Hollywood and The Crusades

Movies are more than just a popular pastime: they also reflect the current values of the society in which they were made. Screenwriters, producers, and directors often have a specific agenda that they want to communicate through their film, and an analysis of these agendas enable us to learn about the current cultural and ideological spirit of the time. Specifically, films about the Crusades reflect current ideologies regarding the West’s interaction with the Middle East, Christian-Muslim relations, and war at large. According to Lorraine Kochanske Stock,

Crusading ideology thus became a translatable cultural lingua franca employed to justify or further a variety of political and cultural agendas, including the justification of subsequent wars, whether religiously motivated or not (Stock, 97).

In particular, filmmakers favor telling the story of the Third Crusade (1189-1192), as the Third Crusade has two equally powerful characters, the Christian Richard the Lionheart and the Muslim Saladin. Depictions of these characters “reflect the contemporaneous political expectations of the particular audiences for whom these educating entertainments were created” (Stock, 98). Examining the way the Third Crusade was portrayed in movies throughout the 20th and 21st centuries enables us to glean what the current societal attitudes were of the time.

The Crusades (1935)

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The first major film produced in Hollywood whose plot was entirely dedicated to recounting a Crusade story was Paramount’s The Crusades. Released in 1935, the film was directed by Cecil B. DeMille, one of the most prolific and successful filmmakers in all of Hollywood’s history. Despite the fact that the film has some major historical inaccuracies, it was relatively well received, being nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography in 1935.

Set in the time of the 3rd Crusade (1189-1192), the film recounts the story of how King Richard I of England, also known as King Richard the Lionheart (portrayed by Henry Wilcoxen), takes up the cross and goes on a crusade to return Jerusalem to Christian dominion. Richard’s motivations are not only religious and nationalistic: the film portrays him agreeing to go on the Crusade in part to avoid marrying Princess Alice of France. Along the way, Richard encounters Berengaria, Princess of Navarre (Loretta Young), whom he marries in exchange for rations; however, Saladin (Ian Keith) captures Berengaria and attempts to win her over by bringing her to Jerusalem. The Crusaders partake in several battles, but eventually they reach Jerusalem. At Jerusalem, Berengaria mitigates the established long triangle by convincing them to promote peace and not fight. Ultimately, Richard and Saladin declare a truce (DeMille 1935, The Crusades).

This film reflects the current ideology of the time because, as most effectively demonstrated the final scenes when Richard and Saladin confront each other in Jerusalem, it promotes an ideology of peace instead of war, the predominant sentiment of the 1930s. In her seminal essay “Now Starring in the Third Crusade: Depictions of Richard I and Saladin in Film and Television Series,” Stock argues, “The film also employs medieval events to reflect America’s post-World War I mood of isolationism and neutrality.” In the scene where Berengaria tries to convince Richard and Saladin not to fight she declares:

Berengaria: Oh Richard, you must believe. I’ve never loved anyone but you. I love you now. Don’t make me suffer more. If only we could put an end to pain. If only we could have peace. If you fight on, thousands and thousands more will die. Richard, you mustn’t.

Richard: You know how to yield to a conqueror. You think to teach me?

Berengaria: We’ve been blind. We were proud, dearest, when we took the cross, and in our pride we fought to conquer Jerusalem. We tried to ride through blood to the holy place of God. But now, now we suffer.

Saladin: The holy city of Allah!

Berengaria: Oh what if we call him Allah or God, shall men fight because they travel different roads to him? There’s only one God. His cross is burned deep into our hearts. It’s here, and we must carry it with us wherever we go. Oh don’t you see, Richard, there’s only one way. Peace. Make peace between Christian and Saracen.

Richard: You ask me to lay down my sword?

Berengaria: If you love me.

In this scene, Berengaria directly mimics contemporary times by acting as a medieval “League of Nations” (Aberth, 89). This scene reflects the predominant American desire to be isolationist and avoid war in the post-WWI and Great Depression era, even at the expense of portraying historical accuracy. In fact, concurrent to the release of the film, the US Congress passed four neutrality laws known as the Neutrality Acts in the mid-1930s, affirming the noninterventionist stance in the US, particularly as other parts of the world seemed headed for war (Aberth, 91). In summary, The Crusades reflects the contemporary Western view in the 1930s that peace should be promoted at the expense of war, and especially at the expense of any casualties.

