Crucible of Empire: The Spanish-American War

Crusades Crescent and the Cross (2005) The 3-hour History Channel Crusades Crescent and the Cross documentaryis a two part series. Part I concentrates on the First Crusade, while Part II tells the story of the Second and Third Crusades. This documentary utilizes a straight narrative style detailing primarily military action, based largely on the first hand account of William of Tyre and various Arab sources and writers with commentary both by various western, mostly British historians, and Islamic scholars and writers for balance. Filmed on location in the Holy Land and Morocco, Crusadesemploys Hollywood-like techniques and reconstructions to get its points across.

This flawed production presents only obvious causes for Urban II’s appeal for action, and provides only unsophisticated reasons why 60,000 Western Christian warriors took the Cross, and traveled thousands of miles to kill people who never really had hurt them. The film attributes Urban’s appeal to Byzantine Emperor Alexis Comnenus’ cry for reinforcements against the Turks and the Pope’s acquiescence as an attempt to restore damage to papal prestige. Presumably this related to the ongoing Investiture Controversy and to the Church’s attempt to re-channel the violence so endemic in Medieval European Society.

It makes no mention of how the concept of Holy War crept into Christian thought through the Koran probably via Spain, nor does it cite the role of Manzikert, the split between Eastern and Western Christendom, or the ongoing Reconquista in Spain. It also does not provide an explanation why Urban would call for the freeing of Jerusalem from Muslim rule, when, in fact, the Holy Land had been part of the Islamic world for 400 years.

The film’s attempt to explain why Western Christian warriors responded so enthusiastically to Urban’s appeal is valid as far as it goes. Certainly, salvation, wealth and the importance of Jerusalem were primary factors, but the role played by pilgrimage is not mentioned at all. Moreover, the production makes only a superficial attempt to explain the powerful hold the Church had on the medieval mindset. Nor does it demonstrate the impact the Koran had on medieval and, one could argue, modern Islam.

The greatest strength of this film resides in its interesting narrative of the First Crusade contained in Part I. I say this despite the fact that there is no overriding thesis or attempts to present compelling new ideas concerning the event at hand. There are also several annoying quirks surrounding the telling of the tale, e.g., only a passing reference to the Paupers (Peoples) Crusade, and the labeling the Holy Roman Empire as the “German Empire.” Still, the story of the First Crusade is presented in a crisp, clear and flowing manner using Hollywood-like techniques to recreate battles and related events. The narrative presents interesting facts, and is very easy to follow. Part I ends with the establishment of the Crusader States (aka Crusading States) and a warning that the Islamic world was ready to pounce on the invaders when the opportunity presented itself.

The content of Part II, covering the Second and Third Crusades is more problematic. The coverage of the Second Crusade led by French king Louis VII is, at best, sketchy. The recounting of the Third Crusade is more detailed, but no less troubling in some respects. It had the participation of the three most powerful kings in Medieval Europe. I tell my classes this is the “Hollywood Crusade,” since this is the one most likely to be portrayed in the movies. Yet, this documentary fails to mention the participation of Philip Augustus, who would emerge arguably as the most powerful European monarch of his day.

The production does a good job demonstrating the roles and relationship of Richard the Lion Hearted and Saladin, whose recapture of Jerusalem in 1187 precipitated the Third Crusade. In the end, however, the film may give Richard a little too much credit. While he was able to stabilize the remaining Crusader States, he never achieved his ultimate goal of retaking Jerusalem. At the risk of being labeled “politically incorrect,” I found the treatment of the various massacres and atrocities committed by both sides to be one sided and biased, despite the best efforts of the producers to present a balanced narrative. When the Crusaders perpetrate an atrocity it is called a case of “ethnic cleansing,” and another instance a “war crime.” In the only instance of a massacre (there were others) perpetrated by Muslims, the production labeled it an “example” of psychological warfare used to frighten the Crusaders. Apparently, the
producers let their concern of offending the sensibilities of a segment of the population override their sense of true scholarship.

The greatest flaw of the Crusades Crescent and the Cross resides in its assessment of the effects of the Crusades. It quite correctly identifies the psychological impact the Crusades had on the Islamic world. It adequately describes the shock and imprint on Muslims even to this day, when Osama bin Laden and other Islamist radicals can get away with labeling their Western or Christian opponents as “infidels” or “Crusaders.” Also, according to the production the main result in terms of the West was military failure. Certainly, the Crusades did fail, but that fact does not begin to correctly assess the impact they had on both the West and the Muslim world. The production does not take into account the long term economic, social, military and cultural impact of the Crusades.

Is this documentary worth viewing? It is, if one is primarily interested in military history, and if the sins of omission are ignored. If, however, one wishes a little more in depth analysis of the reasons why and how the Crusades began, or a more vigorous look at their effects, a pass is in order.
Tom Ciani Raritan Valley Community College tciani@comcast.net

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