Centuries later, Crusades come to TV

June 05, 1995|By Jean Prescott | Jean Prescott,Knight-Ridder News Service

Ken Burns showed that history -- Civil War and popular sport, anyway -- can be sweetened to make TV audiences gobble it up.

But Mr. Burns' front-parlor stereopticon approach pales beside Terry Jones' witty four-hour romp through the "Crusades." It looks irreverently at one blood-drenched example, though not the only one, of the evil men have done in the name of a higher power -- in this case, Christ.

This BBC special, produced in cooperation with A&E, has been divided into four segments, which will be shown today through Thursday at 9 p.m., simulcast on the History Channel and A&E.

Mr. Jones, you'll remember, was a key player in "Monty Python's Flying Circus." He's the stocky, dark-haired one who was forever gussied up as John Cleese's wife or mum.

Mr. Jones knows Europe's Dark Ages, and he exposes them as an environment of ignorance in which the Christian Church controlled peasants with threats of excommunication and promises of salvation.

But Mr. Jones the historian gives free rein to Mr. Jones the humorist. He peppers his story with odd little asides to humanize a story otherwise simply gory.

He recalls sorties against livestock, and he attempts an interview with a domesticated fowl believed to be a descendant of a divinely inspired medieval goose.

Authorities narrate key segments but appear on camera only briefly, thereby minimizing the talking-heads aggravation.

Beautifully costumed and body-painted actors appear as animated parts of illustrative paintings, ancient mosaics and illuminated manuscripts.

Contemporary footage -- of Desert Storm aerial attacks, a modern Syrian wedding, tankers and ferries crossing the Bosporus -- are intermingled with re-enactments. Mr. Jones appears in many of them as a costumed participant, but more often as a curious onlooker.

He dives in with enthusiasm to don chain mail and an iron helmet for his walk across Anatolia. In full armor, he even leaps into the surf at Tyre to prove that Richard the Lion-Hearted might have done the same.

Mr. Jones also barters with a peasant for a mule ("horses were dying all over the place," he explains), builds a siege tower on a site outside the walls of Antioch, and appears as the ancient ruler Nur ad-Din on a modern-day Damascus TV news program.

Such devices, rather than trivializing history, make it more accessible and certainly more palatable than dusty textbooks.

The chivalrous, cross-bearing medieval knight is exposed for the Christian cannibal that he was. "The Crusades were one of the great crimes against humanity," Mr. Jones says.

Myth and legend drop by the wayside on a journey that begins in 1095 with Pope Urban II's call to arms and ends in 1250 with the destruction of the last remnants of the Christian community in Turkey.

"Pilgrims in Arms" looks at how the pope was able to incite sane, settled people to leave their homes and families and march 2,000 miles to liberate and quite probably die in the Holy Land.

"In fact, the Turks treated Christians quite reasonably," Mr. Jones observes, "and ancient European depictions to the contrary are so much medieval tabloid journalism."

Part 1 also documents the pogrom that "institutionalized anti-Semitism in Europe and made it an incurable disease."

In Part 2, "Jerusalem," the action becomes particularly bloody -- Turkish babies are roasted on spits, adult infidels are boiled or beheaded. Mr. Jones travels the route the crusaders took, all the while cursing his medieval leather slippers and the incessant rain, scoffing at the so-called miracles of the siege of Antioch and paraphrasing a blind Syrian poet and philosopher:

"The Jews, Muslims and Christians all had it wrong," he says. "There are only two kinds of people -- those with brains and no religion and those with religion and no brains."

"Jihad," the third hour, focuses on the recapture of Jerusalem by Muslims, on the creation in 1100 of the first terrorist assassins' squad and on the rise to power of Saladin, a Muslim leader who would become a legend in Europe. Mr. Jones visits Tyre, where a tiny Christian community remained as a foothold for perhaps the most widely recognized character of the Crusades.

Richard the Lion-Hearted and his ally (some say lover) Philip of France dominate "Destruction," the final hour, in which we also get a look at the legendary battle at Jaffa and the rise to power of the brutal Muslim leader Baybars, who finally liberates the Holy Land from Christians.

It is well-made TV with the kind of contemporary spin from which every history lesson would benefit.

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