a younger and even more lovely Brigitte Bardot, or perhaps Ewa Aulin from the 1968 Ringo Starr film Candy, only with actual acting chops), the British actress would make around two dozen films before retiring in the mid-'70s, despite winning several acting awards and earning herself a devotional cult of admirers.
Challoner goes through the most far reaching character arc of the film, eventually revealing herself to be a pretty decent, if typically amorous and confused, teen. She's even seen comforting her one-time romantic rival Maud as inclement weather beats down on the presumably tired and hungry horde, as well as helping Maud climb a particularly daunting rocky hilltop.
The only other adult among the major players is seen only in disturbing but revealing flashbacks, the manipulative and predatory Count (Ferdy Mayne, later cast by Roman Polanski as Krolock in Dance of the Vampires).
Director Andrzej Wajda, an honorary Oscar winner, is probably best known for his war movie trilogy - A Generation (1954), Kanał (1956), and Ashes and Diamonds (1958) and for The Maids of Wilko, which in 1979 was nominated for an Academy Award.
If I've piqued your curiosity about this obscure cinematic gem, be warned, that the subject matter becomes increasingly mature - some might even say sordid - in ways I tried to avoid mentioning so as not to incur more spoiler alerts.
Though starring and ostensibly about children, Gates of Paradise is definitely NOT a children's film.
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