Why Don’t They Make More Movies About the Crusades?

I’ll start with a quick story about the first crusade. Specifically, about the siege of Antioch and the part played by Peter Bartholomew.

For those who don’t know, the First Crusade lasted from 1096 to 1099. It was a nasty affair, beginning with the widespread massacre of Jews in Western Europe by a horde of peasants, who then migrated across Europe and toward Constantinople, skirmishing with every (Christian) kingdom it passed through because they organized any lines of supply and were always on the brink of starvation. On reaching Constantinople their supposed ally Alexios I, the Byzantine Emperor, tricked them into setting up camp in Turkish territory, where the army was annihilated at the battle of Civetot. About 20,000 peasants killed, with another 20,000 having died on the march over. The first crusade was off to an inauspicious beginning.

Later in the year a better-supplied group of nobles, knights, and their retinues assemble in Constantinople. Thus began the Baron’s (or Prince’s) crusade.

On October 21st, 1097,After several tough-fought victories, the Crusaders besieged the city of Antioch. Eight grueling months later the Crusaders, as badly starved as the city, received news of an advancing relief army that was twice as large as the Crusaders’. Bohemond I, one of the Crusaders’ leaders, was able to bribe a tower guard to look the other way while crusaders infiltrated the city and opened its gates. The rest of the army flooded in and killed everyone in sight. Antioch had a healthy number of Christian inhabitants, but the slaughter was indiscriminate and soon it was empty except for the Crusaders.

Two days later the Turkish army arrived, promptly besieging the besiegers. After eight months the city had been stripped of food and it appeared the Baron’s crusade would end as ignomiously as the People’s.

But Peter Bartholomew, a minor monk, came forward, claiming to have received a vision from St. Andrew, who had told him that the Lance of Longinus was buried in a cathedral in the city. The army dug for several days and, when they had all but given up, Peter Bartholomew climbed out of a deep pit, holding a rusted, mouldering spear above his head.

Bohemond—and several other nobles—called bullshit, having already seen the Holy Lance during their pit stop at Constantinople. The rank-and-file troops didn’t care, forlorn, superstitious, and desperate as they were. They sallied forth from the city, Holy Lance at the front, and proceed to whoop the Turkish army.

The impressive victory does nothing to assuage the doubt of those who questioned the Holy Lance’s authenticity, and Peter Bartholomew agrees to an ordeal by fire; in order to prove that the relic is indeed sacred, he’ll walk through a room filled with burning logs, naked and protected only by the lance. But it doesn’t work, and he emerges from the ordeal covered in fourth degree burns. He dies several later. One of the nobles keeps the Holy Lance anyway, to be on the safe side.

This would make a great movie. Villainy on all sides, a borderline (and ambiguous) Deus Ex Machina, and a tragic ending for our hero(?), Peter Bartholomew. We can take some historical liberties, have him as one of the few survivors of the Popular Crusade. Begin with the hopeless battle of Civetot, where a ragged mob of commoners is massacred by the better-trained, better-equipped Turkish army. Then the skullduggery in Constantinople where we see the Crusaders’ leaders meeting in front of the Holy Lance. A brutal siege, the extermination of a town, finally the questionable discovery of the new Holy Lance. A big battle outside the city, and then the embarrassing death of Peter Bartholomew when he fails his ordeal.

I’m thinking written by Aaron Sorkin (more Social Network, less West Wing), directed by Kelly Reichardt. No religious prosletyzing, no Christians and Muslims finding commong ground, no sentimentality. Just the brutal, nasty, realism of people caught up in terrible circumstances. And the absurdity of real life, with no morals lesson or timely comeuppances. Is massacreing a city good or bad? It doesn’t really matter—circumstances and morality were too different from today. Which is, of course, one of the great things about history; we look at the present through a moral lens—we can’t help it—but with the detachment history provides it becomes possible to look at horrific events without judging the participants. In history everyone’s a bastard and those who aren’t (or who are, but are too weak or unlucky) lose. Morality does not make the world go round.

But this hypothetical movie will never be made. Questions of funding and production aside (you know, the stuff that actually matters), I don’t think the movie could get past a host of present day moral and cultural prejudices. The movie I want is real life during the First Crusades, as objective as possible, with enough boring stuff so we get the idea but not so much that I go to sleep.

I think there are three major reasons this movie will never be made. Primarily, they’re different aspects of the inevitable racial/cultural aspects of the film.

