Book Review: The Book of Cthulhu

Book Review: The Book of Cthulhu edited by Ross E Lockhart

Fantasy and horror author H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t a big seller during his lifetime, but the loose setting he created of the Cthulhu Mythos, where humans are only the most recent inhabitants of a cold and chaotic universe, and many of the previous inhabitants are effectively gods, has become one of the most popular sub-genres of horror literature.  The twenty-seven stories in this volume are by second- and third-generation Lovecraftian writers.

The Book of Cthulhu

There’s an encouraging variety of protagonists; professors and prostitutes, hitmen and clergymen.  Some of them are from ethnic groups HPL would never have made the heroes of his stories.  There’s a variety of tones as well.  Of course there’s a number that are straight up creepy horror, but there’s also noir-ish crime fiction and deadpan penny dreadful humor.

The volume opens with “Andromeda Among the Stones” by Caitlín R. Kiernan.  A family guards a gate off the Northern California coast; but only one of them was truly born for the job.  I found the story rather slight, and one of the weaker ones in the collection.

The closing story is “The Men from Porlock” by Laird Barron.  Seven lumberjacks go hunting in the Pacific Northwest.  Not all of them are going to be returning.  This one makes good use of escalating creepiness, culminating in a scene where a monster makes its menace particularly personal.

Oldest story honors go to Ramsey Campbell’s “The Tugging” from 1976.  An art critic in a small British city is having disturbing dreams about Atlantis, which may tie into a comet with unusual gravitation behavior.  I’ve read this one before, and it’s interesting as an unintentional period piece.  I remember in my youth paging through great bound volumes of yellowing newsprint as the protagonist does here, instead of scrolling through microfilm, or today’s scanned files.

“Black Man with a Horn” by T.E.D. Klein is one of the editor’s favorites, according to the introduction (which is perhaps a little too generous to Lovecraft’s writing skills.)  An elderly writer who was a friend of HPL in his youth meets a missionary returning from Malaysia.  Over the course of time, the writer learns that at least one thing written by Lovecraft may be uncomfortably close to reality.  It is a good story, told well.

I also particularly enjoyed “Lord of the Land” by Gene Wolfe.  A Nebraskan teacher is collecting oral history in the Appalachian region.  An old man tells him about seeing the “soul sucker”, which seems like a tall tale at first…but it’s actually a warning.  This one held my attention fast.

Overall, this is a strong collection with many creepy stories and some marquee writers like Elizabeth Bear, Joe R. Lansdale and David Drake.  I should mention that one story features incest and marital rape.  Recommended to fans of the Lovecraftian type of horror.

Book Review: A Memory This Size and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2013

Book Review: A Memory This Size and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2013 Introduction by Lizzy Attree

The Caine Prize is awarded to a short story written by an African author (which primarily means one born in Africa–all the authors in this volume are from Sub-Saharan Africa), published in English in the last five years and submitted for consideration.  This volume contains the five stories that were shortlisted for the prize in 2013, plus twelve more written at a workshop sponsored by the Caine Prize.

A Memory This Size

The collection leads off with the 2013 winner, “Miracle” by Tope Folarin.  A group of Nigerian immigrants attend a tent revival in Texas.  A great faith healer is scheduled to appear, but will there be a miracle tonight, and what form will it take?  I found this to be rather a blah story, but I am not one of the judges for the contest and don’t know what criteria they based the decision on.  Nigerians dominate this volume, with four of the five shortlisted stories and several of the workshop ones as well.

Three of the five shortlisted stories have a heavy Africa-America connection, to the point that Chinelo Okparanta’s story is actually titled “America.”  A schoolteacher who wishes to join her lover there uses the Gulf oil spill as a wedge to try to convince the immigration people to give her a green card.   There’s an interesting ending in which the protagonist remembers hearing a folktale similar to ‘Jack the Giant-Killer” except that it stops short of the “ever after” with no explanation of what happens past a certain point.

The title story, “A Memory This Size” by Elnathan John concerns a man mourning for his brother, who died years ago, and yet he cannot let go.

There are common themes in these stories, most of which are “slice of life” tales:  government corruption, marital infidelity and environmental destruction.

