History Channel // 2005 // 180 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // September 18th, 2009
It started with a belief. No one could know where it would end.
Part television documentary, part historical recreation drama, The Crusades: Crescent & the Cross injects a healthy dose of life via cash infusion into the historical recreation budget, ramping up this documentary to made-for-television funding levels. The production values are good, but are they enough to justify a History Channel documentary on Blu-Ray?
The Crusades began in the late 11th century when Pope Urban II sent a massive army into the holy land of Jerusalem, lands which had been previously under Muslim control for centuries. Fierce warriors like Saladin and Richard the Lionheart lead thousands of men into battle, and for two hundred years, the two cultures engaged in near-constant conflict, each attempting to claim or reclaim the land in the name of God. Not the same god, of course, which was the problem.
For most History Channel productions, the "historical recreation" sequences are low-budgeted, laughable affairs used to fill out the running time of a documentary. In Crescent & the Cross, they are the meat and potatoes of the production. It is a new approach to the television documentary by History Channel, trying to engage audiences on a level normally reserved by Hollywood blockbusters, and for the most part, it is successful -- the corny elements of their niche programming are less corny.
Filmed on location, sort of, kind of, the production affects a reasonable amount of authenticity. Morocco is the de facto stand in when shooting locations in Israel were not available, but Syria and Turkey also make appearances. With a limited budget, Crescent & the Cross really tries to make a big-budget impression on audiences, and the extra effort -- while not always satisfying -- is certainly appreciated. Actors playing historical figures really try to get into the parts, with big sweeping dialogues and soliloquies. Forts and castles are raided by sword-swinging warriors, with hundreds of extras milling about in full combat gear, although never as many as we are accustomed to seeing in our summer blockbusters. We also see a fair amount of current-era footage interjected into the feature, which swings the double-edge both ways. On the one hand, it's amazing to see how little certain areas of the Middle East have changed over hundreds of years. On the other hand, it kind of breaks the "recreation" flow the film strives for.
Narrated by the dulcet tones of Keith David, the feature gets most of its intellectual ducks in a row. It is impossible to compress two hundred years of solid conflict into a simple documentary, but the production moves at a brisk pace, covering as much ground as it can. Historical purists will note omissions and fallacies here and there, but for the neophyte, there is enough information being tossed out to capture ones attention. Each of the three individual crusades is examined, including key players like Saladin and Richard I, and key historic battles, triumphs and failures. One might argue the crux of the documentary is that the Middle East is a land of turmoil, and has been for millennia, and the events of the Crusades are not too far removed from current strife in the region.
All in all, a pretty standard offering from History Channel; if you've seen one of their "edutainment" offerings, you've seen them all. The production values admittedly are pretty good here, but the core of the material is your standard overdramatic narration alternating with interview footage from talking head intellectuals. It's nice to see Blu-Ray presentations coming from History Channel (finally!) but the technical specs are a mixed bag here.
Visually, Crescent & the Cross looks surprisingly comfortable on Blu-Ray, with deep black levels, reasonable levels of color saturation and minor print damage. There is little in the way of compression artifacts or distracting technical elements, but the increased fidelity does highlight some of the inconsistent lighting used in the historical recreation sequences. While the interview segments, recorded under controlled situations exhibit a nice, tight image, the historical bits are subject to wild levels of grain in low-light situations. As with most documentaries, the source material varies depending on the sequence on-screen; the high-definition footage looks good, but some of the stock footage is clearly sub-par. Detail on the whole is average; a bit soft for current Blu-Ray standards, but still miles above standard definition.
Audio is just plain unimpressive. It's Dolby stereo. That's it. No high definition audio codecs here. Why History Channel would commit to the Blu-Ray upgrade, but not kick the audio up is beyond me. The track is satisfactory, with clear dialogue and average bass response, but offering no real standout qualities.
There are no extras included on this Blu-Ray of any kind. Probably a lot of space going wasted here.
History Channel gets points for trying to make their docs more interesting to the masses, but pumping money into the historical recreation elements of their features is like giving a million dollars to the local community theater for a production of "Ben Hur." It'll be pretty, but still the same amateurish production underneath the gloss.
A new coat of paint on an old format, The Crusades: Crescent & the Cross tries to spice things up by throwing money into a more grandiose and epic recreation of historical events. Ultimately, it's still the same old documentary we see every time we turn on the History Channel: overdramatic, poorly acted and light on substantial facts.
History Channel has a ways to go to get their technical specs up to Blu-Ray standards, but fans of the subject matter should enjoy the feature in all its faux-excitement.
As introductions to The Crusades go, you could do worse.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080i)
* DTS HD 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 180 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Not Rated