In 1191, King Richard the Lionheart (George Sanders) is among several European monarchs on crusade in the Holy Land intent on retaking Jerusalem from the Saracens. Yet much infighting and outright treachery lurk within the European encampment. When an assassin's arrow seemingly shot from a Saracen bow wounds Richard, valiant knight Sir Kenneth of the Leopard (Laurence Harvey), suspects the true culprits are dastardly Sir Giles Amaury (Robert Douglas) and the wily Conrad of Montferrat (Michael Pate). Unfortunately these two trusted lords end up promoted to lead the contingent while Richard recovers. Although a proud Scot, Sir Kenneth feels honour-bound to aid the ailing English king whilst secretly romancing his beautiful cousin Lady Edith (Virginia Mayo). Kenneth accompanies Edith and Queen Berengaria (Paula Raymond) on a pilgrimage to pray for the king's recovery whereupon they encounter Emir (Rex Harrison), a dashing and formidable Saracen warrior. Upon besting Kenneth in battle, Emir offers to use his skills as a physician to heal Richard at the behest of his chivalrous ruler Saladin. Emir soon grows enamoured with the courageous and resourceful Lady Edith, much to Kenneth's displeasure. Yet with so much intrigue unfolding at the crusader's camp, no-one suspects Emir is hiding a very big secret.
MGM had enjoyed great success with Ivanhoe (1952) based on a novel by the master of historical romance Sir Walter Scott so Warner Brothers decided to reclaim their mantle as the premier producers of swashbuckling adventure with this starry adaptation of Scott's "The Talisman." Unfortunately the results were laughed off the screen and not surprisingly when one factors in ripe lines like: "War, war, that's all you think about Dick Plantagenet!" Though derided as camp nonsense and included in Harry Medved's book "The Fifty Worst Films of All Time", King Richard and the Crusaders is actually a pretty solid piece of entertainment provided one is willing to overlook a few historical inaccuracies and kitsch conventions of studio filmmaking in the 1950s. If the viewer can accept the film for what it is, i.e. foremost a romantic adventure yarn in keeping with Walter Scott rather than a history lesson, then what emerges is a rattling romp.
Screenwriter John Twist, who specialized in B-westerns and action fare with the occasional A picture like Band of Angels (1957) and The F.B.I. Story (1959), serves up some seriously fruity dialogue ("Barbarian, don't speak to me in your uncouth tongue", snarls King Richard when Sir Kenneth barks a few words in Gaelic) but the depiction of the crusaders as a bunch of ignoble back-stabbers rings true and the ambitious plot touches on political rivalries in the European camp, ethical differences and similarities between English chivalry and the tenets of Islam, and conflicting attitudes towards the role of women in world affairs. As Emir has his preconceptions about western women changed by the spirited and selfless Lady Edith, Sir Kenneth (an interestingly flawed hero) grows to perceive the enemy Saladin as more noble than Richard who comes across brash, belligerent and none too gallant either albeit still more ally than antagonist. Scott's meaty themes seep through the Technicolor kitsch ladelled thick by David Butler, a curious choice from the studio to direct this given his forte was comedy. He did a fantastic job on The Road to Morocco (1942) and Calamity Jane (1953) yet his labored attempts at Shakespearean drama come across more like a Medieval comic book.
Happily the film compensates for the occasional lapse with stunning Cinemascope scenery (this was Warner's first film in scope) shot by D.P. J. Peverell Marley, who worked extensively with Cecil B. DeMille, and solid action sequences. The stirring swordplay and stunt-work were handled by veteran stuntman and second unit director Yakima Canutt. In his first lead role in a Hollywood movie Laurence Harvey makes a tepid swashbuckler. He simpers through his corny love scenes with Mayo which are more Mills & Boon than Walter Scott and lacks the screen presence of an Errol Flynn or Robert Taylor. Yet the film seems uncertain exactly who is the main protagonist. It takes a good while before top-billed Rex Harrison and Virginia Mayo appear onscreen. Mayo, typically ravishing in Technicolor and period costume, eclipses Harvey as the spirited Plantagenet princess who finds herself faced with an impossible choice: turn her back on the man she loves or forge lasting peace between Christians and Muslims by marriage to Saladin. As for Harrison, while it is hard not to laugh when he speaks in that plummy upper class English accent or serenades Edith while strumming the lyre, he is a fun, lively and engaging presence. Though the character typifies the classic Orientalist concept of the noble savage to a certain degree, he is a rare compelling and positive Islamic character from this period in cinema who not only has a decisive effect on the final battle between good and evil but also saves the girl.