There are a couple of stories that move into the “magical realism” camp (that is, fantasy, but not called that so critics can treat it as actual literature.)  The better one is “Howl” by Rotimi Babatunde, about a dog named Jack who may or may not have the extraordinary powers the villagers think, but is certainly not a normal dog.  “Clapping Hands for a Smiling Crocodile” by Stanley Onjezani Kenani, however, has the best title in this volume.  That story is about a fishing village threatened by oil developers, and the sacrifice one man makes to save their way of life.

I also enjoyed “Stuck” by Davina Kawuma, told in a series of emails by a young woman who is tempted to have an affair.  One final email changes everything.

My least favorite story was “Foreign Aid” by Pede Hollist.  This tale of a man who returns to Sierra Leone after many years in America, thinking he will be a big man thanks to his money, was too predictable and made me cringe rather than care.

That said, I am glad I took the chance to read this book and learn what some African writers are doing.  There are thirteen volumes of Caine Prize stories published; check your inter-library loan system for any one of them.

I should also mention that there is some disturbing subject matter, and would best suited for college age and up.

Book Review: Seeds for Change

Book Review: Seeds for Change by Marly Cornell

This is a biography of Surinder “Suri” and Edda (nee Jeglinsky) Sehgal, the founders of the Sehgal Foundation.  That foundation helps rural villages in India achieve clean water, improved agriculture, better education and more honest government, as well as funding conservation and ecological efforts around the world.

Seeds for Change

Both of them were refugees as children, Suri when his family wound up on the wrong side of the border during the partition of Pakistan and India, and Edda when her home in Silesia was about to be overrun by the Soviet Army during the end of World War Two (and then was attached to Poland in the post-war process.)

Suri grew up to become a crop scientist, specializing in hybrid corn, and came to America to pursue his graduate studies.  Edda was invited to the U.S. to serve as the au pair for the Henry Kissinger family.  They met and fell in love.  Suri got a job with Pioneer, creating their first international research station in Jamaica, and the couple got married.

They settled down in Iowa and raised a family, and with a combination of hard work, diplomacy and good management  skills, Suri rose to eventually become the president of Pioneer’s overseas operations.  Unfortunately, there was a management change at the company, and the new CEO felt uncomfortable with the decentralized nature of Pioneer at the time.

According to this book the new management of Pioneer fired Suri and attempted to frame him for stealing trade secrets, as well as gutting a joint venture in India that Mr. Sehgal had an independent interest in.   (A book from the perspective of the Pioneer management  might tell the story differently.)  The ensuing lawsuits were settled in Suri’s favor, and the independent company he rebuilt was successful enough to create the Foundation.

There’s a lot to like about this book.  Suri and Edda’s life experiences are interesting and shed light on areas not often brought to the attention of most Americans.   Edda is very much depicted as Suri’s partner who he could not have succeeded without.    If the text sometimes seems overly flattering, this is understandable due to it being written specifically to promote the Sehgal Foundation.

I found  the writing style a little flat.  A discussion of the children’s part-time jobs is given the same tonal feel as Suri’s trek  across India as a shoeless refugee  to find a relative whose location he only knows by a general region, which could use a bit more emotional weight.

There are genealogical charts at the beginning of the book (there are a lot of relatives that come in and out of the story) and a color photograph section in the middle.  Citations are done in footnotes, and there is no index.

Proceeds from the sale of this book go to the Sehgal Foundation, so that might influence your decision whether or not to purchase.

I would especially recommend this books to readers with an interest in immigrant stories.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of this book by the author for the purpose of undertaking this review.  No other compensation was involved or requested.

Comic Book Review: Bodies

Comic Book Review: Bodies written by Si Spencer; art by Dean Ormstom, Phil Winslade, Meghan Hetrick, & Tula Lotay.

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  No other compensation was involved.

Bodies

A string of seemingly-identical murders baffles London detectives in four time periods.  It can’t be the same killer every time…can it?  And what is the mysterious Long Harvest?  From Victorian times to the too-near future, those involved must seek out the common thread.

