History Channel // 2005 // 180 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Aaron Bossig (Retired) // July 19th, 2006
It started with a belief. No one could know where it would end.
What you learn from studying the Crusades depends entirely on from which perspective you study them. From a historical perspective, they unified Europe in the middle of a chaotic Dark Age and laid the foundation for the Renaissance. A theologian would look at the motivations of King Richard and Pope Urban II and try to see how they worked for (or against) God's Will. In a military sense, the entire 200-year escapade could be seen as a gigantic loss and waste of resources. An entirely separate discussion could be had on how the effects of the Crusades continue to influence our world today, with conflicts in the Middle East still making headlines. From any perspective, the Crusades are such a dense topic that years of study couldn't adequately examine them. This 2-disc set from The History Channel serves as an excellent starting point for anyone interested in one of the greatest conflicts in history.
The Crusades: Crescent and the Cross provides a fairly straightforward account of the first two Crusades, from the perspectives of the leaders commanding the armies. Refreshingly, it does attempt to dramatize both the Muslim and the Christian sides of the conflict. From the liberation of Jerusalem against all odds to the total collapse of the Christian forces, Crescent and the Cross shows us the motivations behind the leaders who won and lost the Holy Land.
The series of campaigns referred to as "The Crusades" lasted roughly 200 years. There were over fourteen actual campaigns, of which at least five of which are acknowledged by scholars as being especially significant. This set covers the first two Crusades in detail.
The first episode is, naturally, the First Crusade, the most successful from the Christian perspective. The filmmakers chart how Europe united together and marched to liberate the Holy Land from Islam, capturing the ultimate prize, Jerusalem. The Second Crusade is detailed in the following episode, wherein the Christian forces are met with stronger and more organized Muslim armies. It recounts how the Muslim forces defeated the Christians in many key areas, but more importantly, this episode shows how the groundwork was laid for the eventual defeat of the Christians.
I don't envy the challenges posed to the writers. Because of the numerous perspectives that could be offered, it's difficult to describe anything that happened without inserting some personal bias. Overall, the balance is a success. Somehow, without contradicting itself, the film portrays Christians as brave soldiers driven by their belief in doing right, and the Muslims as a strong, noble people defending their homeland. Neither side is portrayed as being morally superior. Crescent and the Cross does a superb job of taking the conflict out of its religious context and showing the political and economic motivations for each battle and decision. By showing how kings, sultans, and generals could profit from each battle, we gain more insight into the people that create war.
Of course, the biggest challenge of making a documentary such as this is not getting the facts correct. No, where this movie needs to succeed is in communicating to the audience what it was truly like to be in these battles, even if the audience knows little of history and has never been to the Middle East. The Crusades: Crescent and the Cross accomplishes this through very clever editing and choice of material. A flavor for the region is created by filming in locations that haven't changed visually in hundreds of years. It's not hard to visit Antioch and find a building or street that existed 500 years ago, and the filmmakers used this to their advantage. A surprising amount of "modern" footage was used as well, showing contemporary sights. Oddly, it doesn't distract from the storytelling; rather, it enhances it by showing that the basic lifestyle in those cities hasn't changed very much. Just as in the Middle Ages, these are still busy cities full of trade. Seeing a busy marketplace and ancient walls, it's easy to imagine the world as it was 1,000 years ago.
Backing up this already rich and accurate two-part feature is a documentary on the Knights Templar, the elite team of soldiers used heavily during many of the Crusades, dedicated to protecting pilgrims on their long, dangerous journey to Jerusalem. Not only does the featurette provide background into some of the most significant soldiers in the Holy War, but it also provides a richer understanding of the spiritual component of these battles. These "Warrior Monks" exemplify a fusion of religious adoration and military discipline that is unusual in our culture, but crucial to veterans of the Crusades.
The one real turd in this otherwise fine set is the "History in the Making" featurette, which is supposedly 21 minutes detailing the creation of The Crusades. "History in the Making" spends the first 12 minutes describing the basic technical challenges involved in making such a film, which are somewhat interesting, but then gets sidetracked into describing the "personal crusades" of some people working for causes they believe in. We'll be introduced to Sharon, a woman who goes bald to promote understanding for those struggling with cancer treatments. Similarly, Scott is a volunteer for a South African hospital ship. Their sacrifices and charitable deeds are very commendable, but frankly, these people have absolutely nothing to do with 12-century Holy Wars, and spending nearly half of the Making-of feature talking about them is a complete waste.
Study the Crusades long enough, and you'll hear about atrocities committed by the Christian armies to achieve their goals. These campaigns are fine examples of religion being used as a tool to fuel a war. At the same time, the motivations for most of the pilgrim soldiers were noble -- they wished to cleanse their souls and defend their faith. Looking at the phenomenal morale of the crusaders, we can just marvel how faith in God can move the human spirit. The Crusades capture the full realm of human endeavor, from our most pious and ingenious traits to our wicked and cruel qualities. This DVD set is a fantastic starting point into what may be our world's most significant war.
For presenting a lot of material in a very approachable, cinematic way, this DVD set has been granted absolution.
Review content copyright © 2006 Aaron Bossig; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 180 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* History in the Making
* Knights Templar Featurette