DirectorCecile B. DeMille
Release Date(s)1935 (March 7, 2023)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B
Cecil B. DeMille was not a subtle moviemaker. He created historic and Biblical epics with casts of thousands and lavish production detail. A fixture of the film industry from its inception, DeMille gravitated toward stories featuring grand events, romance and action.
The Crusades is a decidedly Hollywood take on the Crusades. Set in the twelfth century, the film focuses on the Third Crusade but incorporates characters and events from all of the Crusades. Supporting the Crusades for reasons both religious and selfish, the Christian kings of Europe strove to conquer Jerusalem and drive the Moslems out, whatever the cost. While the actual Crusades were spread out over 200 years, DeMille neatly consolidates them into a manageable running time.
Jerusalem has fallen to the Saracens, who demean Christianity and abuse Christians in the Holy Land. The elderly are bound in chains, nuns are sold into slavery, and a huge cross is pulled down from the city walls. A pious hermit (C. Aubrey Smith) witnesses the slaughter and rape of the city, returns to Europe to seek vengeance, and succeeds in securing the involvement of King Philip of France (C. Henry Gordon). Fearing that while he’s away, Richard the Lionheart of England (Henry Wilcoxon) will usurp his throne, Philip attempts to enforce an old pledge by Richard’s late father, Henry II. Richard will marry Philip’s sister, Princess Alice (Katherine DeMille). But non-believer Richard opts to lead the Crusades and have his marriage vow voided.
As Richard and his army are starving in Marseille, the King of Navarre (George Barbier) agrees to give Richard cattle and other provisions as a dowry if he marries the king’s daughter, Princess Berengaria (Loretta Young). With no other options, Richard agrees to the marriage. He cares little for Berengaria. However, when she’s captured by Saracen leader Saladin (Ian Keith), he determines to get revenge.
The screenplay contains a good deal of flowery dialogue and characters often orate instead of speaking conversationally. Wilcoxon, with his chiseled face and impressive bearing, comes off worst as he tries to balance his conquering hero persona with passionate lover. Clearly, Richard is a warrior first, a lover second. Loretta Young, looking beautiful, has the thankless role of a pretty pawn in the midst of warfare. Joseph Schildkraut is on hand as the unctuous Conrad of Montferrat, an ally of the king of France and supporter of Richard’s ambitious brother, Prince John, who covets Richard’s crown and schemes with Montferrat to have Richard killed.
There’s a lot in The Crusades and the film is entertaining in its extravagance. With its title promising battle scenes, we’re made to wait until fairly late in the film for them. They’re staged excitingly and involve gigantic siege towers, catapults firing flaming projectiles, sword fights, boiling oil poured on attacking soldiers, Crusaders and Saracens shot with arrows, violent hand-to-hand combat, and general mayhem. When these scenes are on screen, the film comes alive.
Otherwise, the film is top-heavy with political machinations and intrigues. It meanders to such an extent that it gets mired in its own excesses. DeMille was far better with action than with actors and most of them affect a highly artificial manner to suggest noble themes and historic importance. The director’s weakness is having his characters become representative types rather than flesh-and-blood people. Only Loretta Young conveys humanity in this overblown picture. DeMille’s tried-and-true approach was to give the audience sex, romance, and action. It was successful for decades. Even later DeMille films, such as Samson and Delilah and The Ten Commandments, adhered to this signature formula. Seen today, however, The Crusades is a creaky artifact of a bygone era.
The Crusades was shot by director of photography Victor Milner on 35 mm black & white film and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Contrast is excellent, with details in the Crusaders’ armor and weapons, Berengaria’s hip-length hair, insignia on shields and banners, and the massive siege towers and catapults nicely delineated. Night scenes look good, particularly during the siege, when flaming projectiles light up the darkness. Intimate scenes are backlit, giving characters a halo-like glow. The battle scenes are well staged and feature close-ups intercut with master shots to personalize the death and suffering. Loretta Young is photographed to accentuate her natural beauty and often appears angelic, dressed in white, with flowing blonde hair.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD Master Audio. English SDH subtitles are an available option. Dialogue is clear and distinct, though it is often is stiff and overly formal. Battle scenes contain lots of clashing swords, clattering shields, grunting voices, and ambient noise. The siege towers make a lumbering sound as they approach the walls of the city. A catapult makes a loud, explosive sound when it fires projectiles at the city’s defenders. Arrows piercing bodies create a low thump. A montage of the Christians suffering indignities and torments under the Saracens contains cries, moans, and prayers.
Bonus materials on the Region A Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber include the following:
- Audio Commentary by Allan Arkush and Daniel Kremer
- Trailer (2:01)
- The Sign of the Cross Trailer (1:35)
- Four Frightened People Trailer (2:04)
- The Plainsman Trailer (2:21)
- Union Pacific Trailer (1:28)
- Reap the Wild Wind Trailer (2:17)
- Unconquered Trailer (2:41)
- China Trailer (2:09)
- The Stranger Trailer (1:18)
- The Farmer’s Daughter Trailer (1:49)
- The Accused Trailer (2:27)
- Because of You Trailer (2:20)
Beginning with the comment, “We’re going medieval,” the commentators provide an expansive overview of the career of Cecil B. DeMille, who was known for film spectacles. DeMille’s films were all about showmanship as he drew upon history but employed unrealistic stories, sentimentality, stereotyped characters, and lurid subject matter. The Crusades, well under the strictures of the Production Code, is less risk-taking than DeMille’s earlier The Sign of the Cross, which was responsible for giving rise to the Catholic Legion of Decency, a religious censorship board that exerted great influence on Hollywood’s movie content. DeMille, whose career went back to the early silent days, was very wealthy, had bought a great deal of real estate, and became a vice president of the Bank of America. The Crusades “bounces back and forth” between earnestness and a lighter tone. Henry Wilcoxon was a leading man in many of DeMille’s pictures but would never again have a starring role in film, instead taking secondary parts in movies and, later, in TV shows. Paramount wasn’t thrilled with Wilcoxon as leading man but was already committed to using him. He lacks the charisma so vital for a heroic figure. The Crusades represents state-of-the-art filmmaking of the period. Two-shots tend to look stagey and lack depth but battle scenes look great and are exciting to watch. DeMille preferred to work with actors who shared his political beliefs. Charlton Heston became one of his favorite leading men and starred in The Greatest Show on Earth and The Ten Commandments. There was genuine danger in the battle scenes of The Crusades. Actual firemen were dressed as extras and positioned in crowd scenes in case fire got out of control on the set. As a historical epic, The Crusades has nothing to do with history, but as a film it’s entertaining. The film is played straight, with DeMille completely committed to his vision.
The production values of The Crusades are lavish, with sets and costumes reflecting a huge budget. The primary flaws of the film are the melodramatic script and the stilted acting style. Lines are delivered in a stiff, formal manner more at home in stage productions of an earlier period. The prejudices of the script jump out at modern viewers: Christians are good, Moslems are infidels to be crushed. Ultimately, the film is pure old-school Hollywood reimagining of history redeemed somewhat by its stirring battle scenes.
- Dennis Seuling