Welcome back to Movie Monday, dear readers! Today we’re paying a little visit to the twelfth century, when the chivalry of Europe set out to take Jerusalem back from the Muslims. It’s an age of larger than life characters, the age of …
… total bollocks.
Once again, I don’t have any link to video of this thing, so you’ll have to just get it on DVD or something.
Anyway, this turns out to be one of this frustrating movies where the title is a little misleading. Oh, Richard I is in it, all right, but it’s really an adaptation of a Walter Scott, novel, The Talisman. As a result, most of the story is about the adventures of a completely fictitious knight, Kenneth of Huntingdon (Laurence Harvey). This is he:
Note that his faithful hound has a chainmail coif with holes for ears. I approve of that.
Anyway, the film has less of a single plot and more a series of episodes in the sort of knightly derring-do style, unified by some basic principles. Here’s the rundown: Kenneth loves a maiden fair, Edith, who is Richard’s cousin. Richard (George “Shere Khan” Sanders) objects because Kenneth is a poor knight and Edith is a princess, which is fair enough. Anyway, she’s the blonde one:
Her American accent occasionally surfaces in a really disconcerting way.
The baddie is Sir Giles Amery, head of the fictitious Castellans or Castlers, who are clearly meant to be the Templars. I believe they are the Templars in the novel.
How could you distrust that guy?
Anyway, Giles conspires with Conrad of Montferrat to have Richard shot with a poisoned arrow. Kenneth, while out in the desert, runs into a Muslim doctor, and they start out by fighting but become friends. The doctor turns out to be Saladin’s personal physician, sent to help Richard get better. Chivalry! It works, but there are two obstacles:
- It’s Rex Harrison overacting in dodgy brownface, and
- Dude starts wooing Edith.
In fact, his wooing of Edith irks Kenneth so much that he leaves his post guarding Richard’s banner to confront her. Meanwhile, the baddies sneak up and chop it down, framing him. Richard is furious and challenges Kenneth to trial by combat. Kenneth’s bronze-coloured armour makes his helmet look a little like an old fashioned diving suit.
These dudes are watching the fight intently; they do not appear in the film prior to this or after it.
Kenneth wins the fight but refuses to kill Richard; Richard then nearly kills him, but the physician intervenes to save his life. Kenneth goes off to begin a new life in the Saracen camp, which naturally begins with a totally called-for dance sequence.
But a further surprise is in wait! Yes, the humble physician Ilderim is really none other than Saladin himself, who sends Kenneth to Richard’s camp with a peace proposal (and a marriage proposal for Edith). But while Kenneth and Richard are catching up, Giles and his evil bros murder the other members of the Saracen embassy and kidnap Edith. Meanwhile, Conrad tries to kill Richard and Kenneth stabs him up nice. After a brief and pointless misunderstanding where they think Saladin dunnit, the forces of Christendom and Islam unite to recapture the princess. There are a bunch of fights, and Kenneth shanks Giles and shoves him into a moat. Saladin realises he and Edith can never be together, and there are big smooches between our hero and his “bonny.” The end.
You always have to be careful when thinking about Walter Scott, because something you might think of as a cornball stereotype may well have originated with him. For instance, this is one of the earliest works in English to do the whole Saladin-is-a-noble-dude thing in a chivalrous adventure. However, it’s not a stereotype that Scott originated. In fact, medieval literature does heavily feature the idea that Saladin was a chivalrous adversary worthy of Richard. And there are many instances of Saladin doing little courteous things for his opponents.
But Scott revived and popularised this concept. Various sources I’ve read say that this novel was one of the first to treat Muslims in a balanced way in the context of the Crusades, which may be true, but it’s certainly not out of line with a certain trend of Orientalism in the 18th century and earlier that used an imaginary Islam to criticise the behaviour of European Christians.
Obviously, the basic setting of the film is a bit compressed. The leaders of the Crusade didn’t spend all their time in one place, and Conrad of Montferrat wasn’t stabbed in Richard’s tent, although he was stabbed to death at around this time by a team of Assassins, possibly at Richard’s instigation.
This has been called one of the worst films of all time, which I think is a bit much. Apart from Rex Harrison’s completely inappropriate brownface, Laurence Harvey’s acting, and all the dialogue … well, actually that’s quite a lot, isn’t it? But it’s got a lot of stuff in it: swordfights and chase scenes and castles and treachery and stuff, and I think that if you view it in that light it might not be too bad. Like a lot of 19th-century adventure fiction, its plot is largely a series of contrivances to hold together action sequences, something not unfamiliar to modern viewers. I would say you have to view it with the spirit of a 12-year-old boy, but even in 1954 I think that boy might have seen all this stuff before and not feel like sitting through two renditions of Saladin’s love song in order to get to the jousting.