After reading John Phillips’ The Life and Legend of the Sultan Saladin a few months back I eventually streamed 1954’s KING RICHARD AND THE CRUSADERS. Set during the Third Crusade it’s a textbook example of what one critic called the “in love with Loretta Young” school of history: the outcome of the Third Crusade, the relationship of Islam and Christianity and the future of the Middle East all hinge on whether Richard the Lionhearted’s (George Sanders) cousin Virginia Mayo (who gets the immortal line “War, war, that’s all you think about Dick Plantagenet!”) ends up with his Scots right hand (Laurence Harvey) or Saladin (Rex Harrison in brownface).
Based on Sir Walter Scott’s The Talisman, this is a glossy, colorful epic. Schemers in Richard’s forces want to eliminate him as Step One towards claiming control of the region as their own kingdom. After an assassination attempt leaves Couer de Lion injured and poisoned, Harvey’s Sir Kenneth finds a wandering Arab physician who cures him, little dreaming the wryly humorous fellow is actually Saladin himself (the Saladin biography says the two leaders never met, but doing so has been irresistible to storytellers). Can Kenneth and Richard expose the traitors? Who will finally end up with Lady Edith (Mayo)? Can the friendship between the king and the sultan avert war? For a historical epic this is surprisingly light on big battles, but it has plenty of action and I found it a lot of fun, though Harvey’s always stiff in romantic roles. It also makes Phillips’ point that Saladin was popular in the west because he embodied the chivalric virtues they admired, though here he claims he learned it all from the crusaders. “We play dice with death and we’ll match him throw for throw.”
Watching MISSION IMPOSSIBLE II (2000) made me wonder if old-school germ-warfare stories like this won’t have to change in the future, as we now know the effects of a plague ripple far beyond just the number of bodies. That said, this John Woo-directed film is laden with the kind of spectacular, insane action he’s famous for and it holds up better than the stunts in True Lies do.
Returning as IMF leader Ethan Hunt, Tom Cruise is assigned to gather his team (Ving Rhames returns as his hacker) and recruit master thief Nyah (Thandie Newton). Why? Because her former lover, rogue agent Dougray Scott, has stolen a genetically engineered superflu and plans to unleash it, then make millions from the cure. Hunt seduces Nyah into helping, but they fall in love with the process, which makes it tougher. At least it’s supposed to, but I couldn’t buy for one minute that they had that kind of a connection.
The film itself feels even less like the TV show than the first film: the break-ins and disguises (reminding me a lot of Woo’s earlier Face/Off) could have been pretty much any action/spy thriller. Watchable, and obviously didn’t stop the series progressing, but hardly compelling viewing. “He’d undoubtedly engage in some aerobatic insanity before he’d harm a hair on a security guard’s head.”
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