III New perspectives
“Oh, what if we call him Allah?” ambiguous orientalism in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Crusades
Cecil B. DeMille, Hollywood’s master of historical spectacle and faith-based melodrama, viewed himself as something of an amateur historian. Significantly, while DeMille fixated on the historical authenticity of his props, settings, and costumes, it was the director’s admission to the doubts within his characters and the contextual, subjective reading of his audience that give his work an unexpectedly modern sensibility.1 Indeed, DeMille would likely have appreciated Paul M. Cobb’s book, The Race for Paradise, as a compelling counter-narrative to the European-centered story of the Crusades. Cobb reveals Saladin, for example, as the protean holy warrior revered by Muslims who was also embraced by Christians for the ideals of nationhood, modernity, and virile masculinity that they could attach to his name. “In both the Middle East and the West,” Cobb writes, Saladin “remains admired, a symbol of statesmanship and chivalry.”2 To the Depression-era DeMille, the Crusades’ ambiguous goals coupled with Saladin’s historical plasticity challenged the boastful assumptions of Euro-American cultural superiority. His film The Crusades not only explores the faith, doubts, and violence which spurred the tragic centuries-long conflict but also rejects the very notion that Christendom then, or in 1935, truly understood themselves or their enemy.
At first glance, DeMille’s 1935 film The Crusades portrays Muslims, in general, and Saladin, in particular, through the familiar orientalist perspective that characterizes much of American commercial culture. In its opening scene, depicting the “Saracens of Asia” laying claim to Jerusalem in 1187, a series of didactic tableaux establishes the conventional “clash of civilizations.” In succession, DeMille portrays the toppling of a massive cross (presumably over the Church of the Holy Sepulcher), a bonfire fueled by an excited Muslim mob pitching sacred Christian texts and images into the blaze, and a group of young Christian women reciting the Lord’s prayer as they are sold into slavery. A leering auctioneer sanctions the sexual exploitation to come, as well as the violence that produced it, offering patrons: “May Allah give you joy.”
The plot then pivots to the film’s central drama - pitting Islamic ascendency against Christian indifference - as Saladin (Ian Keith) first appears.
Preceded by a host of heralds and mounted guards, the mob falls prostrate as the warlord confronts a brave Christian hermit (C. Aubry Smith), who gives voice to the audience’s outrage and predicts the holy wars to come. Saladin dismisses the man’s threats and challenges him to return to Europe to “tell your Christian kings what you have seen: your women as slaves, your knights trampled under our horses, your Gospels cast into the flames, the power of your cross broken forever.” The hermit prophesizes that Christian fury will “break like a wave” across the region. After a subtle reverseangle underwater shot of waves cresting, DeMille shifts to a montage of the hermit preaching throughout Christendom and a title card informing the audience that his efforts kindled a “deathless flame ... in the hearts of the people.”
Seemingly, all of the hallmarks of orientalism are maintained in The Crusades. Aside from Saladin and a few of his retainers, Muslim characters are portrayed as the discursive other; dehumanized objects used merely as plotting devices. The historical presentism of Medievalism shares screen time with what Nicholas Haydock later termed a “Saracen doxology” that casts the Ummah as adherents to an absolutist and autocratic faith, clinging to traditional, often backward practices, and trapped by divisive, petty grievances between clans over local resources and prestige.3 Its resonance with the classical Hollywood western - a genre that DeMille uses in six of his next seven pictures - including dusty towns, frontier justice, and the anachronisms of premodern culture provide the director with accessible commercial tropes. Not unlike these later works, here the director continues his well-known cinematic exploration of faith, a theme that had dominated his work for the past decade.
