There have been few movies done on the Crusades since the 1930s, beginning with Cecil B. Demille's The Crusades. Varying depictions of the Crusades onscreen show simplified views of the conflicts. They are either spiritual quests to reclaim the Holy Land or brutal invasions that expanded European interests in the region, with Christian knights and Saracen defenders in interchanging roles as villains or victims of aggression. The historical truth about "holy war" during the Crusades is not as clear-cut.
There were nine crusades in total, including what's known as the Children's Crusade. They began in 1095 when Pope Urban II proclaimed at the Council of Clermont that Christians should liberate the Holy Land from the infidel Saracens, in places like Antioch, Acre, Tyre and Jerusalem. He inspired men with promises that God would forgive all their sins if they "undertook the cross" and gave their lives in the effort. Within months, the poorest soldier to the kings and dukes of Europe had affixed a red cross, sewn on his tunic or mantle at the right shoulder. For the next two hundred and seventy years, countless numbers died in the capture or defense of the Holy Land. These events gave rise to several military brotherhoods among knights including the Order of the Hospitallers of St. John and the Templars.
Most screen versions of the Crusades barely skim the surface of the conflicts or contain inaccuracies, altering the history for dramatic purposes. The most recent depiction of the Crusades has been in films about Robin Rood. The first is Kevin Costner's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), in which the lead is a prodigal son held for ransom by the Saracens, and Robin Hood (2010), where Russell Crowe's Robin Longstride and his friends are archers in King Richard the Lionhearted's army, returning from the Crusades. While each briefly touched on the brutal experiences of Crusader soldiers, in the first there is a little more shown as Robin languishes in jail with other knights. When they break free, one of them extracts a deathbed promise from Robin to take care of his sister, setting up the premise of a relationship between Maid Marian and Robin.
The last film in which the Crusades received the full treatment was 2005's Kingdom of Heaven, starring Orlando Bloom and Eva Green. The movie does correctly show the differences between the various military orders, including the Hospitallers and Templars, and the ravages of Baldwin IV's leprosy, but the history of the protagonist and his love interest is not accurate. Balian of Ibelin was not a blacksmith in France and was born in the Holy Land as a legitimate heir, not a bastard.
Queen Sybilla of Jerusalem was devoted to her husband Guy de Lusignan and willingly gave the kingship to him when her brother Baldwin IV died. She and Balian did not have a romantic relationship. The Crusaders also did not capture or kill the sister of the Saracen leader, Saladin. Kingdom of Heaven also portrays the Christian cause in an unfavorable light, with the antagonists pressuring for outright warfare against the Saracens.
What portrayals of the Crusades have stuck with you? Any recommendations?
Lisa J. Yarde is a historical fiction author. Her ON FALCON'S WINGS, an epic medieval novel chronicling the starstruck romance between Norman and Saxon lovers, is available now.