Premise: A prisoner who is set to die is freed when he fakes a miracle during a visit by the Pope, and is drafted to recapture Jerusalem.
Genre: Action Adventure, History, Drama
Genre: Action Adventure, History, Drama
About: In the summer of 1994, the film was weeks from starting production under the helm of Paul Verhoeven, with sets being built in Spain and Morocco when Carolco’s Mario Kassar pulled the plug because the budget was topping $120 million. Because Schwarzenegger had a pay-or-play deal, he walked away with ownership of the project and Carolco gambled on Cutthroat Island, which had a budget of $115 million. It only made $10 million, landing it in the Guinness Book of World Records for biggest box office flop of all time and bankrupting Carolco Pictures. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, and I’m guessing an old-fashioned compare and contrast session with each script could yield us much wisdom. Or maybe, we need only ask ourselves, who the fuck says ‘No’ to Arnold?
Writer: Walon Green. Revisions by Gary Goldman.
One of my favorite filmmakers is Sam Peckinpah and one of my favorite films is The Wild Bunch. So much so that I probably drive my co-writer mad whenever we hit a narrative bump and I break the silence with, “Well, in The Wild Bunch...”
So it was a delight for me to read a script by Walon Green. There’s lots to learn from a man who is known for his remorseless sense of structure, his byzantine attention to detail, and his palpably-drawn characters.
The Wild Bunch.
Isn’t Crusade the fabled Arnold Schwarzenegger project where his enemies stitch him into a live donkey?
Fuck yeah, it is. But it’s more like Han shoving an unconscious Luke into the carcass of a Tauntaun, except substitute Han for angry Saracens and Tauntaun for a dead donkey that’s hanging from a spit surrounded by hungry hyenas. But this is just one scene that’s sure to offend special interest groups worldwide, and we have so much more (awesomely) loathsome ground to cover.
The opening title credits are no slouch. It’s 1095 A.D. and we meet a rider named Hagen who proceeds to rob a French Abbey during vespers. In the Abbot’s chambers, it’s more like a bacchanal than a prayer service, where the main course is prepubescent acolyte boy-flesh. If that’s not enough to ruffle your conservative feathers, consider the soundtrack of pan-pipes and lutes.
Long story short, Hagen is caught red-handed and the Abbot sends for Count Emmich of Bascarat, whom we meet raping a pubescent peasant girl in a vat full of grape slime. “Closer to bone the sweeter the meat,” after all, and we are introduced to his villainous entourage who may or may not die horrible deaths at the hands of Hagen (against the backdrop of two civilizations at war) later on.
Here’s the lowdown: Hagen’s inheritance has been stolen from him by Emmich, his half-brother. So rather than serve as this douchebag’s serf, he would rather be a thief. Only problem is, the acquisitive Abbot agrees to keep Emmich’s dirty little secret for a quarter of his estate, in exchange for hanging Hagen.
What gives? Hagen can’t die. Doesn’t he have to fight in the Crusades first?
You betcha. Hagen’s scaffold is struck down when emissaries from the Vatican arrive, heralding the arrival of papal hype-master, Pope Urban II. He spins a tale about a city named Jerusalem, a forlorn place where nuns are ravaged by Moslems and where Christians live in fear and slavery. He urges his crowd to listen to the voices of the martyrs, to take up arms and free Jerusalem from the blackamoors.
He promises remission from all sin and eternal salvation to those who die in battle...and to their families. If people aren’t convinced yet, Pope Urban II guarantees a holy sign to confirm that this war is God’s will.
What’s the sign?
I’d rather not spoil it, but let’s just say that Hagen, not content with merely having his execution date postponed, fakes a miracle from his jail cell with the help of his cell-mate, Ari, a comedic and resourceful shyster.
When it comes to survival, Ari is a great guy to have on your side. Just like in Entourage.
And before we know it, Hagen is pardoned and he’s marching off to the Holy Lands with the rest of The Pope’s Army.
Hagen is the official mascot of Christendom’s war against Islam.
Unfortunately, he is relegated under the command of his d-bag brother, Count Emmich, rather than the knight known as Godfrey of Bouillon, a blind idealist who at least has less scandalous intentions than Emmich.
But don’t worry, Hagen’s situation improves when he royally fucks up his stepbrother’s face in a dispute involving the intentioned rape of Jewish newlyweds who have strayed too close to the army of Crusaders.
Hagen’s not one to sit around and watch his dickcheese brother violate a bride in front of her husband (or at all). Obviously, the deal breaker is that Emmich opts to “protect” his head with a “pot helm”, and Hagen decides to use his brother’s armored head for batting practice with his axe-handle. A combat faus pax? You be the judge. But a fair warning, the description detailing what happens when a blacksmith removes Emmich’s pot helm leaves nothing to the imagination.