Yet if this were the sum contribution made by The Crusades to the tragic dialectic of modern Islam-Christian relations, one could be forgiven for overlooking DeMille’s offering as little more than the confirmation bias of conventional cultural bigotry. As Haydock continues, what remains notable about cinematic orientalism is not its existence but rather “the sheer, blinding force of [its] recurrence itself, everywhere intimated: from satire that mocks repetition to tragedy which finds it ennobling.”4 Set to this existential purpose - where the past literally defines the West by its opposition to the “savagery” of the other - even modern works, like Ridley Scott’s The Kingdom of Heaven (2005), quickly become ensnared by the cinematic “analogies that teach the medieval past by rendering it relevant to travesties that stir echoes of which their creators are only dimly aware.”5 Serving as little more than a re-purposed western, in Scott’s film the reluctant crusader, Balian de Ibelin (Orlando Bloom), travels to the frontier to reanimate his faith in community and civilization. In the process he and at least some Muslims display a resigned awareness, bordering on fatalism, of the absurdity of the “clash of civilization” motif. In a final scene, as Balian cedes Jerusalem to Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), the great Ayyubid sultan admits to the futility of their bloody struggle. Echoing Balian’s earlier speech to the beleaguered Christian defenders - where he admits to the paradox that “no one has claim” to God’s favor yet “all have claim” - when asked what the city is really worth to Islam Saladin responds wearily, “nothing, everything.”
But context matters. Just as The Kingdom of Heaven must be set against the prevailing public opinion following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and run-up to the Iraq War, so too does DeMille’s work need to be read from the perspective of the economically devastated, insecure, and largely isolationist America of 1935. Moreover, DeMille’s own cinematic preachment was decidedly non-denominational and openly ambivalent to the rival claims made by Christians and Muslims. The director admitted that Europeans operated from “motives ranging from the purest faith to the blackest treachery and greed.” DeMille’s Saracens “were not, as the propaganda at the time would have it, infidel dogs, but highly civilized and chivalrous foemen ... a cultivated people, and their great leader, Saladin, as perfect and gently a knight as any in Christendom.”6 Reading The Crusades within the context of its times, its director, and through the lens of contemporary scholarship, one is forced to reject the notion that orientalism developed without opposition or qualification.
Sadly, the true nature of the historical crusades are too often shrouded in denominational bias, presentism, and cultural chauvinism. Following a series of both perceived and actual violence perpetrated against Christian pilgrims near Jerusalem, in 1095 Pope Urban II issued a call for the faithful (or just sinners seeking absolution) to reconquer a city they lost in 638. The First, or People’s Crusade proved a disaster. In subsequent campaigns, the commitment of considerable military force succeeded in wresting control of the region from the divided Seljuk Turks. A century later, re-unified by Egyptian and Syrian forces under Saladin (in actuality, Salah al-Din or the “righteousness of the religion”) Islam retook Jerusalem prompting a third crusade (1189-1192). Led by Richard I (“the Lionheart”) of England, Frederick Barbarossa, king of Germany and the head of the Holy Roman Empire (who died en route, in 1190), and Philip Augustus of France, the “King’s Crusade” stands today as the dramatic high point of Christendom’s holy wars. It was here that Richard retook Acre, in 1191, and negotiated a truce with Saladin, one year later, that restored rights to Christians who made pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulcher. The four subsequent crusades all lack the unifying force of these earlier wars, and Christian leaders generally lost interest in the movement (as a test of their cultural superiority) only after the Turks conquered Constantinople (1453) and the Spanish Recon-quista (1492) re-oriented Europe toward the New World. Through such a retelling, it is easier to see how the themes of the “Crusades” soon shifted to those of the “Wild Wild West.”7
Taken as a whole, but using the Third Crusade for narrative cohesion, scholars today posit two broad conclusions about the historical significance of the crusades. The first is that by externalizing a common cultural enemy, the nebulous notion of medieval “Christendom” crystalized into the self-aware concept of “Europe.” Ironically, the rapid secularization of European society soon became a hallmark of their civilization. God may offer eternal salvation but it was the state that was tasked with defending human rights in the here and now. A second historical consequence of the crusades involved the sociocultural normalization of male violence. As before, the irony of legitimizing a society first unified by the teachings of the “Prince of Peace” though violence informs scholars’ explorations of the cultural signifying practices that followed. For both the crusading warriors and later cinematographers, however, the idea of “taking the cross” against infidels to absolve sin is unique neither to Christians nor to the Middle Ages. By redirecting violence beyond their borders (and led by men often denied economic opportunity at home by primogeniture), the crusades not only legitimized “Christian militarism” - gaining a functional role among the faithful by offering violence as an act of devotional love - but also soothed any moral concerns over the rise of European colonialism in the centuries to come.8
Using these historical foundations, scholars then proposed three discursive meanings of the crusades. The first involves the presentist symbolism of “holy war” as a dominant dialectic in Euro-American foreign affairs. Heard most recently in the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric following 9/11, but also employed in the Reconquista and colonization, during the Napoleonic era, and sundry counter-revolutionary movements throughout the late-20th century, such “Medievalism” looks to examples of past devotional sacrifice as a model that justifies moral absolutism, violence, and an uncompromising subservience to unity. Recently, writers such as Bernard Lewis, Francis Fukuyama, and Samuel P. Harrington again define the relationship between Islam and Christianity as a “clash of civilizations” that, in the words of Emran Qureshi and Michael A. Sells holds “the essence of Islam as a religion is antipathetic to the fundamental core values of the West.”9 Subsequent calls for cultural “cleansings,” intended to remove the threat of non-conformity, litter the history of modern Euro-American culture and persist to this day.