 King Richard and the Crusaders (1954)

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Two decades later in 1954, Warner Bros. released King Richard and the Crusaders, directed by David Butler. Based on Sir Walter Scott’s The Talisman (1825), this movie also narrates events from the Third Crusade: it too tells the story of Richard the Lionheart (George Sanders) attempting to win back Jerusalem. In this movie, a group of disloyal Crusaders attempts to assassinate Richard the Lionhearted. With Richard ailing, a Saracen rides into the Crusader camp pretending to be a doctor, and he eventually falls in love with the king’s ward, Lady Edith Plantagenet (Virginia Mayo). The conspirators are exposed and punished, and Lady Edith and her fiancee, Sir Kenneth (Laurence Harvey), a loyal knight to Richard, both abandon the Holy Land and go back to Scotland. Rated as one of the 50 worst films of the 20th century, King Richard and the Crusaders is more of a love story much like The Crusades, sacrificing its ability to be a film that comes even close to historical accuracy (Harty, 149).

Although made twenty years later, this film reflects similar anti-war sentiments that were found during the time of The Crusades. As with Berengaria, this movie also consists of a female lead, Lady Edith Plantagenet, who voices opposition to war. She says:

“I’m beginning to despise war. The dread, the wondering each time you rise away if you’ll come back among the living … War, war! That’s all you ever think about, Dick Plantagenet! You burner, you pillager!”

Similar to the anti-war ideology that followed the destruction of World War I, this movie reflects similar anti-war sentiments. Coming out in the wake of World War II and the Korean War (1950-53), both of which experienced millions of casualties and altered the American mindset forever, this is another anti-war message spread through the medium of a Crusades movie. The fact that the film promotes peace over war reflects the fact that Americans in Hollywood wanted to mirror peaceful sentiments in their films.

Saladin the Victorious (1963)

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Although not technically a Hollywood film, Saladin offers a unique insight of a nonwestern film and its portrayal of the Crusades. Released less than a decade after King Richard and the Crusaders, the Egyptian film Saladin follows the events of the Third Crusade while drawing on political and geographical events that occurred in the years leading up to its production in Egypt. Director Youssef Chahine utilizes the legendary figure of Saladin and his accomplishments in recapturing Jerusalem and pushing the Christians out of the Holy Land to push the ideology of Pan-Arabism. This secular ideology stems from the desire for a united Arab state based around culture and history, one that transgresses national borders. This film uses the Crusades and the figure of Saladin as a symbol to encourage this Pan-Arab nationalism in the time that it was released.

In the opening scene of the movie there is a clear connection that Chahine is trying to make between the lives and struggles of Arabs facing crusaders in Jerusalem and the current lives of Arabs in 1963. We see people suffering in poverty and Crusaders raiding villages, which at the time, would have been very relatable for the Arab audience in 1963, given the recent conflicts in the region centered around the creation of an Israeli state and the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 (Finke, 209). The movie goes on to show Saladin (Ahmed Mazhar) stepping in to liberate Jerusalem and unite the people as one cohesive Arab nation. This ties to the events of that time where Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser had recently resisted British, French, and Israeli forces in the Suez Crisis. Chahine clearly creates a parallel between Saladin who liberated Jerusalem and united Arabs and Nasser, a strong supporter of Pan-Arab nationalism, and who was perceived at the time as fighting off the foreign occupiers. (Finke, 211)

Throughout the film Chahine makes a point of downplaying the religious motivations behind the crusades in favor of his Pan-Arabism narrative. He does this through explicit use of the word “Arab” instead of “Muslim” when referring to his people. One reason for this downplay would be to further his support for Egyptian President Nasser and his Pan-Arabism goal. A key factor to Nasser’s Pan-Arab movement was the objective to wipe out Israel as a state. (Finke, 221) Because of this, Chahine suppresses showing Saladin’s widely renowned religious tolerance and does not show or speak of any Jews throughout the movie, despite the Jews having a significant presence in the Holy Land during the time of the Crusades. (Finke, 222)

