Cast: Anthony Smee, Steve Purbrick, Marcello Maraschalchi, Robin Sebastian, Kate Binchy, Steven Runciman, Suheil Zakkan.
These are the Crusades,” says host Roger Mudd to start off the History Channel’s four-part account of Christendom’s legendary war against Islam, “as you’ve never seen them.” Most remarkable in this richly imagined treatment of the early days of the gathering forces is the sense that one is, in fact, seeing history in action. Eat your heart out, DeMille!
A wise but whimsical narration, concocted by Monty Python’s Terry Jones and delivered by him in his most chummy manner, draws amusing but deadly accurate analogies that merge Peter the Hermit’s ragtag-and-bobtail people’s army, gathered in France and hellbent for Jerusalem “armed with little more than bad breath,” into a thoroughly modern yarn about stupidity and thirst for power. The Crusaders’ Holy Cross turns into double-cross as the army bungles one salient after another.
All this is blended by directors Alan Ereira and David Wallace into a virtuosic array of modern graphic design. Much of the visual material is drawn from ancient art, endowed with modern fluidity by superbly apposite computer graphics. Figures in a sixth-century mosaic materialize and step forward todeliver whatever is on their mind; the great Abbey of Cluny materializes in an interlock of architectural outlines.
Word and camera tricks clearly and delightfully underline Jones’ “Monty Python” origins and do them proud. Hilarious bits of interspersed black-and-white newsreel sound the call to arms. Word of the Crusades, Jones wryly notes, becomes the “first message from the Church to go on general release.” As hordes from the west storm past Constantinople and into Asia across the Bosporus, their invasion merges into the sight of a latter-day ferry filled with tourists; a cavalry advance shot head-on stirs memories of Eisenstein’s “Alexander Nevsky”; so does Jose Nieto’s pounding, pseudo-medieval score. Ancient history has never been so painless.