Building upon this, and led by Edward Said’s pioneering work in 1978, scholars have shown how the crusades abetted European Christians in projecting a host of (often ironically hypocritical) character traits upon the Islamic other. While extensive, these rationalizations mirrored those ascribed to Native Americans; namely, that their culture was immature, economically inefficient, cruelly violent, and self-justified by a primitive past that made the West’s destined conquest so manifest. Temporary setbacks - inflicted either by Saladin or by Sitting Bull - were merely the result of cheating, doubledealing cultural traitors, cowardly guerilla campaigns, or other “unmanly” behaviors on the part of the uncivilized other. As with the “clash of civilizations” trope, here the heroes of the crusades emerge as romantic idealists; men wholly committed to notions of chivalry and untroubled by any ambiguity or doubt over faith, race, gender, personal property, or sexuality.
Finally, in recent decades (and corresponding to the postcolonial period that followed the Second World War) the crusades are often presented as a cautionary tale over the pitfalls of cultural chauvinism. On display in Scott’s The Kingdom of Heaven, and more pervasively in contemporary Westerns and science fiction, this anti-imperialist stance often simply reverses the moral bearing of Christians and Muslims. Rather than glorifying the consensual “truths” of Christendom, the crusades lay bare their hollowness and hypocrisy.10
While today many incorrectly assume that the historical lessons drawn from the crusades and their influence over Euro-American cultural forms remain static, their cultural expression were always linked to the context of the times. Nowhere was this truer than in American motion pictures of the 1930s, one of the most anxious decades of the 20th century. As the Great Depression raged, film revenues fell precipitously, from $730 million in 1930 to $480 million three years later. Fox and Paramount entered receivership, Warner Brothers liquidated its most valuable assets to stay afloat, and RKO went bankrupt.11 The economic devastation and unresolved tensions arising from the First World War destabilized both the political and economic structures of Europe and the United States, leading to widespread doubt over the legitimacy of traditional practices. Many blamed those who once advocated for war while others looked to external conflict to retain their hold over power. The result was a period in American commercial film that questioned orthodoxy and championed the idea of rapid dialectical change. “Fall and rebirth,” Lary May writes, served as “one of the most pervasive themes of the Depression era,” that offered the cultural space to re-examine traditional power relations.12
$imilarly, while most assume DeMille’s status was as an unchallenged insider to the studio system, in fact, by the 1930s the famed director found himself in similar economic straights and as disillusioned as the general populace.” His quest for independence from the studio system failed in 1928, he was unceremoniously fired by MGM four years later, and only succeeded in reviving his career through the remarkable box office performance of The Sign of the Cross (1932), an Edwardian passion play about Nero’s persecution of early Christians, which did more to highlight the depravity of modern consumerism than sooth patrons with assurances of eternal salvation. In a 1931 Variety interview, a far more marginalized DeMille claimed that “the public has been milked” by big business, including his own industry, “and are growing tired of it. . . there is something rotten at the core of our system.”14 A year later, he warned The New York American (using Sign's dramatic construction to explain his political perspective on current events) of the “close analogy between conditions today in the United States and the Roman Empire prior to the fall.”15 Then and now, the “multitudes [were] oppressed by distressing laws, overtaxed and ruled by a chosen few. Unless America returns to the pure ideals of our legendary forebears, it will pass into oblivion as Rome did.”16
