The High Crusade

Director: Holger Nevhauser, Klaus Knoesel                
John Rhys-Davies, Rick Overton

Roland Emmerich. That name strikes fear in the hearts of many people. And it should; Emmerich has made a career of making schlocky sci-fi. Starting in Germany by making Steven Spielberg rip-offs like Making Contact, he soon worked his way up to awful direct-to-video (at least in North America) movies like Moon 44 and Ghost Chase. Then after crossing the Atlantic and arriving in Hollywood, he has directed a steady stream of awful movies (Universal Soldier, Stargate, Independence Day, and the worst of all, Godzilla.) During this current part of his career, he has not forgotten his German roots, returning to his homeland to occasionally produce a homegrown movie there. The High Crusade is one of those movies, and after seeing it one has to wonder if he returned home to torture his countrymen once more after they thought they got rid of him when he moved to Hollywood. And the overall quality of this German movie is good evidence to suggest why Germany still feels it has to use a quota system for its country's movie theaters.

This bizarre movie, based on a novel by Poul Anderson, does admittedly have an intriguing premise: In 1345, during one of the Crusades, word reaches England that the English army has suffered a great defeat at the hands of the Muslims. While just married knight Sir Roger (Overton) discusses that night with his fellow knights and cleric Brother Poorlittle Parvus (Davies) on what they should do, a spaceship lands outside his castle and a platoon of armed aliens come out, intent on wiping out the castle and its inhabitants. Sir Roger and his comrades attack, and to their surprise, they manage to defeat the laser gun-wielding aliens. With a captured alien and spaceship, it seems they have the answer as to how to get quickly to the Holy Land and save the day. But instead, Roger, Parvis, and their fellow warriors are thrust into an adventure beyond their wildest - well, not dreams, but more like their wildest nightmares!

Cool. But as I've said many, many times before, it's not necessarily the premise of the movie that counts, but the execution of the premise. And it's here that the movie starts become bizarre. I haven't read the acclaimed book, though I've heard that, although it has a few scenes of light humor, it's essentially a science fiction drama. But the makers of The High Crusade, the movie, changed the angle by making the movie a comedy. To tell the truth, I would have preferred the movie to have been more or less serious, like the book supposedly is. Still, if the movie had been funny, I would have recommended the movie without hesitation. The High Crusade isn't funny.

Let me give you an example of the kind of humor The High Crusade uses. At the beginning of the movie, we see a one-legged messenger from the Holy Land running (more like hopping) to the castle, being pursued by Muslims on horseback. Fumbling around like John Cleese, Sir Roger proclaims, "This calls for the long range arrow!", and balances the gigantic arrow on some dumb knight's helmet. After the Muslims are killed, the dying messenger gives a message from Sir Roger's friend to Sir Roger himself: "My dear old friend...Hate to be of bother...Circumstances here as such: 400 of my best soldiers are slaughtered by the Muslims. Jerusalem has fallen. Could use a little help. Be forever in your debt if you could send a short crusade."

It's Monty Python all over again, more specifically Monty Python and the Holy Grail. There lies the flaw - you simply can't duplicate Monty Python. Monty Python was one of those things that only happens once, thanks to a fantastic coincidence of the right actors and writers all meeting at the right time. And their kind of comedy was theirs  - only they knew how to create it and execute it in the right style. The High Crusade has talented actors, but not all actors can pull off broad comedy, especially these actors. Seeing an actor like Michael Des Barres, who has previously played harder roles, play a high-pitched Frenchman who constantly tries to seduce Sir Roger's wife in a slapstick fashion, has some initial novelty value, but only in the sense of seeing a more serious actor making a fool out of himself - the activities he's forced to do eventually make his presence embarrassing. Overton has acted in several comedies before, but here he seems unsure on what comic style to use. Sometimes he acts in a pure slapstick style like Jerry Lewis. Sometimes he acts (and even sounds) like John Cleese when he played stuffy authority figures who were really idiots. The one performer who more or less survives is Davies; not only does he bring his instant likeability to this movie, but he plays his role pretty straight. As a result, he manages to bring the little amusement the movie has when he is in verbal conflict with the aliens. His belief that the aliens are demons, and his later disbelief that the aliens have no concept of God make for some conversations that are both amusing and interesting, in the sense that a serious movie that dealt with more of this could have produced many interesting yet entertaining conversations.

Such interesting asides like these are quickly lost in a wave of unfunny attempts at humor. The film soon stops trying to imitate Monty Python and do its "own" kind of humor, but I don't know which is worse. There's a scene where someone thinks the distance on a map is the actual distance they'll have to travel (how many times have we heard that old chestnut?) There are anachronisms like, "What do you think this is - British Airways?" There's a rip-off of the old Marx Brothers' mirror routine. There are crotch gags. Fart jokes. Loads of four-lettered words, most often spoken by the foul-mouthed aliens. About those aliens; though all the human characters speak English, the aliens are obviously dubbed, and by people with very heavy English and Scottish accents, resulting in one alien sounding very much like Sean Connery. (One has to wonder if maybe the British dubbers added their own jokes and profanity during the dubbing process, because the kind of humor concerning the aliens doesn't seem to fit in the humor used elsewhere in the movie.) The sight of pig-faced aliens squeaking, "Up yours!" get old very quickly.

There isn't anything positive to write about the technical side of the movie either. Though the models aren't bad for a low budget movie, they are still obviously tiny models. All the special effects and the general look of the movie seem to have been done by a BBC television crew. The direction never gives us a wide look at any point of the movie, always crowding the actors closely together. The pace of the movie never gives us a chance to breathe, making us feel like someone is shouting in our ear for an hour and a half. At the end of the movie, I felt exhausted.

Still, though this isn't a very good movie, there's a tiny part of me that still wants to recommend the movie. It wants to recommend the movie because, frankly, that part can't think of another movie quite like this. The High Crusade's sheer mess and insanity is one of a kind, like Monty Python was. It almost begs you to watch and see how out of control it is. Fortunately, the bigger part of me is able to keep that other part of me down, and strongly suggests that you avoid this movie. Though even the bigger part of me knows that smaller part will be struggling to be set free for a long, long time.

Check for availability on Amazon (VHS)
Check for the original Poul Anderson novel on Amazon

See also: Fallen Knight, Fantasy Mission Force, Hex