Loretta Young (Berengaria), Henry Wilcoxon (Richard the Lion Hearted), Ian Keith (Saladin), C. Aubrey Smith (The Hermit), Katharine DeMille–as Katharine De Mille (Alice of France), Joseph Schildkraut (Conrad of Montferrat), C. Henry Gordon (Phillip II, King of France), George Barbier (Sanchez, King of Navarre), Alan Hale (Troubadour)
“You can lie to yourself, Richard. You can lie to me. But you cannot lie to God.”
When we speak of epic films in the classic era, D.W. Griffith is brought to mind as he was basically the father of the cinematic extravaganza. Those of a younger generation don’t necessarily realize the latter portion of DeMille’s films were also epics, even though they’re not in the widescreen process. What these people fail to understand is that for that particular era, these motion pictures were extravaganzas, as DeMille put more into his movies than anyone.
A perfect example of this is his film The Crusades, his son John giving him the idea for the movie. As with all of the helmsman’s pictures, hundreds of hours were spent researching items such as weaponry, clothing, etc., before filming started.
Having used Wilcoxon in Cleopatra, DeMille cast him again, and the two formed a working relationship that lasted until DeMille’s death in 1958. Young was pregnant during filming, causing DeMille and the costumer designers considerable difficulties. One of Christian slaves in the film’s opening was Ann Sheridan.
DeMille was truly hated by the former cowboys who served as stuntmen due to his contempt for safety. The director’s main concern was getting the shot. Having had many of their friends injured and their horses put down due to the disregards for safety on this film, the men were indignant. Therefore, they actually planned on killing DeMille by ‘accidentally’ riding over him during a battle scene. Eventually, the plan was scrapped when it was decided DeMille wasn’t worth prison time.
When the helmsman bellowed at them during an action shot, one stuntman, an expert archer, fired at the director’s megaphone, missing DeMille’s head by inches. The director left the set for the rest of the day, and from then on, never again gave the stuntmen a hard time.
What makes The Crusades fascinating is that while we pull for the crusaders as they have the proper cause, we don’t care for them personally. Richard only goes to get out of an unwanted wedding, and when the man does enter matrimony, he sends his sword as his proxy, insulting Berengaria. The king doesn’t know the meaning of honor, and uses others to his advantage. By the end of the film, everything has boomeranged on him and Richard is a defeated man. Yet he’s learned what love is, thus he gained far more that he has lost. The king (and the audience) consider him to be victorious.
Another interesting aspect is Saladin. While he’s the military adversary of the crusaders, he’s far from being the villain. As a matter of fact, the Moor is more appealing than Richard and his allies. He shows love to Berengaria before Richard ever thinks of it. Due to his love for the woman, he saves his adversary. When he has Richard in his grasp, Saladin could finish him off. Yet he finds a way to end the conflict, proving himself to be the superior leader and better man.
DeMille rightfully took pride that The Crusades was popular in the Middle East, as it was even-handed. When he and Wilcoxon requested permission to film parts of The Ten Commandments in Egypt in the mid-1950s, Egyptian leaders stated they grew up watching The Crusades and appreciated how Moslem leaders were portrayed. This, DeMille could have whatever he wanted.
The Crusades contains the best action scenes ever in a DeMille film. Wilcoxon is perfectly cast as the unlikable Richard, while Young is utterly charming. Keith is smooth, yet you know he can be dangerous. Schildkraut oozes evil at all times, and one knows never to trust him.
An interesting look at an intriguing historical period, this is one any person interested in classic movies should watch.
J.M. Harrison is the author of “Ready When You Are,C.B.!” 98 Epic Films You Need To Watch