In addition to appreciating these economic and personal factors in the conception and production of The Crusades, the director’s views on faith also bear consideration. From a contemporary perspective DeMille’s faith films appear wholly conventional. But while a devout believer in God and regular reader of the Bible, he rejected the dominant Christian orthodoxy, detested clerical pedantry, and designed his films to present salvation as a matter of personal choice, not regional character. He once mulled over a project that dramatized a celestial meeting between Moses, Buddha, Mohammed, and Jesus and argued, barely two months before he passed in 1959, that “God knows very little about religion. . . . His church [resides] in the body [of] each individual.”17 DeMille recognized the intellectual challenges posed by modernity to faith, embraced science and positively portrayed Darwin’s theory of evolution in the plot of Adam’s Rib (1923), and voiced his respect for agnostics and atheists who by their honesty, he reasoned, were “probably closer to [God] than the so-called believer.” The 1923 version of The Ten Commandments, for example, is remembered for its Biblical prologue, yet the film was dominated by a modern tale of two brothers and the ways that their contemporary lifestyles either preserved or rejected Mosaic Law. The inflexibility of their ultra-orthodox Christian mother drove one son to his debauchery and sealed her own doom. In later years, DeMille famously invited not only Christian clerics to the set of King of Kings (1927) but also Muslim Imams, Jews, Hindus, Christian Scientists, and the Salvation Army. The director displayed a framed poem, “Te Deum” by H. Romaine, above his office desk to the day he died, which read in part:
One Great God looked down and smiled,
And counted each his loving child;
For Muslim, Christian, Brahmin, Jew
Had reached Him through the Gods they knew.18
By the 1930s, his ecumenism and the rise of radical political thought throughout the U.S. and Europe left DeMille riven with anxiety. In both The Sign of the Cross (1932) and This Day and Age (1933), he sharpened his attack on orthodoxy. The Christian martyrs were not “pious fools who asked” for their persecution, he corrected one critic. Rather, they were an ideological minority who challenged the status quo. They “might in fact be called the Communists of that day” for “they stood for the changes which the Romans did not understand so Rome insisted that they be stamped out. Who knows, perhaps the Communists of today will be placed on a similar pedestal two thousand years from now?”19
These considerations - of the U.S., the film industry, and DeMille as a man of faith - provide the context in which The Crusades was proposed, produced, and released. Production began on January 30, 1935, with the full backing of Paramount Pictures. Hoping to recapture the box office magic DeMille recently showed with his historical spectacles, including
Sign and Cleopatra (1934), Emmanuel Cohen granted the director an initial production budget of $1 million and then regular (if grudgingly approved) increases that brought the total, when production wrapped 18 days behind the schedule on April 16, to $1,376 million.20
As was his habit, DeMille spent most of his budget before filming began. Harold Lamb anchored a talented writing team, which included Waldemar Young and Dudley Nichols, who merged tales from his own popular crusade fiction - such as Durandal (1931) - with more traditional works, such as Sir Walter Scott’s The Talisman. The melodrama has aged poorly, but skilled actors - like Ian Keith, Henry Wilcoxon, Loretta Young, and Joseph Schildkraut - gave solid performances. His expanded budget also unleashed DeMille’s skills with spectacle and his “cast of thousands.” Gordon Jennings and Victor Milner handled the film’s massive sets, designed by Hans Drier and Roland Anderson, and helped DeMille manage the six assistant directors hired to coordinate over 600 extras. The look they achieved -using sweeping crane shots to display village life or the massive trebuchet and battle along the city walls at Acre, later quoted by Sergei Eisenstein in Alexander Nevsky (1938) - established the visual patterns used by successive generations of filmmakers.
