The European Crusades began with a flush of high Arthurian idealism, religious fervor, intense national pride, and an enemy of equal strength and passion. Movies about this time were driven by the engines of honor, vengeance, duty, and romantic love. The aim on the European side was to take possession of the Holy Land, specifically Jerusalem, in the name of the Roman Catholic Church. The result was an orgy of slaughter, an accentuation of the most base human qualities, and humiliating defeat. If Mark Twain had written a medieval trilogy, this could have been the second volume after his savaging of Arthur’s illusions of Camelot (see The Arthurian Movies). The third would be his book on Joan of Arc.

The history is complicated but the main body of the Crusades lasted for about two hundred years, from 1095 to 1291. The key points can be found in the capture of Jerusalem in the First Crusade, the loss of Jerusalem by Richard Lionheart in 1192, and the final defeat of the Europeans in 1291. If Hollywood history is to be trusted, at least for what is best known by the public at large, then the predominant figure of the Crusades was Richard Lionheart (1157-99), who has been played by a long and impressive list of Hollywood actors. There were in this time many other Crusade-inspired battles all around the Mediterranean, very often pitting the forces of Muslim conquest against the defensive Europeans. While most Hollywood movies about the medieval world feature British characters and British actors, this segment begins in Spain, which was invaded by the Moors of North Africa in the 8th century CE.

Setting the Scene:

El Cid  (1961)

Statue of El Cid in front of the Legion of Honor art museum in San Francisco.

Statue of El Cid in front of the Legion of Honor                              museum in San Francisco.

A prelude to the Holy Land Crusades that followed soon afterward, this epic film tells the story of the legendary Spanish hero, Rodrigo Díaz, known to history as El Cid. It opens in the year 1080. Roderigo (Charlton Heston) finds himself at odds with warring factions in Spain on the one hand and invading Moorish forces on the other. His love interest is Sophia Loren and they are well matched, both of them statuesque. Despite lapses in continuity, this legend gets the outsized treatment it deserves. The final scene, where El Cid leads his army to a provisional victory in 1099, though he is already dead, is one I still remember from my youth.

Becket (1964) / The Lion in Winter (1968)

Henry II, who reigned over England and western France in the years 1154-89, was played twice by Peter O’Toole in major motion pictures. The central drama of Henry’s early years is told in the movie Becket. He appoints his best friend, played by Richard Burton, to the position of Archbishop of his realm and then falls out with him over the problem of his taking the job too seriously.  Beckett pays for his earnest faith with his life.

The next film is set thirteen years later when the aging Henry invites his family to his castle to talk of succession after his death. Foremost among these guests is his estranged wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn), and their son Richard (later to be Lionheart). I have joined a minority in not liking this movie very much. Let me quote the opening line of my full review: “A disappointing film with far too much award-winning acting …” For this film, Hepburn won the second to last of her record-setting number of Academy Awards (this one shared with Barbara Streisand). In retrospect, the interesting surprise from this movie was Anthony Hopkins in his film debut as Richard I. It was not an impressive beginning but it would mark the slow rise of Hopkins as one of the most respected film actors of his time. Richard is played as a troubled prince who would inherit his father’s kingdom and come to grief in the Third Crusade. The film highlights the extraordinary range of flaws in all of these characters but it hardly goes far enough.

The Holy Wars:

There are three movies in my archive that attempt to encapsulate the 200 years of the Crusades using the Third Crusade as point of focus. The Crusades (1935), from the sure hand of Cecil B. De Mille, finds Richard Lionheart in full career attempting to take back the holy city of Jerusalem from the Saracen leader, Saladin. As Richard’s fortunes fade, Saladin offers him the governorship of Jerusalem if he will embrace Islam. Richard refuses. De Mille’s well-known Christian commitment causes him to soft-pedal the loss of the city by the Crusaders. Neither the Jews, whom Richard treated with extreme cruelty, nor the Roman Catholic Church would ever again have control of Temple Mount.