Each of the detectives has issues.  In 1890, Inspector Edmond Hillinghead thinks his attraction to other men is hidden; after all, he’s never succumbed.  His closet has a transparent door, however.  In 1940, Inspector Charles Whiteman is a Jew who escaped Nazi-occupied Poland, only to find a niche running the rackets.  He’s blamed a captured German pilot for the mysterious corpse, but his own crimes are about to be exposed.  In 2014, Detective Sargeant Shahara Hasan wears her issue out in the open.  She’s a practicing Muslim, and British to the core, in a time when many think those are contradictory traits.  And in 2050, a woman whose name might be Maplewood and might be a detective suffers from scrambled memories, as does everyone in London–but this corpse seems familiar and important.

The four artists each cover one of the time periods as the narrative cuts back and forth, making it easy to tell when we are in the timeline.  I don’t care for all of them, but it works well.

Each of the detectives must discover things about their own identity (literally in Maplewood’s case) in order to uncover the deeper mystery, and its connection to the theme of England.

This is part of Vertigo Comics, which is well known for its reliance on British writers.  That, and being DC’s “Mature Readers” line.  As such, there’s violence, nudity, sex scenes and some filthy language.  College age and up, I’m thinking.

To be honest, some knowledge of British history and culture is going to go a long way towards making this graphic novel more enjoyable.  Those who haven’t studied such things are likely to find themselves lost.

Book Review: Better than Bullets: The Complete Adventures of Thibault Corday and the Foreign Legion Volume 1

Book Review: Better than Bullets: The Complete Adventures of Thibaut Corday and the Foreign Legion Volume 1 by Theodore Roscoe

The Légion étrangère was created in 1831 as a way to remove disruptive elements from French society, primarily foreigners of all sorts, and put them to good use fighting far away.  Their first and primary posting was in Algeria, but the French Foreign Legion has fought in all of France’s wars, even to the present day.

Better than Bullets

Fiction created a romanticized version of the Legion as a haven for lost men, criminals escaping their pasts and disappointed lovers.  Most influential in this field was Beau Geste by P.C Wren, about a trio of brothers joining the unit.  Naturally, the pulp magazines also loved the Legion, especially during the 1920s and ’30s.  One of the most popular series of stories appeared in Argosy from 1929 to 1939, the tales of a retired Legionnaire named Thibaut Corday.

Corday is an elderly man, though his beard is still a rich cinnamon hue.  He served in the Confederate army during the American Civil War before enlisting in the Legion, and has seen many strange things, which he is willing to tell to people who will listen as he smokes at an Algerian café.  This first volume has six stories.

“Better than Bullets”, the title story, introduces Corday and his buddies, Yankee Bill the Elephant and Christian(ity) Jensen the Dane.  They’re stationed near Casablanca and out of edible food, so Bill suggests they go on an unauthorized forage expedition.   They have to leave their weapons behind, so when the trio is cornered by fanatical Muslim enemies, there’s not a bullet or blade to be had.  Thus they must improvise!  As might be suspected, through all of these stories Corday shows a strong prejudice against people of color and Muslims.  He does admit from time to time that as the French are an invading/occupying Army, the locals do have good reason for their hostility.

“The Dance of the Seven Veils” has Yankee Bill get into an altercation with a handsome rake over a dancing girl.  The real trouble starts the next morning when our heroes discover the rake is their new commanding officer, who’s taking them on a seemingly doomed mission into the Sahara Desert.   The fortress they’ve been assigned to crack seems impenetrable…until a ghostly dancer appears in the desert night.  Pretty obvious twist, but evocative imagery.

“An Eye for an Eye” tells the tale of feuding cousins Hyacinth LaDu and “La Carotte” who are students at the military school of St. Cyr.  They are already furious with each other when a lovely young woman comes along and provides an excuse for a duel.  Hyacinth puts Carrot’s eye out deliberately.  Years later, the two men meet again in the Foreign Legion.  One of the twists is slightly hidden by the tradition of joining the Legion under an assumed name.  A chilling tale of revenge.

“The Death Watch” changes things up with a horrific tale set at sea as the few Legionnaires aboard a troop transport have to deal with a mutiny by native soldiers.  Massive coincidence plays a part in the outcome.