Like most historical dramas, the plot of The Crusades unfolds in three acts: exposition (establishing the main characters and their historical circumstances), complication (launching the dramatic tension), and resolution (producing closure and a pleasurable narrative experience for the audience). The basic conflict between Christians and Muslims remained in the foreground, but DeMille understood that his patrons cared little for the deeper religious struggle (which was not part of their daily lives) and instead featured the personal motivations of his three main characters: Richard, Saladin, and Berengaria. “The only way that people would believe today that [the crusaders] would give up their lives for a piece of wood,” the director told his Paramount executives in pre-production, “is to put in a personal story to hold them.”21 After the opening scene - showing the abuse of Christians, desecration of their icons, and the flat, almost stereotypical depiction of Saladin - the Hermit vows to awaken the religious passions of Europe and the film proceeds to reveal how these motivations were driven by each character’s “personal story.”
Leaving Saladin as the brutal other and stereotypical villain, the first quarter of the film explores three main perspectives. The first is Richard (Wilcoxon), depicted as an overgrown boy who prefers the simple action of battlefield to the complex politics of Late Medieval monarchy. He starts a fistfight with his favorite blacksmith, named Hercules, then takes the pledge to crusade rather than face the obligations of an arranged marriage to Alice, a relation of the French king. That DeMille elides any hint of Richard’s homosexuality as the cause of these behaviors further underscores his linkage of male maturation and spiritual awakening. The director previously dramatized Nero’s homosexuality, in Sign, so his refusal here to explore this question also suggests just how central Richard’s hetero orientation is to his character’s development.
Berengaria of Navarre (Young), like Saladin, is also introduced as something of a stock character. So little is known of the historical woman that DeMille had free reign in his depiction; most moviegoers, he quipped to his bosses, “thought Berengaria was a steamship until we started the picture.”22 This allowed the director to present her first as a passive innocent, then a principled if powerless foil to Richard’s male hedonism, and finally a potential heretic and peacemaker struggling to choose between either the king of Islam or Christendom. Her hastily arranged marriage - which ensures the crusaders are fully supplied by Navarre - and lack of consummation (Richard sends his sword and a troubadour to represent him at the nuptials) places this developing relationship at the heart of Richard’s conversion narrative.
Finally, the opening passages reveal the hypocritical religious passions that fuel many of the political schemes motivating the European monarchs. Most notable is Conrad of Montferrat (Schildkraut), whose fortunes are tied to his cousin Alice’s (played by DeMille’s own daughter, Katherine) marriage to Richard and who later schemes to assassinate the “Lion King” to prevent his formal union with Navarre. While a traditional melodramatic ploy, the subtext of European politics is poorly dramatized and actually detracts from the main characters’ moral dilemma. As historian Robert Birchard concludes, “the venal motivations of the kings through much of the film’s running time make them all rather unsympathetic and tend to undercut Richard’s last-reel conversion.”23
With the principals assembled, DeMille turns to spectacle as a way to disrupt this traditional narrative. His depictions of the assembly of the European host and the battle of Acre are both visual masterworks. DeMille possessed a rare skill when filming large crowds - often depicting complex emotions through the subtlest of visual clues - yet knew that “the little squire saying good-bye to his old mother” and “the young boy bidding his sweetheart good-bye” were essential to convey the religious passion that compelled commoners to leave while preventing his modern audience from concluding that the crusades were only a contrivance by elites where “the kings were only thinking of [adding] another province.”24 DeMille later claimed that his visual mode of storytelling “saved the technique of silent pictures” in the 1930s. While an overstatement, it remains true that the famed director relied far more heavily upon his imagery and event spectacle than dialogue and traditional plotting.
