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History Channel Presents: The Crusades - Crescent & the Cross, The

A&E Video // Unrated // June 2, 2009
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Jeffrey Kauffman | posted August 20, 2009 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:
There's a reason you may have seen none other than Laura Bush wince when her husband, in one of his early pronouncements on the War on Terror, called it a "crusade." Mrs. Bush is famously a librarian and evidently well aware of the power of words and their sometimes centuries worth of often subliminal import. Crusade may be a fairly innocuous noun in the Western world (and may in fact have been used innocently by Mrs. Bush's husband--though I have my doubts, frankly), but in the Middle East, it is a word fraught with subtexts that include conquest, pillaging and the ugliest kind of religious war. It may be hard for us westerners to think of Christians as the attackers and putative "bad guys" in any conflict, but for Middle Easterners, rightly or wrongly, that's exactly what they were in The Crusades. This three hour History Channel documentary gives an astounding amount of detail on The Crusades (at least the first three, anyway), while at the same time humanizing a lot of its major players, characters who have become little more than names in a laundry list in a musty history text book.

When the onslaught of Islam included the fall of Jerusalem in the seventh century, it set a long chain of events into collision with the western Christian powers. How could the "true religion" (Christianity, in case you were wondering) allow the most holy city, the site of Jesus' triumphs and tragedies, be left under the thumb of what these ostensibly civilized folk saw as pagan Arab tribes, intent on worshiping a false Messiah. What The Crescent and the Cross makes quite clear, however, is that these religious reasons were only part of the strategies that played into several countries' motivations for conquest. The Byzantine Empire especially had a number of dichotomous reasons for wanting to go to war, and wasn't above betraying Muslim and Christian alike in order to attain greater power over its eastern expanses.

This two part documentary spends its first 90 minutes solely on the First Crusade, and introduces us to contemporary chroniclers like William of Tyre as well as others on the Muslim side of the conflict like Ibn al Athir, whose reminiscences are performed by actors giving fascinating, first person accounts of various battles. The documentary does a good job of ping ponging back and forth between these two points of view, not always letting the victors write history, as it were. In fact, if anything, if a bias is to be felt in this documentary, it's solidly on the side of defending the Arabs and entire Muslim community against what they at least saw as a completely unfounded act of aggression, an act that continued long after the putative goal, the capture of Jerusalem, had been attained.

The Second and Third Crusades are covered in the second hour and a half episode, and do in fact both back up that Muslim thesis, as well as at least partially rebuking it. The Muslims while at least initially in disarray after Jerusalem was finally captured after several years of battle, didn't just sit idly by and accept their fate. While it's true various Christians were out to expand their holdings in the Middle East, Islam as a whole was becoming more militant and even more intent on jihad. In fact that word, so eerily redolent for those of us in these times, first reared its perhaps ugly head during the era of the Crusades. It's up to a religious scholar of more learning than I possess to determine if it can rightly be applied to both sides of what was, and in fact remains in some ways, a raging conflict.

The Crescent and the Cross gives a number of fascinating sidebars their due as the piece covers the major strategies, battles, and outcomes of the first three crusades. Little details are often the most interesting, as in the recently discovered actual site of one of the most devastating battles of the First Crusade, and the really unusual fact that the Muslims had a large contingent of bowsmen who would lie on their backs using their superior leg strength to arch their bows more radically in order to shoot their arrows much further than they could be if shot in the traditional way. As with most History Channel documentaries, recreations are interspersed with talking head segments. If the documentary never quite rises to the heights of the tens of thousands of armed combatants who took part in the Crusades (often showing just a handful at a time, something fairly typical for the network, though there is some nascent CGI augmentation at times), it does actually do a fairly visceral job of giving a feel for the awesome journey these intrepid souls undertook, no matter how much modern viewers may question their ultimate motives, if not their sanity.

I was a bit surprised that The Crescent and the Cross didn't spend more time on the later part of this centuries long conflict. In doing some research for this review, it seems that perhaps the original broadcast version might have been at least one hour longer, and so perhaps the subsequent Crusades were covered in that episode. I'd welcome input from any fan who might have seen the original broadcast version. Otherwise, this is an excellent introduction, especially to the First Crusade and the entire sociopolitical milieu out of which this conflict grew. The conflict between Christianity and Islam is a problem that may have begun over a millennium ago, but which sadly sees no signs of abating anytime soon.

The Blu-ray

Those of you familiar with my reviews of History Channel and A&E product know that I am prone to ranting about their stupidly unenhanced SD-DVD's, so I was very excited to be getting one of the first History Channel Blu-rays released. Sadly, it's a pretty mixed bag. The good news is, especially for those of you sick of my standard rant, it's an anamorphically enhanced presentation. Wow! The bad news is, this is an at times pretty shoddy looking BD, and not only because of the purposefully processed, grainy shots that make up a lot of the historical reenactment segments. Source footage is full of damage (one oft-used shot of a giant red sunset--or sunrise, when it's played in reverse, which it is) has a gigantic black splotch in the middle of it that looks like a crow collided with the camera lens. But more generally, there's a softness to a lot of this presentation, even in the contemporary interview segments, and there's some really ugly edge enhancement, especially in backlit scenes. Colors are good, and generally well saturated, with the exception (again) of the purposefully processed shots, which are intentionally muted. All in all, it's at least a step in the right direction for History Channel, but they have some giant leaps to go before they're in the Planet Earth league.

Granted this documentary is largely talking heads, voiceover and individual actors speaking, but a DD 2.0 soundtrack seems awfully, well, minimal for a BD, don't you think? Especially when some of the battle scenes at least would have benefitted from some surround immersion? Ah, well, we can dream, can't we? What's here, including Keith David's portentous tones, is well reproduced, clear, and (not to state the obvious) front and center. No subtitles are available.

None are offered.

Final Thoughts:
As with a lot of History Channel documentaries, this is an excellent introduction to its subject, especially with regard to the First Crusade. Well balanced between the opposing viewpoints of Christians and Muslims, this three hour opus paints in broad strokes, but manages to hone in on occasional characters like William of Tyre to personalize the epic. This Blu-ray itself is a mixed bag at best, but the documentary in and of itself is Recommended.

"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet

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