“The Bearded Slayer” is a tale of a quite young Corday, who was inordinately proud of his fearsome beard.  Unfortunately, this same beard made him the primary suspect in a series of murders in a remote Legion outpost.   The tension ratchets with each killing, and the mounting evidence against our hero.

“The Mutineer”, which closes out the volume, features both the secret origin and final fate of Yankee Bill the Elephant.  He loudly declares his love for the beautiful daughter of the commander, in public no less.  While pursued by military police for his insolence, Bill and Corday must also deal with a native uprising.   The streak of sexism that was a minor point in other stories comes to the fore here, as it uses the old “if a woman says ‘no’, and ‘go away’ and ‘I hate you’, that means you should totally keep pestering her until you can prove your manliness and she falls in love with you” plotline I know many readers despise.  Exciting story though.

There’s a nice introduction to the series, and two biographical sketches of Theodore Roscoe, one printed in Argosy at the time, and a more recent one.

While this is sterling pulp writing, full of excitement and twists, some readers may find the period sexism and racism too much for their tastes.  On the other hand, if you loved other French Foreign Legion stories, this is a good selection.

Manga Review: Master Keaton, Volume 1

Manga Review: Master Keaton, Volume 1 art by Naoki Urasawa, story by Hokusei Katsushika & Takashi Nagasaki

Taichi Hiraga Keaton is a mild-looking fellow with a bumbling exterior personality.  You’d never guess that he’s a brilliant archaeologist, ex-SAS soldier and freelance insurance investigator.  He often takes leave of his day job as a poorly paid lecturer at a small Japanese college to investigate possible insurance fraud around the world, especially if it involves archaeological artifacts.  Adventure awaits!

Master Keaton

Now if he could just figure out a way to get back with his mathematician ex-wife like his outspoken teen daughter Yuriko would like….

This late 1980s manga series has art by Naoki Urasawa, famous in the U.S. for his work on Monster and 20th Century Boys.  There are touches that suggest he had some input on the writing of this series, but it lacks the intricacy and long-term plotting of his solo work.

As it is, this is a fine action series, very episodic in nature and could easily be done in live action.  While Mr. Keaton has special forces training, and several of the stories do have heavy violence, he’s fundamentally a man of peace who prefers to solve problems with MacGyver style ingenuity and thoughtful negotiation.  He goes well out of his way to avoid killing people.

The 1980s setting is very obvious from time to time, especially in the politics; but at least one story involves a piece of then-new technology today’s kids would find hopelessly obsolete.  Taichi being Cornish-Japanese with dual citizenship helps move the story along and gives him a unique perspective.

The final story in this volume is a two-parter that focuses on James Wolf, Keaton’s fencing instructor in the SAS and a perfect role for Liam Neeson.  He has a mad on for Corsican drug gangs and Keaton is called in to deal with the situation, in hopes that he can keep the body count down.  This story also explains why Keaton is called “Master.”

This is a seinen (young men’s) series, so there is some nudity, including male nudity in art reproductions.

Keaton can come across as a bit too competent in some of the stories, which presumably is why he’s written as such a bumbling father.  Recommended for fans of Eighties action shows.

Book Review: What We Won

Book Review: What We Won by Bruce Riedel

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

What We Won

The Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1989) was a turning point in history.  It was often called the “Russian Vietnam” as the Soviet troops found themselves mired in battle with an enemy that had little structure, struck without warning and enjoyed strong local support. The war drained men and material with little to show for it, and displeasure with the conflict helped bring about changes in the Soviet government that led to the end of the U.S.S.R.

The United States government, working through the CIA, primarily influenced the war by partnering with the Pakistani government to funnel arms and intelligence to the mujahedin who were fighting to free their country from Communism.  The author, a former CIA agent, explains who the major players in the war were, what they hoped to accomplish and the outcomes.  He shows why this operation worked so well, in contrast to other covert operations such as the infamously botched Iran-Contra deal.  In addition, there is some compare and contrast of the Soviet invasion and the current Afghanistan conflict.