Only upon the Europeans’ arrival to the Holy Land does DeMille then complicate the picture by his subtle portrayal of Saladin. In contrast to the stock villain of the opening scene, whose atrocities, the director explained, “make the audience feel the Crusade . . . make them want to get up and fight,” Saladin’s first contact with the invaders reveals an intelligent, chivalrous Muslim far more honorable than his Christian rivals.25 Borrowing from Scott’s The Talisman, the film revisits the familiar story of how the sultan contrasts Richard’s blunt sword work with his own more cultured, yet equally deadly, use of a rapier. Saladin’s refuses to participate in Mont-ferrat’s clandestine schemes and carries this sense of probity into the many battle scenes to come. These surprising wrinkles to Saladin’s character also reveal Berengaria’s true essence, further facilitating Richard’s conversion. When the sultan fears being poisoned by drinking a ceremonial toast offered by Richard, the queen valiantly drinks from Saladin’s cup to prove their good will. Indeed, Saladin’s obvious interest in Berengaria’s character -rather than her curves - compels Richard to do the same. After the sack of Acre, Berengaria is hit by an arrow and taken by the fleeing Saracen king to Jerusalem to get proper medical attention. This “abduction” reveals to Richard the profound love he unwittingly held for his wife and drives the film to its resolution.
Significantly, it is Richard, the hero of the picture, who must achieve this sense of spiritual self-awareness for the audience. Searching for Berengaria, the king finds his old smithy, Hercules, dying on the battlefield. Revealing his own doubts, as well as a growing sense of responsibility for the brave men he led to their death on the battlefield, Richard bemoans to the heavens, “if You are there, receive this old man’s soul.” Eventually locating his spouse in the lavish tent of his rival - although Berengaria has been faithful to her marriage vows - the two men appear willing to allow the pretext of a cultural holy war to prevent them from stopping the carnage. It is Berengaria who leads them to enlightenment. Negotiating between the doctrinal differences of both faiths, she pleads, much as DeMille believed,
Oh, what if we call him Allah or God, shall men fight because they travel different roads to him? There’s only one God. His cross is buried deep into our hearts. It’s here, and we must carry it wherever we go. Oh, don’t you see Richard, there’s only one way. Peace. Make peace between Christian and Saracen.
Seeing a willing compromise through the even-tempered Saladin, Richard breaks his sword, ends his sack of Jerusalem, and brokers a deal that allows pilgrims safe passage to the Sepulcher. The closing scenes show Richard and Berengaria re-united, supplicants before the shrine (where he leaves the remnants of his sword), and the cross raised again above the structure, symbolic compensation for the one toppled two hours earlier.
Evaluating The Crusades for its historical accuracy is a hopeless exercise. As one critic wrote, the picture was recognized immediately as “historically worthless, didactically treacherous, [and] artistically absurd” yet, just as certainly, “none of these defects impairs its entertainment value.”26 It remains useful to explore the film through the analytical filters ascribed to the Muslim-Christian contact discussed earlier in this chapter. Most notably, the film rejects the idea that the crusades unified Europe. If anything, the work suggests that an ecumenical faith in God offers a much more authentic, broader, and ancient unity of mankind too often obscured by petty regional or cultural idiosyncrasies. Montferrat’s assassination plot (foiled by Saladin) hints that the secular machinations of the state are mere distractions, yet these trials offer individual men and women the ability to explore the depths of their commitment to God’s will. In a similar vein, DeMille’s work depicts the culture of male violence that lies at the heart of the war as directionless, self-defeating, and, as in the case of Hercules, cruelly destructive. Here, the crusades are turned by the sensibilities of women - not the carnage of men -into a constructive force that drives meaning inward upon the individual, not externally to define a common Christian culture.
In a similar fashion, while scholars often ascribe precise interpretive meanings to the crusades, DeMille’s film presents a far more ambiguous and contextual translation. The elements of an inevitable “clash of civilizations,” for example, are clearly present in the picture’s opening scenes yet the surety of this position is relentlessly undermined as we see Richard’s gradual maturation, Saracen’s steady moderation, and Berengaria’s moral reasoning. The context of the times certainly influenced this unique posture. Unlike 1917, when DeMille’s historical epic Joan the Woman demanded that England (and by extension the U.S.) fight in the First World War, as the ghost of Joan d’Arc demands, to “expiate thy sin against me,” here the slaughter tempers human passions enough so that the wise can actually see God’s will. DeMille’s pronounced use of the cross imagery in The Crusades underscores his belief that suffering is universal and instrumental to the actualization of faith. In addition to opening and closing the film with a cross, the director quotes numerous passages from his earlier hit, The Sign of the Cross, where believers in both films willfully endure hardships as a means to achieve enlightenment. The lead male characters of both works are only converted into believers (although, typical of DeMille’s own views, not into denominational zealots) through the threatened loss of their newly discovered partners. While some suggest DeMille’s preachment reflected a newfound pacifism, swirling throughout the 1930s, his other works of this period (including Sign and This Day and Age) reveal a profound ambivalence toward cultural nationalism in lieu of this more intensely personal search for meaning.