King Richard and the Crusaders (1954) is a somewhat flippant and thinly produced project that uses the clever idea of having Saladin pose as a Muslim doctor called upon to treat Richard’s battle wounds. Once again, the loss of Jerusalem is downplayed. The spirit of Saint George is invoked at every opportunity. The Kingdom of Heaven (2005), made by Ridley Scott, is set in the time of the Third Crusade, but only brings Richard on-screen at the end. Yet again, the subject of the failure of the Crusades is avoided, though there is more subtle attention to issues reflecting the realities of the first years of the 21st-century. On the DVD for the film, there is a documentary that notes the following about the last time that the Crusaders were victorious: “when the Christians took Jerusalem in 1099, they massacred the entire Muslim and Jewish population of the city.  It is said that ten thousand were murdered on Temple Mount alone.  Saladin is intent on avenging this atrocity in the name of Allah.”

 Arn – The Knight Templar (2007) – Swedish

This film turned up in a Netflix search in 2014 and added significantly to my archive on movies about the Crusades. Opening in 1187, it is set in Sweden and the Holy Land. Unlike The Seventh Seal, it features a young and idealistic hero who becomes a warrior monk and travels to the Holy Land where all of the action scenes take place. As a boy, he is raised in a monastery and shows an unusual aptitude for combat. A member of the Knights Templar undertakes his training over the objections of other monks. When he grows to manhood, he has a misadventure with a beautiful young noblewoman and is exiled to the holy land. Here,in a historical twist of fate, he encounters Saladin and saves his life. The two are bonded though they must ultimately face one another on the battlefield. Saladin is an admirable man and a capable leader. Both of these featured characters become victims of world politics. The Templars are led by a grandmaster. There is very little lore of the Knights Templar in this movie. They are simply a dedicated band of medieval warriors with red crosses on their tunics. The movie makes it seem as if this crusade was a war between the Swedes and the Muslims. Arn has become the legendary warrior, called Al Ghouti. After many years of defending Jerusalem, Arn returns to his homeland and dies in the arms of his beloved. A print legend at the end states that Arn’s “victory” in the Holy Land “secured peace for many years,” and led to the uniting of modern Sweden. The story is based on a trilogy of novels by controversial Swedish author Jan Guillou.

Ivanhoe  (1952)

There have been many film treatments of Ivanhoe taken from the 1819 novel by Sir Walter Scott. The fiction plays out against the time in 1192-94 when Richard was captured on his disconsolate return from the Holy Land and held prisoner in Vienna. Ivanhoe, also a returned Crusader, dedicates his efforts to raising a ransom to secure the release of the King. The circumstances in England will be familiar to many. Prince John, Richard’s brother, has ruled in the King’s absence and has evil designs on stealing the throne. Seeking to preserve the realm until the sovereigns return, Ivanhoe enlists the help of a forest bandit named Robin of Loxley, later to be known as Robin Hood. Just as it happens in the best-known Robin Hood movies, the heroic king rides in at the end to reclaim his throne. It turns out that in reality Richard was just about as despicable as his brother but the legends have swung his way. With the Third Crusade a debacle, England had enough bad news already. Not many young people today can discuss the high and low points of Richard’s character, but who does not know Robin Hood?

In my archive, there are two other movies about returning Crusaders but neither of them did well at the box office. The Gates to Paradise (1968) is about an older knight who returns from the Crusades filled with shame for the cruelties he has committed. He joins a monastery and leads the Children’s Crusade of 1212. The Season of the Witch (2011) finds two returning soldiers (Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman) in a similar situation. Beautifully filmed on Eastern European landscapes, it becomes bizarre and gratuitous.

Robin Hood

Suddenly I have realized that I am keeping score. Understanding that Hollywood movies have a very strong bias toward heroes of the West, it has already been noted that there are at least 15 movies that feature King Arthur directly. Faust has three or four movies depending on strictness of category, and St. George has two movies. Robin Hood makes a strong showing with ten movies. These are not definitive figures but only a count of the movies I have reviewed and recorded in my archive. There is no real proof that Robin of Loxley ever existed and the other legendary heroes mentioned in this paragraph have similarly dubious origins. The only other relevant name in my Early Europe listings is Joan of Arc, who certainly existed. She has six movies (see below).