There are holes in the story, of course.  Several key figures died even before the end of the war,  and many others never wrote down their stories.  Much of the details of covert actions are still classified by the various governments, and thus off-limits for public consumption.  But the author has managed to get quite a bit of new information, including access to Jimmy Carter’s diary of the time.  (Since President Carter wrote his memoir while the U.S. aid to the mujahedin was still a secret, his part in setting it up wasn’t in there.)

It begins with a brief history lesson on the many previous foreign invasions of Afghanistan, primarily by the British.  Then there’s an examination of the Communist government of Afghanistan, which was fatally divided against itself from the beginning.  It introduced much-needed reforms, but, well, Communists, which didn’t sit well with the large groups of strongly religious citizens.  When the Communists proved unable to keep from killing each other, let alone control the insurgencies, the Soviets decided to roll in with their tanks, thinking it would be just like Hungary or Czechoslovakia.  It wasn’t.

In addition to starting a land war in Asia, the Soviets had three leaders in a row whose health was failing, and a developing problem in Poland that kept them from moving sufficient troops and weapons down into Afghanistan.   In addition, it was the first time the U.S.S.R.’s troops had seen serious combat in decades, and they just weren’t up to speed.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani government was rightfully concerned that if the Soviets took over Afghanistan, they might well be next.  Especially if Russia could talk their other hostile neighbor India into helping.  So they were all too ready to arm the freedom fighters, directly delivering the aid and training provided by funds from America and Saudi Arabia.  However, they had very strong ideas about what kind of mujahedin they wanted to support, and their favoritism helped sow the seeds of discord after the war.

Which leads us to the Arab volunteers who came to Afghanistan to fight alongside their Muslim brothers in a jihad against the foreign and officially atheist invaders.  At the time, they were only interested in throwing out people who had come uninvited and unwanted.  Even Osama bin Laden almost certainly had no clue that in twenty years’ time he’d come to think that crashing airplanes into civilians was a good idea.  It’s emphasized that the Arab volunteers had no direct contact with the CIA or other American forces.

The closing section looks at why this particular operation was so successful for the U.S., what happened to the people of Afghanistan after the world turned its eyes away. and how we ended up in the Afghanistan mess we have today.

There are no maps or illustrations, but there are extensive endnotes and an index.  The writing is a bit dry but informative, and the writer’s biases don’t get in the way.  Recommended for those who wonder what’s up with Afghanistan, and fans of the movie Charlie Wilson’s War

Book Review: An Accidental Abduction

Book Review: An Accidental Abduction by Roderick Cyr

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

An Accidental Abduction

Katy Byrd is from small-town Minnesota, and seeking a deeper relationship with Jesus and her Christian faith.  She accompanies her father on a (“non-denominational” but later specified as evangelical) mission trip to Morocco to help out a struggling local church community.  She get separated from her group and is kidnapped by terrorists.

Azir Ahmed was turned on to radicalized Islam in college, and has joined AQIM.  Despite his admiration for some of their goals, he’s really not down with the terrorism part of being in a terrorist organization, and is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with their violent actions.  When a foolish AQIM hanger-on kidnaps an American, Azir is assigned to guard the prisoner until the organization can figure out to capitalize on the situation.

While this book was self-published, the subject matter and treatment indicate that it’s meant for the Christian young adult market.  The writer for this market faces difficulties beyond the normal ones facing a YA writer, since certain topics are off limits or required to be presented in a specified way–without, one hopes, turning off or boring the young readers who are the target market.  Not everyone can handle this balance.  I regret to say that this is not a very good book.

The positive:  The basic plot idea is a good one; I like that the abduction is not planned, but a bungle by someone who only has a job in AQIM because his big-shot cousin was required to take him in.

I like that it’s not an “insta-conversion” story with the Sinner’s Prayer and an altar call, and a minor atheist character is not depicted as a sneering villain.  And if you wish, you can read it as non-supernatural, with the placebo effect of prayer, and some amazing coincidences.

Less good:  This book desperately needs an editor.  The  prose is clunky, there are spellchecker typos, and there is a lot of extra verbiage dedicated to telling, not showing.  This is especially evident in the first chapter, which is a prime example of what TV Tropes calls “character shilling.”  A secondary character spends most of the chapter extolling the virtues of the main character in order to impress the reader as to why they should like Katy.  (Pro tip: starting by listing all the superlative qualities your heroine lacks does not make it not character shilling.)

