In the 12th century, Jerusalem has fallen to Saracen invaders, whom - according to this film - made life a living hell for Christian folk who are strangely fair-skinned for the Middle East. We see the elderly wrapped in chains, blonde women sold into slavery by glowering Arab slave-traders, while the cross is toppled off the city walls. A lone Christian hermit (C. Aubrey Smith) journeys to Europe, where he convinces Philip, King of France to mount a crusade to rescue the Holy Land. However, Philip’s slimy advisor, Conrad of Montferrat (Joseph Schildkraut) warns this may leave France vulnerable to an English attack. Therefore the pair are eager Philip’s sister, Princess Alice (Katherine DeMille) should marry King Richard the Lionheart (Henry Wilcoxon), but the English king sidesteps the arranged by pledging his fealty to the holy crusade.
Hollywood’s celebrated king of the historical epics, Cecil B. DeMille clearly revels in the chivalry and romance of the Crusades, so don’t go expecting too much in the way of historical accuracy. As in his biblical super-productions, DeMille amps up the religious fervour in manner that may be unpalatable to some modern viewers and dwells on the suffering endured by Christians at the hands of the so-called “infidel”. Even devout Christians may balk at the whitewash of one of the most shameful episodes in religious history. However, DeMille - who ranked The Crusades among the best films he’d made - maintained his intent was to convey a time in history 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 Muslim possessors, who were not, as propaganda of the time would have it, infidel dogs, but highly civilized and chivalrous foemen.”
Self-justifying hyperbole? Well, no, actually. DeMille mounts what, for its time, is a fairly balanced evaluation of the flaws and virtues of both sides. With much of the battlefield action regrettably consigned to the third act, the plot woven by screenwriters Harold Lamb, Waldemar Young, Dudley Nichols (who worked on many great John Ford movies), and an uncredited Jeannie Macpherson (whom DeMille singled out as invaluable on many of his pictures) encompasses treachery amongst the Kings of Europe, Prince John’s seizing of the English throne, and most crucially the romance between Richard and his wife Berengaria of Navarre - whom he marries without even seeing her, solely to secure cattle to feed his men.
As played by a radiant Loretta Young - who won an Oscar for The Farmer’s Daughter (1947) - the sweet-natured Berengaria demonstrates the kindness, decency, clear-thinking and rectitude, Richard so obviously lacks. There are clear echoes of the historical Richard I in Henry Wilcoxon’s characterisation: a boorish, two-fisted hothead who prefers the heat of battle to courtly life and visits violence and bad manners unto everyone from his enemies, allies and even servants caught in his way. Wilcoxon was the leading man in many of DeMille’s early films, but after The Crusades became his associate producer. Later on he popped up in character roles on television and the occasional film, including another medieval adventure The War Lord (1965) opposite his successor as DeMille’s favourite lead, Charlton Heston. Believe it or not, Wilcoxon even appeared in Caddyshack (1980)! Also notable among the supporting cast: Alan Hale, who had the distinction of playing Little John in three screen versions of the Robin Hood legend, most notably The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), supplies comedy relief as Richard’s minstrel Blondel, while Princess Alice is played by Katherine DeMille. Born Katherine Lester, she was an orphan whose father was killed in action during World War One and lost her mother to tuberculosis. She was adopted by the famous film director whose right-wing reputation was counterbalanced by his philanthropy (DeMille awarded $500 scholarships to three high school graduates who won an essay contest on “The Crusades”).
Leaving aside the question of historical accuracy (as one often must when dealing with Hollywood), this tells a compelling story with DeMille reworking the crusade into a pilgrimage teaching Richard some long-due humility. Only when he stands on the verge of losing everything is Jerusalem finally set free. He sticks to the idealized vision of Saladin (Ian Keith), a sultan who was not quite as virtuous as he’s often painted to be. Here he saves Berengaria after she’s been shot by an arrow and even sends his warriors to rescue Richard from assassination by the perfidious French. It is Saladin who observes that while Richard wears the cross and fights for the cause, he is conspicuous by having no faith.
As ever with DeMille, piety masks his revelling in spectacle and violence. He was a showman at heart, happy to throw a few Christians to the lions to lure in the crowds. The siege of Saladin’s palace and subsequent battles are his chance to show off with hundreds of armoured extras, knights on horseback, screaming warriors engulfed in flames or boiling oil. It’s an impressively grandiose production as only old Hollywood can be, but mixes politics and romance in ways that make a fascination comparison with Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005).