Montferrat Coin Knight-Life

Film Knights

The Crusades (1935)

(IMDb review)

Cecil B DeMille Assassinated Conrad

Crusades PosterThis film makes Kingdom of Heaven look like a dramatised documentary. It stinks. Honestly. And it's a complete character-assassination of one of the most fascinating and heroic figures of the 12C. If anyone ever asks you who did Assassinate Conrad of Montferrat, tell them it was DeMille, on film at least. My poor, valiant Marqués...

To get a flavour of this film, imagine Sir Walter Scott's The Talisman and Hewlett's The Life & Death of Richard Yea-and-Nay spliced with a lot of 'romance novel' clichés (blonde 'good girl', dark 'bad girl'; 'good girl''s love redeems 'bad boy' hero), and romanticised Orientalism. The religious ethos is High Victorian Protestant Sunday School - every bit as anachronistic as Kingdom's 21C goodwill to all, which Berengaria prefigures when she pleads for peace between Richard and Saladin. England is depicted as a bucolic 19C fantasy 'Merrie England', and as Richard's home: he spent very little time there, being essentially a Frenchman. DeMille long traded on implied sex, sensation, violence and religion, so although this time we have no baths of asses' milk, we do have beautiful maidens and a middle-aged nun being sold at a slave-market in Jerusalem, and some juicy martyrdoms and sentimentalised deaths. C. Aubrey Smith's 'Holy Man' is shot full of arrows on the ramparts of Acre, which might just be a nod to Saladin's threat (not carried out) against William the Elder of Montferrat, but is more likely a Saint Sebastian touch. Visually, there are some striking large-scale action scenes, by '30s standards: the siege of Acre, a cavalry charge. But the characterisations... Oh dear. Alan Hale's Blondel sounds more like Eric Idle's minstrel in Monty Python & the Holy Grail (The Ballad of Brave Sir Robin) than the elegant and refined Lord of Nesle. Ian Keith's Saladin is more Brahmin than Kurd... and I mean of the Boston variety. He's also far too young. According to DeMille, either Frederick Barbarossa or his son Frederick of Swabia was alive when Richard arrived (it's unclear which of them "Duke Frederick of the Germans" is meant to be), and there are Russian and Norwegian contingents, not to mention (the lately-deceased) King King William of Sicily! There's no sign of Guy de Lusignan, Sibylla, or any of the Usual Suspects among the resident Frankish nobility: no Balian d'Ibelin, no Reynaud Grenier of Sidon, & c..

Leicester & Berengaria

Robert de Breteuil, Earl of Leicester, & Berengaria

But what infuriated me most was the character-assassination of Conrad of Montferrat (c. 1145-92), who was, all too briefly, King of Jerusalem. I blame the Romantic 19C cult of Richard 'the Lionheart' which Walter Scott did so much to foster and on which DeMille was clearly raised. (The film credits Harold Lamb, author of a 2-vol. popular history of the Crusades, as one of the scriptwriters, but he was a better historian than that, and I fancy other writers diluted the historical content. However, Lamb is to blame for movie-Blondel's Pythonesque songs.) The film is a celluloid slander on a dashing, dynamic, ultimately tragic figure who would have made a far better movie hero.

John & Conrad

John (L) marvels at Conrad's ability to be plotting with him in England
while simultaneously singlehandedly defending Tyre against Saladin...

Austrian actor Josef Schildkraut plays Conrad as a sleekit, shifty, vaguely camp schemer. He is introduced sneaking around his kinsman Philip II's court in France when the Crusade is preached. Now, Austrian is fine - Conrad's mother was Austrian, after all, and he spent his teens as a page at her brother's episcopal court in Passau, so perhaps his Occitan did have a slight German accent. However, Niketas Choniates described him as very handsome, "brave and prudent beyond measure, and flourishing in vigour and bodily strength": i.e., chivalric crumpet. And when the kings took the cross, this indomitable Piemontese warrior had already been defending Tyre - one of the last major cities in Frankish hands - since July 1187, without Western support. Indeed, he (not a Peter the Hermit-like 'Holy Man') was the source of the appeals that launched the Third Crusade, when he sent Archbishop Josias to Sicily on a ship with black sails. His heroism was lauded by Peirol (who called him "lo Marqués valens e pros") and inspired a couple of songs by Bertran de Born. Even the Arab chronicler Ibn al-Athir acknowledged him as "a man of extraordinary courage".

Lamb and DeMille show him visiting England (which he never did), to conspire with John to kill Richard so that John and Phil will make him King of Jerusalem. This is arrant absurdity: John had nothing to do with the issue of the Kingship of Jerusalem, and as already said, Conrad had more than enough to do in Tyre. We see nothing of the dispute for the throne with Guy de Lusignan. After various plottings, Conrad is summarily murdered off-screen by Saladin's men for offering to have Richard killed if Saladin will make him King. In reality, he was stabbed by Assassins a few days after he was elected King by the barons of the Kingdom, and died from his wounds at the scene or shortly afterwards. His pregnant widow Queen Isabella was married off to Richard's nephew a week later. Richard is a major suspect in the murder, but again, one would never guess from a film such as this... In this, Richard doesn't even massacre the prisoners after Acre.

Essentially, the film's characterisation of Conrad is derived from Scott's The Talisman - a Gothic novel-era racist stereotype of a 'treacherous, cowardly and effete Italian' - with some incidents from Hewlett's The Life & Death of Richard Yea-and-Nay. Peire Vidal, who dedicated songs to Conrad's sister Azalaïs of Saluzzo, might justly have denounced Lamb and the other scriptwriters as "fals lauzengiers desleials". The hero of Tyre deserves far better.

The Crusaders

Saladin shows off the sharpness of his sword - pure Walter Scott!

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