Movie Monday: King Richard and the Crusaders (1954)


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.

“Saladin, king of Egypt.” 15th c.

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.

Movie Monday: King Richard and the Crusaders (1954)

Movie Monday: Sign of the Pagan (1954)

Apologies for the lack of posts over the weekend; coming back from a trip, I missed the last train out of London and had to rely on a friend to pick me up. Thanks to her kindness, I did get home eventually, but not until very late at night, so no post on Saturday. Then I spent Sunday preparing for class and, er, sitting around in my pyjamas playing video games.

Anyway, as is the custom of our people, Monday is Movie Monday, and today’s film is 1954’s Sign of the Pagan, a movie I chose on no more recommendation than that it has Jack Palance playing Attila the Hun.



Yeah, you heard me. The first thing that leapt to mind was of course John Arsing Wayne in The Conqueror, but as we will see Palance is not quite so terribly miscast, although there were … interesting wardrobe choices. In fact, this movie is earlier than The Conqueror, which I was not expecting. If it was an inspiration for that crapfest, those guys had better hope the Lord is merciful.

Anyway, as with most of these old historical epics, it’s on YouTube, so you can follow along.

Here we go!

Now, the historical Attila is kind of a murky figure. He played a major role in an eight-volume history by a contemporary writer called Priscus, but unfortunately it was lost, so all we have are references to it from other sources. There’s some disagreement among the textual sources, but the basic outline of Attila’s campaigns against the Roman Empire and/or the Visigoths is clear. However, there’s much we don’t know about the historical Attila, and a lot of legend has sprung up around him.

The film takes an odd approach. Some of the time, it’s writing about the legend, and a lot of the time it’s just doing “for ‘Attila,’ read ‘generic barbarian’ throughout.”

Anyway, we begin with Marcian (utility Western star Jeff Chandler), a Roman soldier of humble origins, later to become the Emperor Marcian (reigned 450-457). In fact, the historical Marcian was originally a soldier of humble origins, although he probably didn’t look like a painted plaster statuette of Julius Caesar like this dipshit does. Marcian gets captured by the Huns while riding to deliver a message that displays a spectacular misunderstanding of what the separation of the Empire into its Eastern and Western halves meant.

The Huns are led by Attila, who …

… who …

Yooou … are my number one … hhhhhhaaaguy ….


… is Jack Palance in brownface.

This is a Bad Idea. Such a bad idea. But we’re not done with the story of this Bad Idea, although I’m not sure I took any pictures of it. Oh wait, I did. See, Attila has a daughter, Kubra (Rita Gam), who is not so bad. She’s like feisty and fierce and stuff, but she’s kind of nice. There is goodness within her. You can tell because:



She’s way whiter than he is. And she’s going to be whiter yet as the film progresses. So, yeah. 1954 won’t let us get through this movie without at least one dispiriting reminder of pervasive racial prejudice.

Aaaanyway, Marcian tricks Kubra into letting him escape, and rides to Constantinople to report in with General Paulinus. Who is a stock General, but he gets a mention here because:

Jeff Morrow!
Jeff Morrow!

It’s Jeff Morrow! Exter from This Island Earth! Look everybody, it’s Jeff Morrow!

The Eastern emperor, Theodosius II, is a cowardly schemer who plots to ally with the Huns and their various barbarian vassals while leaving the Western Empire to its fate. He also bullies his sister, Pulcheria. Now, when I saw this name, I laughed, but Theodosius II did in fact have a sister named Pulcheria, who ruled as regent when he was a kid. So there you go. 





Pulcheria flirts a bit with Marcian, asking him what the women in Rome are wearing and generally setting herself up as the goodie. He gets all flustered because he is a simple soldier and she is a princess; you know the drill. Then Attila turns up, crashing a banquet to which Theodosius has invited a bunch of barbarians with swell hats, and things get complex. Attila and Theodosius strike a deal, Kubra and Marcian flirt some more, and Kubra starts to get concerned with Christianity. Attila and Marcian are opposed to each other, but each honours the other as a plain-speaking, manly tough guy. All clear so far?

It’s a neat little diagram, actually. Kubra is the tragic love interest, Pulcheria is the proper love interest, and Attila is the stab-happy elephant in the room. Attila plans to attack Rome, knowing that Theodosius won’t do anything about it. Marcian suggests warning Rome, but Theodosius has him locked up. Paulinus and Pulcheria spring Marcian, they overthrow Theodosius and all march to the defense of Rome.

Meanwhile, Attila is getting more and more obsessed with prophecies and religion and worrying that the Christian God is going to fuck him up for defying Him. He has a confrontation with Pope Leo I in which Leo scares the shit out of him by knowing about a time one of his pet soothsayers got struck by lightning. He obsesses over a dream in which he died with the shadow of a cross over him. When it turns out that Kubra snitched him out to Leo, he loses his shit and kills her.

Marcian has arrived with his troops to defend Rome, but it turns out not to be necessary, because Attila, crazed with grief, guilt and superstitious terror, has ordered his men to retreat. Marcian and his guys lay an ambush for them, and in the fighting, Ildico, one of Attila’s wives, shanks him up a treat. The result:



Marcian and Pulcheria get married, Rome is saved for another … little while … and goodness triumphs over badness, except for Kubra, but she’s only a girl.

So, the good and the bad: first up, obviously the costumes and sets are pure Hollywood fantasy. I might make an exception for some of the wall paintings, but I have a hunch they’re actually in a later style, although I don’t know enough about Byzantine art to say for certain without looking it up.

haaaaaats beards


Some high-quality hats and beards, though.

Some of the history is kinda-sorta right. Like, for instance, Marcian did get to be emperor by marrying Pulcheria, but the invasion of Italy that Marcian intervened in — and in which Attila encountered Leo I — happened after that, not before it. And, of course, Marcian didn’t come riding to the rescue of Rome directly. He sent troops to menace the Hunnic homeland, possibly causing Attila to fall back to secure his own bases. And all this stuff about Christianity … it’s like The Robe up in this bitch.

What else? It’s weird that Theodosius and Pulcheria both have accents, but pretty much nobody else does. The battle scenes are what you’d expect; lots of guys in minidresses clanking tin swords together. It occurs to me that much of the “historical” aspect of 1950s historical epics is that they’re based on 19th-century novels (in general, rather than always specifically). I was surprised that the story of Honoria wasn’t in there at all, nor the whole thing with Aetius.

Jack Palance as Attila is … pretty good. He doesn’t play him as a “passionate barbarian,” even in the bit where he flirts with / molests Pulcheria. He’s nicely restrained most of the time, even funny and easygoing when it suits him. The dialogue is, as always, ludicrous.

So there you have it: I had no idea this movie existed this morning, so now I am more knowledgeable, if not exactly wiser. I hope you are too.

Movie Monday: Sign of the Pagan (1954)