It takes about a third of the book to get to the main plotline, and the early chapters feel padded.  For example, there’s an attempt to build suspense with an untrustworthy-looking bus driver that goes absolutely nowhere–there’s not even a sigh of relief that he turns out not to be untrustworthy.

There’s also a weird political digression where the president of the United States is depicted as not being willing to help Katy because her father might possibly have voted against him in the last election, and only publicly identifying as Christian for political purposes.  The book is very careful not to mention the president’s name or skin color, but since the story is set in 2015, the odds are slim it’s Joe Biden.  (Shades of the “secret Muslim” canard.)

It’s also kind of weird that a cute white girl being kidnapped by terrorists somehow doesn’t cause a feeding frenzy by the American media–in real life, the parents would have been constantly harassed by opportunistic reporters and paparazzi.   Here, only the local media are interested, and then only after Katy is partially rescued.

Fatal:  Azir, a fervent Muslim, is gobsmacked by the concept of a merciful god that forgives sin.  He’s never heard of such a thing before!   This would seem to indicate that he has never read the Koran, the first verse of which describes God as merciful, and which goes on to describe God’s mercifulness and forgiveness of sins several times.  Nor has he ever seen a list of the ninety-nine names of God, which include “the Merciful.”

Slightly less untenable is the treatment of Allah and the Christian God as two separate entities; from the Muslim point of view, they’re the same being, the Christians are just worshiping Him wrong.  This should be even more evident as Azir and Katy are conversing in French,   In that language, the word for both “God” and “Allah” is “Dieu.”

It’s also notable that Katy, who’s been spending her spare time studying the Bible, seems never to have read Job or Ecclesiastes, with their perspectives on the problem of suffering.  Another odd bit is when her pastor uses his Christmas sermon to talk about how Jesus’ birth should influence lives in the present day, and this is treated as unusual, when it’s a standard pastoral topic that comes up every Christmas in most churches.

(There’s also a bit of gender essentialism when it’s just assumed that men going on a mission trip will be doing construction work while the women cook and clean, without checking to see if their skill sets lend themselves to that.)

So, no, I cannot recommend this book.  It needs a total rewrite with a good editor to bring out the good book that is buried in there.

Book Review: A Curious Man

Book Review: A Curious Man by Neal Thompson

Disclaimer:  I received this volume free from the Blogging for Books program, on the premise that I would write a review.

This is a biography of Robert Ripley (nee LeRoy Robert Ripley), the cartoonist who created the Believe It or Not! feature.  I was fascinated by the paperback reprints of the cartoons back in my boyhood, but knew little of the story behind the creator.

A Curious Man

This volume covers Mr. Ripley’s life from barefoot poverty in Santa Rosa, California, to his early career as a sports cartoonist, through his discovery of a love for bizarre factoids and the creation of his famous comic strip to his worldwide fame.    He became a world traveler, a millionaire, star of radio and newsreels and knew many beautiful women, all for doing something he enjoyed immensely.

Of course, he also had his faults; Mr. Ripley was a heavy drinker, sexist, racist by our current standards (though progressive for his time), could not keep it in his pants, and had a tendency to fudge facts about his own life the way he didn’t the stories in his cartoons.  He also became a more difficult person towards the end of his life as his health failed and his drinking and overwork caught up with him.

The story of Ripley’s life is told in mostly chronological order,  with little “Believe It!” factoids about the people and places mentioned.  There’s also the story of various supporters of Ripley; most importantly, Norbert Pearlroth, Ripley’s main research person who found many of the factoids that appeared in the comic.  (He actually stayed with the strip longer than Ripley himself!)

There is a black and white photo section in the middle, but if you have a smartphone, you can download an app with audio and video clips from Mr. Ripley’s many public appearances.  For those of you with multimedia capability, this will make the book a much better value for money.  There are extensive end notes and an index as well.

This biography benefits from the very interesting person at its center, and I would recommend it to any Believe It or Not! fans.

