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King Richard and the Crusaders (1954) begins with a voiceover that sets out the narrative terrain with movie-style moral clarity. The year is 1191, the place is a "seemingly peaceful desert" where "two savage crusades have been fought by Christians against Moslems," and the eponymous hero is King Richard I of England, alias "Richard of the Lionheart, a man whose past was filled with deeds of valor." He is leading the Third Crusade, hoping to win the Holy Land back from the armies of Saladin, who's described by the narrator as the "sultan of a thousand tribes of Araby, master of the arts of desert warfare, genius of the methods of swift entrapment."
No question here about which warrior we're supposed to root for in the ensuing action. Sure enough, the instant the narrator mentions swift entrapment, a troop of English horsemen are swiftly entrapped by Saladin's men. He of the Lionheart definitely has his work cut out for him, and so do the other monarchs and soldiers fighting for the cause alongside him. There's so much European royalty and aristocracy around - from France, Austria, and elsewhere - that it's clear why history books call this crusade the Kings' Crusade.
The battle against Saladin becomes even more challenging when Richard gets hit with a poisoned arrow shot by an unseen bowman hidden somewhere in his encampment. In an early plot twist that goes refreshingly against the grain of Hollywood stereotyping, Saladin hears about Richard's possibly mortal injury and sends his personal healer to nurse the king back to health, on the condition that the two rulers will then settle the long-standing struggle over Jerusalem in mano a mano combat between themselves.
In a much later twist, we learn what film-savvy viewers may have guessed way earlier: the smart, kindly, witty physician is none other than Saladin himself, personally making sure Richard recovers from his wound so they can duke out their differences like the civilized autocrats they are. As a big believer in learning through experience, Saladin also wants to study the ways of the West as part of his ongoing self-education program. He'll do whatever needs doing to prevent Europe from retaking the Holy Land, of course, but as the movie proceeds he becomes one of its most sympathetic figures, and he's vastly more interesting to watch and listen to than his English counterpart. With relentlessly genteel George Sanders as the king versus breezily dashing Rex Harrison as the sultan, it's really no contest.
The movie takes its story from The Talisman, an 1825 novel by Sir Walter Scott that was published with a second tale called The Betrothed under the collective title Tales of the Crusaders. It's puzzling that Warner Bros. didn't retain The Talisman as the film's title, since it's a lot snappier than King Richard and the Crusaders, but the studio probably found "Crusaders" an exciting buzzword, and King Richard's name would have reached out to moviegoers who'd recently enjoyed two 1952 releases, The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men and Ivanhoe, in which the lionhearted king appears. The prolific John Twist wrote the screenplay.
This was Warner Bros.' first excursion into CinemaScope, still a fairly new format and well suited to the desert expanses, galloping steeds, and flashy swordplay that recur throughout the picture. The director was David Butler, doing one of his last feature-film assignments before moving over to television, where the many shows he worked on included Wagon Train, The Deputy, and about a zillion Leave It to Beaver episodes. He brings little inspiration to King Richard and the Crusaders, but he handles both the action scenes and romantic interludes with reasonable skill. He also gives the actors free reign to have fun with the dialogue, which tends toward amusingly wooden locutions, as when the king's love-struck niece responds to a kiss by sighing, "Ah, this is a pleasant madness," or when Saladin exclaims, "These strange, pale-eyed Goths, they show their hearts like the bumps on a pomegranate!" (And it's interesting to note that while people who fall prey to today's religious stereotypes generally think of the word "infidel" as a slur spoken by Muslims, only British speakers use it in the movie - a nod to historical accuracy, perhaps.)
In addition to Sanders and Harrison, the mostly spirited cast includes Virginia Mayo as Richard's handful of a niece, Lady Edith Plantagenet, and Laurence Harvey as Sir Kenneth of the Leopard, a Scottish warrior who fights at Richard's side not because he has patriotic feelings toward England - quite the contrary, the very thought of England makes him cringe - but because he deeply respects the king, just as the king respects the sultan and the sultan respects both Kenneth and the king. With so much respect going on, and so much dialogue expressing the respect, it's a wonder there's time left over for fighting, plotting, and swiftly entrapping. But action rears up regularly, splashed across the screen in WarnerColor hues and the great Yakima Canutt directed the second-unit scenes. Add a rollicking music score by Max Steiner at the peak of his career, and King Richard and the Crusaders ends up being good fun despite its shortcomings - not a movie to fall in love with, but a pleasant enough madness while it lasts.
Director: David Butler
Producer: Henry Blanke
Screenplay: John Twist; from Sir Walter Scott's The Talisman
Cinematographer: J. Peverell Marley
Film Editing: Irene Morra
Art Direction: Bertram Tuttle, William S. Darling
Music: Max Steiner
With: Rex Harrison (Emir Hderim Sultan Saladin), Virginia Mayo (Lady Edith Plantagenet), George Sanders (King Richard I), Laurence Harvey (Sir Kenneth of the Leopard), Robert Douglas (Sir Giles Amaury), Michael Pate (Conrad, Marquis of Montferrat), Paula Raymond (Queen Berengaria), Lester Matthews (Archbishop of Tyre), Anthony Eustrel (Baron De Vaux), Henry Corden (King Philip of France), Wilton Graff (Duke Leopold of Austria), Nick Cravat (Nectobanus), Nejla Ates (Moorish dancing girl), Leslie Bradley (Castelaine captain), Bruce Lester (Castelaine), Mark Dana (Castelaine), Peter Ortiz (Castelaine)
by David Sterritt