The Crusades (1935)
Politics and Warfare
The Crusades (1935) was directed by Cecil B. DeMille, whose most known for directing The Ten Commandments (1956). The Crusades explores the tensions between Muslims and Christians during the Third Crusade. When released, the film received a positive review from the New York Times, which called it “rich in the kind of excitement that pulls an audience irresistibly to the edge of its seat.” As well as receiving a rave review from a very esteemed news source, The Crusades, was also nominated for an Oscar at the 8thAcademy Awards in 1936.
The film opens with the sack and conquering of Jerusalem by the “Saracens” (Muslims) in 1187 AD. The violent and gruesome depiction of the sack of The Holy Land establishes the Muslim forces as savage and barbaric. In the midst of the violence is an auction of Christian women who are depicted in a contradictory way to the Muslim men and women surrounding them. They are shown as defenseless, pure, and aware of the sins being committed around them, whereas, the Muslims have very little reaction to the chaos around them, suggesting that the film views them as so savage that they are accustomed to this violence and terror. In this very first scene it establishes not only a distinction between the “civilized” Christians and the “savage” Muslims, but also a clear juxtaposition between the “unruly” East and the “righteous” West.
It is important to note the historical context and, consequentially, the inaccuracies the film presents. This film takes inspiration from the history of the Third Crusade and peppers in elements from the other Crusades, such as the character of the hermit (most likely based on Peter the Hermit from the Popular Crusade) who calls the people to action in order to take back the Holy Land from the “infidels.” While there are many inaccuracies in the film, overall the depictions of Richard the Lionheart and Saladin seem to reflect the accounts in the works of Baha al Din, who provides a Muslim perspective, and the Initerarium Regis Ricardi, which was written by a Christian and tells the life of Richard the Lionheart. Both works depict Richard and Saladin in different lights and the film does an interesting job at portraying both of those contradictory depictions. For example, the Saladin as ruthless and bloodthirsty, which is illustrated in the very first scene of the movie, is most likely influenced by how the Initerarium portrayed him. Both sources, however, seem to agree that Saladin was, or could at times be, very magnanimous and wise; at the very least, they both seem to agree that Saladin was a great military leader. In this, Saladin becomes a way for audiences of the time to safely view the “other” as the archetypal “civilized or noble savage,” a popular trope when depicting and exploring the “East” in cinema. This portrayal of Saladin, who comes across as almost two distinctly different characters— the “savage” at the beginning of the film and the quasi-romantic hero towards the end—stands in sharp contrast to the depiction of Richard the Lionheart. The film paints Richard as brutish and brash and his character arc, which ends with him discovering the value of peace, seems forced and comes out of nowhere. This turn to peace at the end of the film is also historically inaccurate for Richard. Even though the truce with Saladin that occurs at the end of the film allows Christians to enter the Holy Land on pilgrimage is accurate, Richard vowed to return to war with Saladin once the truce had ended.
The importance on peace and understanding can be seem throughout the entirety of the film. It can even be seen through the historically inaccurate “bromance” between Richard and Saladin, who in fact never actually met each other. This message of peace was a direct response to WWI and the isolationist views that America adopted as a consequence. From the first scene of the movie, which depicts a world fraught with war, to a conclusion of peace and coexistence—the film has an anti-war message. It was made in a time of fear of an impending war and would have been released two years after a Nazi youth book burning of non-German texts, which is reflected in the movie in the first scene when the Saracens sack Jerusalem and burn what only can be assumed as Christian texts. The ending of film, which results in a truce and an end to the Third Crusade, reflects the isolationist policy of the time by condoning the positive effects of not getting involved in foreign affairs. In this, the film is a call for the continuation of the policy of isolationism.
Another interesting aspect of this film is the role women play in it. The unsung hero of the film is Richard’s wife, Berengaria, who takes it upon herself to truly fight for peace –not only for the Christians, but for everyone. Initially her allegiance lies with the crusaders and she does everything in her power to ensure their success. She is the one who steps up and tastes Saladin’s wine to let him know that he is among noble men. She attempts to kill herself when she learns that by offing herself Richard and the King of France’s wife will wed and it will prevent France from pulling out of the crusades. When she is wounded and nursed by Saladin she is the one who begs him to spare Richard and makes peace with him by agreeing to become part of his harem. She operates from a place of peace and love and asserts power in the ways in which she is allowed as an oppressed woman. The problematic depiction of Berengaria comes through her “exotification” of (and fascination with) Saladin. She immediately is intrigued by him and identifies his “otherness” when she first sees him. Her willingness to join his harem and forsake her husband can be read as a sexualization of the exotic East, that can be seen in other films of the time, like The Sheik (1921). Although none of this is historically accurate for her life, Berengaria becomes the mouthpiece for peace. In the film she says: “What if we call him Allah or God, shall men fight because they travel different roads to him?” This shows Berengaria as pushing the message of religious tolerance, though much of her role in the film is being a captive, either as a prisoner of Saladin or as the bride forced to marry Richard. The men are thus representative of war and the pious Berengaria of peace.
Overall this film can be seen as a call for peace in a time of heightened fear of war. This film uses the only significant female character to further the call for peace through isolationism. While the film does have many inaccuracies, the story decisions worked to establish certain types of characters that work together or against each other in order to drive home an anti-war agenda.
October 25, 1935 (US release)
High Middle Ages (c. 1000-1300)
Moving Image Item Type Metadata
Henry Herzbrun (executive producer)