27 June 2009 | Steffi_P
"I've come through blood to your holy city"
Having witnessed the flop of his last few contemporary dramatic pictures, Cecil B. DeMille made a pledge to the public that from now on he would only make epics. True to his word, he strove to make each successive picture more stupendous than the last. He had made some very effective shoestring epics in the poverty-stricken early 30s, but by 1935 the worst of the depression was over and DeMille could at last be reunited with the big budget.
While DeMille had proved on Sign of the Cross (1932) and Cleopatra (1934) that he could make a big picture without masses of extras or impressive sets, he certainly knows how to make the most of those assets when he does have them. It is in The Crusades that we see the development of the style of presentation that he employed for all his subsequent epics. Rather than bombard us with the colossal, he likes to gradually reveal the vastness of a place by slowly and smoothly pulling the camera back. During these moves he usually has an extra or two move horizontally across the frame at a similar pace to the camera, giving the manoeuvre extra grace and momentum. Then there are the battle scenes, tense and frenzied creations of Anne Bauchen's superb editing. These are similar to the ones in Cleopatra, but far more effective, not because of the higher production values, but because the shots are held for longer and their sequencing is better timed.
And while DeMille clearly loves the massive crowd shot, he has enough sense to shrink the space and simplify the setting when it comes to key dialogue scenes. Compared to the busy outdoor locations many of the interiors are quite plain, which helps to focus us entirely on the actors, their expressions and their words. The transitions to these dramatic moments are often very smooth, with the drop of a tent flap or simply a change of angle to frame the actors against a bare wall. DeMille was an expert in turning the spectacle on and off, as it were, according to the demands of the narrative.
Given the above, it's a pity that, like most DeMille pictures of this era, The Crusades is dramatically rather weak. The dialogue is bland, and most of the characters are lazily-written stereotypes. In the early scenes, there seems to have been this attempt to cram in as many "Olde Englande" accessories as possible, with a cheeky minstrel, a burly blacksmith, the king and his court all hanging out together. Mind you, there is at least a fairly decent character arc in that King Richard is portrayed as a kind of medieval cad who joins the crusade for ulterior motives, but is eventually humbled by his experiences. It's also a refreshingly mature approach to make Saladin an honourable foe, although there is of course still the obligatory moustachioed villain in the form of some anachronistic minor king (played by Joseph Schildkraut, naturally).
After having suffered Henry Wilcoxon's wooden turn as Mark Anthony in Cleopatra, it's a major disappointment to see him again in a leading role. You might wonder why DeMille so persistently cast amateurs like Wilcoxon, until you realise he selected players primarily for their physicality, their talent being of secondary concern. In this light it makes sense for Wilcoxon, with his prominent brow and broad shoulders, to play a king. And although Joseph Schildkraut was, as it happens, a very good actor, DeMille repeatedly cast him as these Judas figures because of his thin face and piercing eyes.
But this is DeMille. Script and cast will always play second fiddle to the director's showmanship. Despite all the baloney and anachronism, his visual style is on top form here. The Crusades is like a stained-glass window in a church. It will not reach us on an emotional, human level, but it is full of grace and majesty. Yes, DeMille is often called a Victorian moralist, but in his presentation and imagery he was practically medieval. And we should forgive him, because he did it so well.