When Judge Adam Arseneau finished his review of this Crusades documentary, there was much rejoicing (yaay!).
Richard the Lionheart vs. Saladin…the grudge match of the century!
Let's be honest: The Crusades were not a happy time in human history. Full of constant usurping, treachery, deceit, bloodshed, and violence, the battle between Islamic and Christian warriors over control of the holy city of Jerusalem left deep-rooted scars in the region that still manage to linger today, over a thousand years later. But amidst the violence emerged two men—Richard the Lionheart and Saladin—who maintained a virtuous code of chivalry and honor towards each other as to become legendary. Both men became heroes to their respective people, personifying both the honor and the unpleasantness of a tumultuous period of human history.
Holy Warriors: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin, a two-hour PBS documentary from its Empires series, does a good job illustrating the parallels and similarities between the two leaders, each man having harnessing a terrifyingly seductive combination of organized religion and military regiment to create two of the mightiest armies ever assembled. Despite being on opposite sides of Jerusalem's walls, each leader had a surprisingly chivalrous and well-documented mutual respect for his opponent. Unfortunately, Empires: Holy Warriors has a hard time deciding whether to portray the men as heroes or villains, and careens wildly throughout the narrative with atrocities and generosities of both men. For example, the documentary reminds us that Saladin's troops liked to rape their victims and how Lionheart came from a violent and abusive family. Then, in the next breath, the film gushes over the honor and chivalrous nature of both as leaders of men, before going back to Richard slaughtering a thousand Muslim prisoners. Trying to keep up with the overly dramatic ping-pong narrative style gave me a headache.
Truth be told, I do not care for these "mockumentary" style historical re-creations, all full of dramatic voice acting, bad actual acting, and lame special effects. Seeing endless slow-motion shots of poorly paid actors on horseback charging into a group of dark-skinned people as ethnically diverse as a New York City subway car—but all pretending to be Arab—taxes my goodwill towards this documentary. Is the story of Richard the Lionheart and Saladin not interesting enough on its own intellectual, religious, and historical merit without having to cobble together a poor man's version of Kingdom of Heaven?
The documentary looks and sounds good, if you are able to suffer through endless looping Gregorian chamber music and nauseating amounts of jerky slow-motion camerawork. Shot in widescreen, the production quality is laughable, but at least it captures a fair amount of detail, above or on par with your average PBS documentary. Likewise for the stereo sound presentation, clear on dialogue and reasonable on bass.
What kills Empires: Holy Warriors absolutely stone dead is the film's preoccupation with making parallels between the Crusades and the current war in the Middle East, beyond the point of making any actual sense. At times the points are subtle; at other times, the film does nothing short of reveling in its own foolishness with its silly deductions, stupid allusions, and asinine connections between utterly irrelevant events. The documentary goes out of its way, for example, in making a special point to note that for the record, Saladin was born in Tikrit…the birthplace of…wait for it…Saddam Hussein. The point to this, I suppose, is to remind the viewer that, in a manner of speaking, the Holy War continues in the Middle East today through the U.S.-led war on terrorism. Err, I guess. It could also be just utter brain retardation on the part of PBS. It's hard to tell.
Further to this point, the film even opens with a confusing opening sequence comparing Osama Bin Laden to Saladin and George W. Bush to Richard the Lionheart, which I suppose hopes to bolster the feature as relevant in this modern day and age (and not having, ahem, anything to do with the recent blockbuster film of the same subject matter…).
Now believe me, this is not a new idea. Many books, films, and research have delved into the history of Jerusalem and the constant magnet of conflict that seems to have dogged the city for the last four millennia or so. I've read Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths, and believe me, the subject matter is fascinating and compelling. Irritatingly, there is nothing fascinating or compelling about the assoholic fashion in which Empires: Holy Warriors goes about bludgeoning its point home again and again. The subject matter is far too complex and multi-faceted to simply simplify down to a few snarky Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, and George W. Bush references.
If you could strip away the political pontification and excessively dramatic narration, underneath would probably exist a half-decent documentary about two influential and respected religious and military leaders in world history. But as it stands, Empires: Holy Warriors seems more interested in pushing an agenda than illuminating any new revelations, a bias that hurts the film's credibility.
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