While the film glorifies Saladin as a great military commander and a savior to the Arab people, it portrays the Crusader army and their leaders as quite the opposite. They are depicted as being driven only by the desire to accumulate wealth and power. Reynald of Chatillon (Ahmed Louxor) is one of the most prominent examples as he is shown mistreating his own troops as well as the Arab people. He is shown stealing water from his own men and characterized as having no consideration for the life of those below him. In another scene he is shown raiding a caravan of Arab pilgrims. The only crusader who is shown as being noble and a worthy opponent of Saladin is King Richard the Lionhearted (Hamdi Geiss). We are shown his desire to help the Christian people of Jerusalem and the Middle East when Reynald’s wife Virginia goes to Richard to convince him to go on the Crusade to free Jerusalem. She appeals to Richard’s chivalric nature that he is famous for by telling him of the horrors and tragedies being inflicted on the Christians. This motivates Richard to go and cements the idea that among all the corrupt crusaders, he is the only one who can truly rival Saladin. (Finke, 214)

Director Chahine uses the film as a way of subtly advancing the ideology of Pan-Arabism and putting political motivation behind it rather than any religious undertones. At the time, Pan-Arabism had been widely popularized by Egyptian President Nasser and Chahine’s support for him is shown throughout the movie. It is another good insight into how a non-Western film portrays the Crusaders as being savage and motivated by wealth and power rather than religion. The film shows how the depiction of the crusades can be altered to push a secular ideology despite the Crusades themselves being a primarily religious struggle.

Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

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In more recent times, Hollywood again used the Crusades as medium through which to express a particular message of peace and tolerance. There is perhaps no other movie about the Crusades that has had such high stakes in its depiction of Christians and Muslims. Released in 2005, Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven involves Balian (Orlando Bloom), a blacksmith in a French village who has recently lost his wife and killed his brother in a fit of rage, being eventually drawn to the Crusades by his father, Godfrey (Liam Neeson). Although experiencing a number of obstacles, including losing all his comrades in a shipwreck, Balian reaches the Holy Land and is introduced to the Christian political elite.

The movie was released during a pivotal moment for relations between the West and the Muslim world, when America was still reeling from the 9/11 Attacks and Iraq was experiencing a full-scale American invasion and occupation. In essence, the stakes for Scott were high; the movie came out just a few years after President Bush’s mere uttering of the word “crusade” caused a widespread backlash (Waxman). 

For that reason, the film could not wholly avoid controversy. Many critics questioned the film’s historical accuracy, and historians on both sides found it to be offensive to either Christians or Muslims, arguing that it could be seen as a “battle over our collective memory about the Crusades and their continuity with contemporary Western interventions in the Middle East” (Haydock, 134).

It is in this context that Kingdom of Heaven is placed, and the film makes the active choice throughout its entirety to downplay the religious fanaticism and extremism that has driven geopolitical tensions in the 21st century. In fact, the film gives little attention to religion, unless it is expressing the dangers that religious fanaticism can bring. In multiple instances, the “villains” of the film, both Christian and Muslim, are the ones that use religion to fuel violence, and most Templars are “not holy warriors in this film” (Woods, 163). In this scene, Templar knights are shown committing atrocities against their Muslim enemies, culminating in a showdown between Reynald of Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson) and Saladin’s sister (Giannina Facio-Scott) where he ends up killing her.  

On the contrary, both the Christian and Muslim “heroes” of the film, including the protagonist, Balian, and the Muslim leader, Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), are seen as good, moral men, but not overtly pious. It is in this way that Kingdom of Heaven distances itself from being an overtly pro-Western patriotic film that dehumanizes the Muslim enemy, instead choosing to portray a message that opposes religious extremism. In one particular scene, Balian proclaims that he has “lost” his religion, with a Hospitaler ally replying that he puts “no stock in religion” as it can drive men to be murderers.