The same holds true when describing The Crusades as an act of orientalism or an othering of Islam. On the one hand, the strongest qualities of the film are its visual spectacle and these, taken as a whole, are nothing if not orientalist. The battle scenes clearly pit “heroic” Christians against the duplicitous Muslim “occupiers.” The film’s depictions of atrocities happen largely in its exposition as a means to establish the raison d’etre of the crusades. Christian crowds appear reasoned, consensual, and motivated by faith whereas the Saracens are shown as unruly mobs incited by the Qur’an to justify their lust. Nuanced expressions of Christian faith - from the ascetic passions of the Hermit to the invested formality of the French king - are contrasted to rare, often quixotic references to Islam (Saladin refuses to drink alcohol), closing off the possibility of dramatic conversion to all but the Crusaders. But the closer inspection that DeMille applies to Christianity serves to accentuate the widespread doubts of the invaders not their cultural superiority. As in the more recent The Kingdom of Heaven, both Saladin and the Christian hero (Richard/Balian) are improved and uplifted, not tainted by their contact with the other. Both undergo conversion experiences and while DeMille’s melodrama remains focused on the love story between Richard and Berengaria, Saladin’s willingness to allow her to leave with his rival serves as the sultan’s own personal cross; suffering for the greater good of humanity. DeMille’s pride in refusing to dehumanize Saladin lasted until the end of his life. In his autobiography, he reveled in telling the story of his first meeting with Egyptian president Gamal Nasser, in 1952, as his production team sought permission to film on location for The Ten Commandments (1956). He was granted the rare privilege - during a period of growing antagonism between Pan-Arabs and their former colonial overseers in Europe - because, as one of Nasser’s aides remarked, “Mr. DeMille, we grew up on your film The Crusades, and we saw how [well] you treated us and our religion. Our country is your country.”27
Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, The Crusades displays, in 1935, much of the same sense of guilt over American and European cultural and economic imperialism that was later aired after World War II. Berengaria’s soliloquy in Saladin’s tent speaks directly to this cultural relativism. It tracks almost directly to Balian, in The Kingdom of Heaven, as he addresses the Christian faithful defending Jerusalem. Like Berengaria, 70 years earlier, he asks, “What is Jerusalem? Your holy places lie over the Jewish temple that the Romans pulled down. The Muslim places of worship lie over yours. Which is more holy? The wall? The mosque? The sepulcher? Who has claim? No one has claim. All have claim!” While it is doubtful that most viewers, in 1935, teased out the nuance of Berengaria’s ecumenicism, the film’s dramatic resolution left little doubt that the bloodshed only ended after the crusaders admitted the absurdity of their own cultural paranoia.
Perhaps, these ambiguities help explain the film’s poor performance at the box office. While popular, the picture failed to recoup its expenses until it was re-released in 1950. DeMille’s own production delays and the massive overhead charged to the film (one of only a handful of working sets on Paramount’s beleaguered soundstage, in 1935) bloated the negative cost and made it even harder for the film to turn a profit. After another sweeping change of studio managers and the public’s growing resistance to unorthodox depictions of religiosity, DeMille pivoted. Beginning in 1936 and lasting until his final picture, the director abandoned his experiments in cinematic faith for a more formal defense of the dominant consensus reflected in the studio system. While this shift was also greatly influenced by the context of his times, The Crusades remains an important yet poorly appreciated expression of Islam through the eyes of an American filmmaker. Scott’s flawed 2005 film suggests just how difficult it remains for a modern commercial filmmaker to dramatize a people and faith that they often understand only though opposition. DeMille’s older picture makes a stronger case, preferring a posture of ambiguity (even indeterminacy) that defers to the more vital and universal expressions of faith produced by individual, not collective conversion ordeals.