Movie Review: The Crusades (1935)

Movie Review: The Crusades (1935)

It is the 12th Century, and the Holy Land has been seized by the Saracens, under the command of Saladin (Ian Keith).  Crosses, Bibles and other Christian symbols are burned, and the Christian inhabitants of Jerusalem taken into captivity.  A hermit (C. Aubrey Smith) confronts Saladin and declares that he will call a crusade.

The Crusades (1935)

Sure enough, we next see the hermit at the court of King Philip of France (C. Henry Gordon), who accepts the call to go on crusade against the infidels.   But first he must secure his kingdom against invasion, so it’s off to England to marry his sister Alice (Katherine DeMille) to her betrothed, King Richard the Lionhearted (Henry Wilcoxson.)

Richard, as it turns out, is a boisterous fellow who enjoys hanging with his bros and participating in violent sports in preparation for serious fighting.  He especially loves harassing his minstrel friend Blondel (Alan Hale), who fights back with joking rhymes.  Richard is in no mood to get married, especially to the dour Alice.  To be honest, Richard is kind of a jerk who cares little for God.

So when the hermit arrives to call the crusade, Richard is lured not only by the thought of combat, but by the fact that the pledge of the crusader overrides all others, including arranged betrothal.  The hermit can tell that Richard’s motives are not pure, and warns him that he’ll be humbled, but accepts his pledge nonetheless.   Richard is less enthused that Alice has taken the crusader’s oath as well and will also be going to the Holy Land.

Meanwhile, Prince John conspires with the Marquis of Monferrat.  It would serve them both well if Richard did not return to England.

When Richard’s troops arrive in Marseilles, he discovers that he really should have brought more gold with him, as the King of Navarre (George Barbier) isn’t taking IOUs for his cattle and grain.  A reluctant bargain is struck; Richard will marry Navarre’s daughter, Berengaria (Loretta Young) in exchange for the supplies.  Richard sends his sword to the wedding ceremony as a stand-in, which ticks the bride off no end–she wasn’t keen on an arranged marriage in the first place, and the groom can’t be bothered to even show up for it?

The next morning, Richard finally sees Berengaria and realizes that she’s the hottest woman in Europe.  He pretty much abducts his reluctant bride to the Holy Land with him.

Richard’s actions create discord among the assembled crusader kings, especially drawing the enmity of King Philip, who is understandably infuriated by the insult to his sister.  Richard and Berengaria’s relationship is also pretty rocky; she’s coming to admire his moxie, but still considers him a jerk.  And Saladin also is taken by Berengaria’s beauty, adding more intrigue to the mix.

This highly romanticized tale of the Third Crusade was directed by Cecil B. DeMille.  This is most obvious during the exciting scenes of the siege of Acre, with war machines and hundreds of extras battling it out by and on the walls of the city.  There’s also a wonderful set piece with the Crusaders arranged on stairs, trying to get a glimpse of the True Cross.

By this time, the Hays Code had come in, so the violence is relatively subdued, and the sexual overtones are considerably reduced.  (Doesn’t stop Berengaria from having a dress that clings to her curves, mind you.)

After an ugly scene at the beginning where Christian women are sold into slavery, the Muslims aren’t shown as being particularly bad people, just militarily opposed to the crusaders.   Saladin himself is a noble fellow, and a worthy opponent to Richard.  (Indeed, he winds up negotiating peace with Richard, and returning the captured Berengaria, allowing Richard to keep his vows without further violence.)

The treatment of women in the movie, however…they are persistently treated as property and bargaining chips.   Alice is more or less okay with this.  She’s fiercely devoted to protecting France by marrying the King of England (whoever that might turn out to be) and maintains her dignity throughout.  Berengaria is much less pleased, and it takes her most of the film to reconcile herself to Richard.

Richard, on the other hand, goes from a self-centered jerk who doesn’t care about the consequences of his actions on other people, to a humbled warrior who is willing to pray to God for aid, and abide by treaty.

As a movie, this is a fun, well-shot, well-acted film.   However, it’s very much Hollywood history, and should not be taken as at all a serious examination of the Third Crusade so much as a romantic epic.

For another romanticized look at the Third Crusade, see my review of The Boy Knight by G.A. Henty.

 

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