1.) Fear of perpetuating racial/cultural animosity. We can stomach Arabs as bad guys, even the fact that Islam plays a large part in the animosity between the Middle East and the United States (by which I mean, it’s okay in our culture for our bad guys to be identifiably both Arab and Muslim). But when your story revolves around the sack and ensuing slaughter of a city, of whom most of the inhabitants are Muslim, and the ensuing Islamic army’s defeat under the protection of a Christian relic, well that’s a little dicey. You could minimize the effect of the relic, make it about the strategic and coalitional mishaps of the Islamic army, but to me that’s just tip-toeing around what makes the story so interesting. The grunts of the army were willing to fight a hopeless battle because they believed God was protecting them. They REALLY REALLY believed that in a way no one in the US today does (not even the fundamentalists) and it worked out for them. Plenty of times it didn’t, but this time it did, which is why this story is worthy of a movie.

But it would be hard to make this movie without looking like it was highlighting the inferiority of Islamic culture and maybe advocating genocide. Which is not a movie I would be interested in seeing at all, by the way. Game of Thrones (which shows, IMO, that there is a market for Machiavellian politics devoid of moral consideration) got in trouble for its casting of the Dothraki as dark-skinned and savage. And I think that’s a valid criticism. I do, however, think there’s a way to make this movie without the Muslims coming across as the “bad guys” or as the sympathetic victims of evil Europeans.

2.) It would be difficult for this film to avoid dumb shit racial understanding. By this I mean using a Crusades’ backdrop for some story of love between a European man (obviously the man would be European) and some exotic Arab woman. Or some sort of friendship between a Christian and an Islamic man. I want a movie about brutality, largely because such movies are so rare.

3.) Can you dodge embedded pro-Christianity? This is, I think, the largest hurdle for my hypothetical movie to overcome. In war movies you are going to side with the characters who get the most screen time. It’s just the way we work. So what could happen in this movie goes back to 1.) and is the problem that 2.) attempts to solve: how can we make this movie without lionizing the Crusaders and villainizing the Muslims? Opening with the battle of Civetot, for example, risks framing the sack of Antioch as justifiable revenge. And if you focus on the fact that the Crusaders didn’t discriminate between killing Muslims and Christians you risk making it look like the problem isn’t that these crusaders are killing civilians, but that they’re killing the Christians along with the Muslims and that is what’s not okay. Which is not the point.

Westerners/Americans are ignorant of other cultures and, worse, wholly ignorant of their own biases. And even those who aren’t ignorant would have a hard time keeping the implicit values of their worldview under control while making this movie.

A common tactic is to provide an in-depth look at the other side, to humanize them too. 2.) does this by saying, directly, “These cultures are not incompatible. People are people and anyone can become friends/lovers. Usually, though, this also implies that European culture is more masculine/civilized/in some way better. The male lead is always European after all, and this movie isn’t going to have an Arab guy seducing some lady Crusader. And even if you can get past that problem, my hypothetical movie isn’t about multicultural understanding.

Another way of getting around this is to give face time to the “bad guys.” If you spend 1/3 of the movie in the city of Antioch before it’s sacked, then we get to see that they’re people too, people who are terrified they’re going to die. This is better, but in practice it has the problem where the story focuses a few characters on the opposing side and tries to make the viewer sympathetic towards them (Letters from Iwo Jima devotes an entire movie to this, glossing over any terrible acts of the Japanese). But, once again, our hypothetical movie is about brutality, not about the softer aspects of the human condition.

But back to the original problem of 3.): any Western director is going to make the Christian side sympathetic either consciously or unconsciously. You can create characters who are simultaneously sympathetic and brutal. Game of Thrones is an obvious example, although its most sympathetic characters are the least brutal. The Social Network is a better template to work from. We know Mark Zuckerberg (in the movie) is a terrible human being, but we can’t help but hope he succeeds. In my hypothetical movie we want the audience to be rooting for the Crusaders as they march from Antioch, Holy Lance at the lead, but at the same time know how terrible they are and how hypocritical our own feelings are.

The other aspect of the movie is its absurdity. We know the Holy Lance is almost certainly fake, and that the Crusaders have no chance to win, (and no moral standing on which to base their victory) but they win anyway. And then, for whatever reason, Peter Bartholomew agrees to an ordeal by fire despite knowing he’s a hoaxer (or is he? or does he know he is but still believe in the power of his faith?). There is no tidy end to this story, no justifiable ending, the main character dies and the Crusades continues, minus one insignificant monk. The climax of the First Crusade is the capture of Jerusalem and Peter Bartholomew dies two month before it’s taken.

And in case you were wondering, the sacking of Jerusalem made Antioch look like a warm-up.

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About deconstructionapplied

Writer, freelance editor. Former Occupier.
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