Emmich may have lost the battle, but he’s in this for the long run. In a scheme that would make Machiavelli proud, he sells Hagen and Ari to Moslem slavers. So, we’re treated to a cool sea-faring sequence where Hagen and Ari attempt to commandeer the ship they’re on to escape the Saracen corsair. There’s some decapitations and some swash-buckling, but the fun and games ultimately end in manacles.
Except not for Ari. Who speaks enough Arabic to convince the slavers that he’s actually a Moslem that was captured by the Christians.
Things look grim for Hagen.
They get nut-chopping grim when Hagen witnesses another captor get castrated by a cold-as-ice Moslem surgeon and his assistant. And right when Hagen’s member is put on the butcher’s block, Ari dramatically strides in like the best of double-agents and rescues him. Like I said, when it comes to survival, or avoiding the fate of eunuch, Ari is a great guy to have on your side.
How is Ari able to be so convincing?
Ari’s uncle is counselor to Ibn Khaldun, the Moslem Prince. Hagen is to be trained as a royal guardsman. We learn that Crusaders have besieged Antioch, and the only “safe” window for Hagen to escape will open when they march on Jerusalem. Essentially, he’s forced to blend into his surroundings.
It’s in Jerusalem that Hagen learns the truth.
The city is truly a mélange of three faiths where Jews, Christians and Moslems can worship freely.
It is also in Jerusalem where Hagen falls in love with Leila, the daughter of Ibn Khaldun. While Hagen and Leila play cat-and-mouse fuckgames, in which Leila vicariously experiences Hagen’s sexual prowess through her odalisque, Sheba, Emmich rises to power and influence among the Crusaders in Antioch.
In a city that’s stripped of food, what will the starving Crusaders have for their victory feast? According to Emmich, it’s people. “I see no shortage of meat in Antioch. I see ewes that carry ample flesh and tender lambs still fattening at the nipple.” A ghastly stew is prepared for the Christian army, and the soldiers pledge their loyalty to Emmich with their grateful spoons.
Meanwhile meanwhile, the Moslem leaders discuss the possibility of protecting Jerusalem’s walls with archers from Damascus. The plot thickens as we learn that the reluctant Damascan leader is a selfish prick who will only share his army if he can marry Leila. Ibn Khaldun muses that perhaps they can reason with the Crusaders, maybe even attain a truce.
The story kicks into high gear when the Crusaders reach Jerusalem’s walls and Ibn Khaldun sends Leila to her brother’s estate in Nablus, with Hagen as escort. An assault on the royal entourage segues into the infamous donkey scene.
But what about the big war sequence we’ve all been waiting for?
It’s pretty fucking cool. It’s a third act ball-buster that injects some much-needed momentum for those who grew tired of the Moslem girlfriend stuff.
There are some startling images here. Hagen, berserker-fighting through a sea of battle, armed with a scythe that he uses to cut through the ankles of Moslem soldiers. Hagen, his silhouette projected onto a wall of smoke, back-lit by the setting sun, singlehandedly fighting off hordes of men, the tableau rallying the fleeing Crusaders to get back into the fight.
The battle spills into the siege of Jerusalem, and I ain’t gonna lie, it’s grisly.
But the best part, and probably the most resonant, is a scene involving the One True Cross in the Holy Sepulchre. It’s a disarming sequence that cuts through all of Hagen’s war-time survival profiteering and points at a higher power. It’s good stuff.
Crusade has an amazing attention to detail in it that points to an older, tougher era of screenwriting. With today’s “modern” scripts, I can breeze through them in an hour or two. Not so with this one. I was forced to slow down, to pay attention, to savor the words.
This script makes “Medieval” look fucking clownish in comparison. And “Medieval” is a script I like (I’m sorry I’m not sorry, I have doubts about “Predators” after hearing the plot. It’s not “Aliens” to “Alien”. It’s a coin-op arcade game a company like Midway would have made back in the mid-90s.)
It might be blasphemous to say it, especially considering the two iconic characters Schwarzenegger is known for (The Terminator and Conan), but I think Hagen could have been his greatest role. It’s not only iconic, it has a depth to it that transcends the epic breadth of the background story. It’s an underdog story of redemption set against the historical conflict of The Crusades.
I felt there might have been too much exotic girlfriend and not enough holy war, but what the hell, it ties into Hagen’s conflict with Emmich. Which is the overarching theme to Crusade. Redemption. And isn’t that what all redemption stories are about? A man trying to regain his inheritance, a man trying to re-seize a mantle lost? Quim just sweetens that redemptive pot, amirite?
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: The next time you’re lost in your own character arcs without a thematic compass, just remember what Conan said: The best things in life are to kill your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.
Seriously, when it comes to movies about men with swords, everything else is icing on the cake.