Additionally, in many scenes, both Balian and Saladin express virtue, even at expense of the film’s historical accuracy. Saladin and Balian are shown dictating the terms of surrender at the end of the film, where Saladin agrees to let all the Christians leave Jerusalem freely, even though in actuality, he required a ransom from the Crusaders for their safe departure. 

In a separate vein though, the film provides a biased allusion to the current American occupation of Iraq. In many scenes, Christians are depicted not just as invading foreigners, but people that bring positivity and resourcefulness to the Muslim world. In one scene, albeit biased in its depiction, a Christian is showing the Muslims how to irrigate their own land, which can be equated to the American claim that the bombing of Baghdad and the subsequent occupation was to liberate and “save” their population, providing them a brighter future. Additionally, Balian’s kindness expressed towards Imad ad-Din (Alexander Siddig), a Muslim enemy who helps guide him to the Holy Land after Balian kills his comrade, can also be seen through the lens of American occupation in Iraq. By depicting a Westerner punishing the Muslim enemy but showing mercy and supplying aid to other Muslims not deemed a threat, the scene is a clear example of the “enthusiastic representation of the ideals that support American intervention in the Middle East” today (Haydock, 146). Balian, representing the generosity of the American occupiers, gives a horse to Imad, and in turn, gains the respect of his Muslim counterparts.

On the other hand, the West is sometimes portrayed as inferior in the film, especially as Kingdom of Heaven is often used as an example of the enduring legacies of Sir Walter Scott’s Crusades novels, which downplayed the superiority or even morality of the West. The film contains many elements of a Scott novel, including the downplaying of religious fervor, where the chivalrous men on both sides, including Saladin, are not “genuinely moved by religion or the crusade ideal” (Riley-Smith, 65). In fact, like many of Scott’s novels, the film makes a pointed effort to stress the cruelty and greed of members of the Christian clergy in particular, such as the atrocities committed by Reynald and other Templars, and for the most part, shies away from implying any superiority of the West (Riley-Smith, 67).

In short, the film spreads a message of peace, reflecting liberal American values of religious tolerance and the separation of church and state by making the true heroes, regardless of religion or ethnicity, be simply decent men. By demonstrating the dangers of religious zeal through the actions of some of the Saracens and Templars (Guy, Reynald), Scott expresses the fear that permeated American society at the time; that is, the fear of violent extremism that is just as real in the 21st century as it was in the 12th.

Bibliography:

Aberth, John. Knight at the Movies: Medieval History on Film. New York: Routledge, 2003. Print.

El Naser Salah el Dine. Dir. Youssef Chain. Lotus Films, 1963. Film.

Finke, Laurie, and Martin B. Shichtman. Cinematic Illuminations: The Middle Ages on Film. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2010. Print.

Harty, Kevin J. The Reel Middle Ages: Films About Medieval Europe. Jefferson, NC: McFarland &, 1999. Print.

Haydock, Nickolas. Movie Medievalism: The Imaginary Middle Ages. Jefferson, NC: McFarland &, 2008. Print.

King Richard and the Crusaders. Dir. David Butler. Warner Bros., 1954. Film.

Kingdom of Heaven. Dir. Ridley Scott. Twentieth Century Fox, 2005. Film.

Pure, Alex. “Pop Culture Reshapes Role of Crusades.” Hamilton University. 9 Oct. 2009. Web.

Stock, Lorraine Kochanske. “Now Starring in the Third Crusade: Depictions of Richard I and Saladin in Films and Television Series.” Hollywood in the Holy Land: Essays on Film Depictions of the Crusades and Christian-Muslim Clashes. Ed. Nickolas Haydock. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009. 97-115. Print.

The Crusades. Dir. Cecil B. DeMille. Paramount, 1935. Film.

Waxman, Sharon. “Film on Crusades Could Become Hollywood’s Next Battleground.” New York Times. 12 Aug. 2004. Web.

Woods, William F. The Medieval Filmscape: Reflections of Fear and Desire in a Cinematic Mirror. Jefferson, NC: McFarland &, 2014. Print.

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