La Gerusalemme liberata (a.k.a. The Mighty Crusaders)
directed by Carlo Ludovico Bragaglia
released in Italy/France/Germany in 1958, in the USA in 1961
starring Francisco Rabal, Sylva Koscina, Gianna Maria Canale, Rik Battaglia, and Philippe Hersent
inspired by Torquato Tasso’s epic poem La Gerusalemme Liberata/Jerusalem Delivered (1581)
The print reviewed is a letterboxed English-dubbed version of the French release LA MURAILLE DE FEU (The Wall Of Fire–a title that makes sense when you see the entire film)
Here’s a film I recently acquired that I’ve never before seen offered in grey-market/collectors circles. With a superb cast and based on an Italian epic poem from the 1500’s (which I read a Canto or two of decades ago when studying Edmund Spenser), it’s set in the year 1099 as Christian forces attempt to take Jerusalem from Islamic forces. It’s very much in the old-school style of the Italian historical epic films of the late 1940’s and the 1950’s, prior to the release of the Steve Reeves “Hercules” film which changed the genre significantly. This was released as THE MIGHTY CRUSADERS (that title was revived in the 1960’s by Archie Comics during its short-lived venture into super-heroes, and the title was picked up by DC Comics briefly in the early 1990’s) in the US by a small company, Falcon, in 1961, and from the poster above, you can see that it was sold as a spectacle, riding on the coat-tails of the various 50’s Biblical epics and of the two Reeves Hercules films. Anyone who came to see the film based on that poster would probably be satisfied, as the hyperbole in the poster’s claims is based on a kernel of fact in each example.
When the film opens, the Christian forces (under leader Godfrey, played by Philippe Hersent) are working on a series of gigantic movable towers, which will be rolled on logs to the Moslem fortresses where they are to be used in battle, and then we are introduced to the usual court/military intrigue on both sides. While the back-and-forth machinations of the military strategy provide a good amount of drama, much of the film’s (and the poem’s) plot is given over to affairs of the heart–not one relationship, but two (or even three, depending on how one counts). Tancred (Francisco “Paco” Rabal) from the Christian side has fallen in love with Clorinda (Sylva Koscina, this film was made earlier in the same year she co-starred with Steve Reeves in HERCULES, incidentally) from the Moslem side, who is being held as a prisoner to be used in a prisoner swap. At the same time, we have another romance crossing sides with Rinaldo (Rik Battaglia) being enticed by and falling for Armida, a higher-up in the Moslem leadership (note: both of these women are fighters and strategists of a sort, actually engaging in physical battles–not the usual “damsels in distress” one sees too often in this kind of product), who wants to defeat Rinaldo and the Christians but who also fights against her falling for him. We are never really sure how that will wind up. Add to that another young woman prisoner who is smitten with Tancred and is willing, at times, to sabotage her own side for it, and you’ve got enough romance and intrigue to keep this film interesting for its relatively short 90 minute running time (my print is 86, it’s listed on the IMDB as 91, and there are a few too-quick transitions here and there which suggest minor cuts to trim the running time).
I’ve never cared for American-made epics from the 1950’s and 1960’s (I’m leaving out the superb KING OF KINGS, which was essentially made in Spain and seems like a European film), which always seem phony and hokey to me. I’ll take the worst European historical epic of the period over most anything American. Yes, these European films are cliche-ridden, but the stilted and stylized proceedings usually include (as you get here) interesting production design and evocative real locations and surviving historical buildings (or if not, the clever fakes are closer to the real thing)….and the actors/actresses have roots in stylized European classical theatre in the way that Brits have a background in Shakespeare, so they seem to know how to play this material in a way that’s serious (and yes, a bit stilted) but not laughable. Also, this film is dubbed in English, and in that 1950’s style of dubbing with its rigid delivery which seems suited to a radio drama—-the disconnect between the formal and somewhat disembodied voices and the elegant classical acting style shown in the faces and bodies of the players seems to elevate the whole thing to the level of some kind of archetypal stage, which is beyond and above present-day film-making and sensibilities (it almost reminds me of the curiously old-fashioned feel of the 1920’s films of D.W. Griffith, which had an “elevated” and self-consciously literary feel, in the then-obsolescent Victorian meaning of “literary”). Anyone who grew up watching these dubbed European films in the 1950s-1970’s, when they were a part of American popular culture, understands the curious and unique feel of the hybrid form which is created by the marriage of dubbed-sound and stylized historical image. I’m probably not expressing this idea as clearly as I need to for readers who are unfamiliar with this category of film, but it’s an interesting phenomenon which was culturally significant for many years and has never really been adequately discussed by people who lived through it, and with this subject NOT being something considered even worthy of discussion nowadays (and PLEASE don’t bring a condescending, ironic, campy eye and ear to this), I’m not expecting much else to be written about it, which is why I’m taking a stab here.
LA MURAILLE DE FEU/THE MIGHTY CRUSADERS/La Gerusalemme liberata is an interesting and entertaining cultural artifact, a product of a strand of late 50’s/early 60’s culture which is largely forgotten. It plays out on an exciting level and ends in a genuinely surprising (well, to those unfamiliar with the epic poem, it’s surprising) and tragic manner….but, of course, victoriously and reverently (hey, it’s got the word CRUSADE in the English language title, so how could you expect otherwise), with a vision of the Cross radiating in the background of the final scene. Of course, judge this film with 2017 blinders on, and it raises all kinds of questions (the one which came up in my mind was how audiences would have viewed an Islamic man falling for a Christian woman and wanting to bring her over to HIS side—-would THAT be allowed in the name of romance?), but that kind of analysis is like shooting fish in a barrel. By the standards of the day (the day being the early 50’s atmosphere this 1958 film is rooted in, AND the fact that even then it was looking back at a middle-ages epic poem and going for an elevated ‘classical’ feel), this was a solid piece of work. Had I been old enough to go to movies in 1962 and had I seen this at the Golden Theater in Golden, Colorado, on some weeknight (they’d probably have had a more commercial film playing on the weekends!–this would have been Tuesday night fodder) after a long workday at the Coors bottling plant or wherever, I would have been transported to some Classics Illustrated (European division)-style world of capital-R Romance and old-school defenders of the faith with massive and colorful sets and costumes and location shooting at places I’d never visit.
As I would walk out onto the main street of Golden at 10:45 pm at the show’s end, the same people as usual would be next door at the bar, drinking themselves into a stupor, the same teenagers would be making out in parked cars in poorly lit areas, trying to find a thrill and step outside and beyond the monotony…and temporarily succeeding, and the same unpaid bills and the same work schedule and the same broken-down car and the same grody apartment would be waiting for me….but for an hour and a half, I’d been living on a higher plane, taken out of my element, and touching the garments and smelling the battle-sweat of stylized antiquity….if only for a moment. That’s why these films existed, and that’s why they should be remembered.
…..You can listen to or download a reading of the entire epic poem by Tasso (an influence on both Spenser and Milton), translated into English, here: https://librivox.org/jerusalem-delivered-by-torquato-tasso/
Here’s a link to a review that is a bit sarcastic but actually is fairly accurate about the film– in the way that a detailed negative review of Bob Dylan is often more “accurate” than a fawning but vague positive one–it’s just that the negative one sees the glass as half empty instead of half full….although it’s quite accurate about how much liquid is in the glass! https://gonzohistory.wordpress.com/2016/08/01/movie-monday-the-mighty-crusaders-1958/