The Adventures of Robin Hood  (1938)

The movies about Robin Hood get progressively worse as they descend from the high point in 1938 when Errol Flynn played the iconic role. The color is marvelous for this production released in the year before Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, and the acting style is exuberent. No matter the vile motives of Prince John or the corruption of the Norman court, this movie has exactly the spirit that is demanded of it. Just as it has been with many other movies in this collection, this one is just the sort of blockbuster that the public in 12th-century Nottingham would have patronised at their local movie theaters, if they had them. Later efforts to add cynicism, irony, or timely cleverness have generally come to no good.

Legacy of the Crusades

If this movie montage of the history of the world has brought any illumination at all to the darkened theater of human self-awareness, it might be found at this half-way point in Ancient Destinations. I cannot tell you with certainty what it is because I am not your teacher; I am only your archivist. But as I have labored to put this model together, it seems to me that at the end of the first millennium of the Common Era, the Crusades raised defining questions for the West that would shape the drama of the second millennium. In 1957, Ingmar Bergman made an intuitive attempt to articulate those questions.

The Seventh Seal  (1957)

Notes made while watching the movie:

This is such undisguised allegory that it seems quaint and folkloric from the perspective of the third millennium.  A questing Knight, lately returned from the Crusades to a plague-wracked Northern Europe, sits on a rocky seashore. It is the mid 14th century. He plays chess with Death to forestall his own end until he can find some meaning in his life.  This is medieval existentialism.

He encounters a wagon carrying a small troupe of wandering players – a Fool named Jof, his young and beautiful wife, Mia, their baby, and a piper called Skat.  The Plague is ravaging the land.  The piper will be overtaken by Death somewhere along the road, but Jof (Joseph) and Mia (Mary) and the baby rise to the level of symbols of the life force.  They are innocence, goodness, hope, and modest bringers of joy to plagued villages. The Knight and his squire come upon a small church where a painter is creating a fresco of the Dance of Death. He enters a confessional and his confessor is black-robed Death.

We see the players performing an inconsequential pantomime on a scaffold in a village.  Skat is preoccupied with a seductive woman in the crowd and makes off with her as soon as he can.  Jof and Mia continue the show, singing a nonsense song, but are interrupted by a procession of religious flagellants.  The zealots want to put the blame for the Plague on the sins of man.  The cavorting of the actors seems trivial in contrast to this real drama.  Later, the husband of the seductive woman humiliates Jof in a tavern.  The man thinks it is Jof who has taken his wife away.

In a central scene, the Knight joins the players for a picnic by the sea.  While Mia serves the travelers wild strawberries and fresh milk, Jof plays the lute. The Knight cherishes this brief taste of a simple  life.  Death arrives and engages the Knight in a continuation of the game of chess, with the players’ wagon as backdrop.

The Knight and the players are taken in a procession to witness the burning of a very young witch.  They make camp around the caravan wagon and are beset with fears of impending doom.  Death appears again to finish the deadly game of chess.  Jof attempts to escape with Mia and the babe in the wagon.  The Knight returns to his own castle and his comely wife.  She welcomes him with love, and fixes a meal.  As they eat, she reads the passages regarding the Seventh Seal from the Bible.  A mysterious visitor, Death, arrives and the diners are struck with awe.

Jof and Mia have come to the seashore and experience a sense that they have sidestepped their doom.  Only these innocent players escape the ultimate Dance of Death.  They will inherit the Earth. Jof is given to visions and is able to see the dancers capering grotesquely across a hillside.  Here art affords at least the illusion of meaning.  The two players go off with their wagon along the beach. Somewhere in the middle of this movie a minor character observes:

“Our crusade is so stupid only an idealist could have invented it.”

Joan of Arc Movies:


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