- 1 For DeMille’s historical sensibilities, see David Blanke, Cecil B. DeMille, Classical Hollywood, and Modern American Mass Culture, 1910-1960 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 129-163.
- 2 Paul M. Cobb, The Race for Paradise: An Islamic History of the Crusades (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 3.
- 3 Nicholas Haydock “ ‘The Unseen Cross upon the Breast’: Medievalism, Orientalism, and Discontent,” in Hollywood in the Holy Land: Essays on Film Depictions of the Crusades and Christian-Muslim Clashes, eds. Nicholas Haydock and E.L. Risden (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2008), 19-20.
- 4 Haydock, “ ‘The Unseen Cross Upon the Breast’,” 21.
- 5 Ibid. See also Cobb, The Race for Paradise, 5.
- 6 Donald Hayne, ed., The Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1959), 344-345.
- 7 John Aberth, A Knight at the Movies: Medieval History on Film (New York: Routledge, 2003), 63-75. For a full accounting of the crusades and their historical resonance, see Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades, 2nd ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005); and Jonathan Riley-Smith, ‘‘The Crusades as an Act of Love,” in The Crusades: Blackwell Essential Readings in History, ed. Thomas F. Madden (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2002), 31-50.
- 8 For European unification, see Tomaz Mastnak, “Europe and the Muslims,” in The New Crusades: Constructing the Muslim Enemy, eds. Emran Qureshi and Michael A. Sells (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 205-248; Riley-Smith, The Crusades. For “taking the cross,” see Haydock, “ ‘The Unseen Cross upon the Breast’,” 24-25; Riley-Smith, “The Crusades as an Act of Love.”
- 9 Emran Qureshi and Michael A. Sells, “Introduction: Constructing the Muslim Enemy,” in The New Crusades, 2-47.
- 10 Adam Knobler, “Holy Wars, Empires, and the Portability of the Past: The Modern Uses of Medieval Crusades,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 48, no. 2 (April 2006): 293-325.
- 11 Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of the American Movies (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 195-214.
- 12 Lary May, The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 79.
- 13 For a full explanation of DeMille’s shifting career, its contextual origin, and the contrast between his early and late phases see Blanke, Cecil B. DeMille, Classical Hollywood, and Modern American Mass Culture, 165-209.
- 14 DeMille quoted in Phil A. Koury, Yes, Mr. DeMille (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1959), 132.
- 15 DeMille quoted in Charles Higham, Cecil B. DeMille (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973), 216.
- 16 For “multitudes” see The Cecil B. DeMille Archives, MSS 1400, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Brigham Young University [hereafter, BYU], Box 506, Folder 13.
For 1924 ecumenical picture, see BYU, Box 250, Folder 13. DeMille quoted in Scott Eyman, Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 495^196.
For multi-faith prayer readings on the set of his films, Gabe Essoe and Raymond Lee, DeMille: The Man and His Pictures (New York: A.S. Barnes and Company, 1970), 114. For his doubts toward organize religion, see Jesse L. Lasky, Jr., Whatever Happened to Hollywood? (New York: Funk & Wagnals, 1973), 300; Koury, Yes, Mr. DeMille, 54; Katherine Orrison, Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille’s Epic, the Ten Commandments (New York: Vestal Press, 1999), 37, 175. For his views on Darwin, see BYU, Box 262, Folder 1. For poem, see Margaret Herrick Library, Henry S. Noerdlinger Collection, Folder 22.
For “communists of today,” see BYU, Box 506, Folder 13.
For a brief yet incisive overview of the film’s production, see Robert S. Birchard, Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2004), 283-292.
Eyman, Empire of Dreams, 318; Birchard, Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood, 286.
Birchard, Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood, 285.
Eyman, Empire of Dreams, 318.