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Walter Scott goes on crusade in an alternative universe
DrMMGilchrist27 October 2005
Warning: Spoilers
I haven't seen this since it was broadcast in 1980-81, when I was in my teens, so my memories are less sharp than I would like. However, as I recall, it was a faithful adaptation of Scott's extremely weird interpretation of the Third Crusade. (I know the ailing novelist had been on laudanum just a few years before: if he was still taking it at the time of writing, that would explain a lot about the plot and characterisations!)

The hero is a Scottish prince disguised as an ordinary knight, who then gets blacked up as a Nubian servant (with blue eyes?!). Saladin is a chivalrous hero who seems to spend more time disguised as a doctor repairing his ailing or wounded opponents than he does fighting them. Conrad of Montferrat (whose territorial designation Scott could not spell - misreading 'f' as a long 's', he turned it into 'Conrade of Montserrat' - and this TV script perpetuates the error) is depicted as a treacherous, stereotype-Italian lounge-lizard in league with a wicked fictional Grand Master of the Templars in a plot to kill Richard. (In Scott's version of the mediæval world, Templars are always villains - see also 'Ivanhoe'. They fulfil the same plot-function for him as Jesuits and monks in general in Gothic fiction.) There's also a bit of skulduggery witnessed by a dwarf, although it's perhaps not as strange as the real-life Henri de Champagne, dwarf and window incident... (Read Runciman for details!) And Richard I is, of course, the heroic (if, in Scott's version, somewhat dim) 'Lionheart' of legend. As I say, it was very much an 'alternative universe' 12C: DeMille's 'The Crusades' (1935) was heavily indebted to 'The Talisman' for its misrepresentation of some characters.

The BBC production was visually appealing, with lovely costumes, and some splendid performances, although these could not make Scott's convoluted and fantastical plot any more credible. Egyptian-born Damien Thomas made a particularly strong impression as Saladin: elegant, and more genuinely Middle-Eastern than Rex Harrison in the big-screen version, 'King Richard & the Crusaders' (1954), though too young. However, having been always underwhelmed by Richard's mythology, and already having a rampant hurt/comfort complex, I was drawn instead to Conrad. Richard Morant, although very cute, was somewhat miscast, being too young and brunet; the real Conrad was a handsome blond in his late 40s. When I began to read up on the historical Conrad in Runciman's 'History of the Crusades', I was furious to discover that Scott had slandered a fascinating, indeed dazzling, tragic hero - and the rest, as they say, is mediæval history…

So I have this serial to thank for kindling that sense of indignation which led to my long-term passion for the Aleramici dynasty and the trobador music of which they were great patrons...

Just for nostalgia's sake, I'd welcome a DVD release!
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