Having seen English-language films about the Crusades in the past, it is fascinating to see films from the Arab perspective. Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine’s epic Saladin the Victorious tells the story of Saladin (Ahmed Mazhar) and his efforts to reclaim the throne of Jerusalem for Arabs in the Third Crusades. First battling with Reynald of Châtillon (Ahmed Louxor) before meeting the combined forces of King Richard I of England (Hamdi Geiss) and King Philip of France (Omar El-Hariri), the film is a story of considerable nuance. Considering Western portrayals in classic cinema tend to paint one-sided accounts of the Crusades and the desperate attempt to claim Jerusalem for Christendom, to see Saladin the Victorious, one could not be blamed for expecting the opposite. Yet, while it holds firm that Jerusalem is an Arab land, it follows Saladin’s words that “Jerusalem is for all,” with this humanity extended throughout its portrayal of the battle between Arabs and Europeans to control this wonderful city.
Chahine’s film is particularly compelling when portraying the two sides of this battle. The childish and greedy Reynald is a clear foe that Saladin has no qualms in dispensing with, seeing him as the savage he is because of Reynald’s thoughtless slaughtering of innocent Muslim pilgrims. In Richard the Lion Heart and Philip, however, Saladin finds vastly different opponents. As Saladin preaches understanding, acceptance, and love, Chahine juxtaposes it with the manipulation of Christianity underway on the European side. Those like King Philip, Conrad, Marquis of Montferrat (Mahmoud El-Meliguy), Princess Virginia (Leila Fawzi), and Duke Arthur (Zakia Tulaimat) see this as not a Holy War, but as a chance for glory. Philip needs a win to keep rebels at bay in France. Arthur wants to topple Richard to place Prince John on the English throne. Even Saladin’s ranks are infested with glory hounds and warmongers such as the Prince of Acre (Tewfik El Deken) who will sell out anyone if it means he gets to continue to rule Acre. It is these kinds of men and women who prolong and provoke these conflicts to enrich themselves with either wealth or empires. All the while, it is the peasants, soldiers, and citizens who suffer with their blood spilt in the sand, their homes destroyed, or with starvation taking hold.
For an epic, Chahine takes considerable time away from showing battles or strategic planning to show this human element. Early scenes of Muslims in the then-Christian held Jerusalem trying to survive on scraps of bread and contaminated water set the tone for the film. The battles are relatively brief, marked by shots that follow arrows in stomachs and freeze frames on the moment of impact as Crusaders and Arab alike clatter to the ground with blood all over. This is not an ideological film. It admires Saladin considerably, but it admires Richard, too. The latter will take some winning over, but the heart is there. He, early on, professes that he wants the land for Christians and not for his own glory. Unlike his French counterparts, he recognizes that the continuation of the war is largely to build the glory of the leaders while it will be the soldiers who die, whether victory is attained or not. Focusing on these two leaders, both in their considerable prowess in battle and their thoughtfulness that makes peace a possibility if cooler heads can prevail gives Saladin the Victorious great feeling, nuance, and humanity. It damns neither side, just those who seek to profit from bloodshed. The film wistfully imagines a world where Christians and Muslims alike can turn to Jerusalem as the holy city it is, celebrating together with no animosity between them. As thrilling and powerfully told as Saladin the Victorious can be, this sentimental streak and its eye toward hope is its lasting impact.
Chahine demonstrates his filmmaking skill in many ways in Saladin the Victorious. His considerable attention to detail is a highlight, exemplified in a crucifix worn by the European Louisa (Nadia Lutfi) that Christian Arab Issa (Salah Zulfikar) is later shown wearing, which brings considerable feeling especially considering the burgeoning romance between the two. The visuals are impressive- a battle sequence where the Crusaders climb over a city’s wall and wash over the Arab soldiers that is cross-cut with shots of waves crashing in the sea is a stunning poetic connection and a testament to the power of montage in Saladin the Victorious. This same visual style comes into play as Louisa is charged with treason by Virginia and, in Saladin’s camp, the Prince of Acre is charged with the same. At first cross-cutting between the trials for both and juxtaposing the way in which Conrad preaches “sacred hate over love” and Saladin preaches “love above all”, the scene transitions in a way that, in truth, I have never seen before. The lights turn out on the European side, covering Conrad in darkness in the mid-ground, then Richard in the background, and leaving Louisa illuminated in the foreground. Turning into a play-like set with Louisa still illuminated on the right-hand side but with the Arab trial now occurring on the left-hand side of the frame, it is like a stage brought to life. Lights turn on from the Arab side, Saladin speaks, and then the lights turn out and that side of the frame freezes with Richard taking over on the right. It is one of those inventive and absolutely magnificent cinematic tools that stops a viewer dead in their tracks. Thematically, it is brilliant. Chahine draws a clear connection between the two leaders before they are narratively brought together, demonstrating their compassion in the face of so much greed amongst their ranks. Self-reflexive in revealing the set, the scene lands full force, especially once Chahine moves into cross-cutting close-ups of the two men as they are edited in such a way that it appears they are conversing. It is marvelous and indicative of the greatness brought to Saladin the Victorious by Chahine.
An epic, Saladin the Victorious delivers thrills and politicking as any classic epic should. However, it is a film with a lot more on its mind than battles. The film seeks to bring out the philosophy of Saladin, but also that of peace. It believes in the sanctity of Jerusalem and that anyone who uses religion as a reason for slaughter is as dangerous as those who use war to line their own pockets or to attain power. Humane, nuanced, and filled with genuine love, Saladin the Victorious is a triumphant and powerful experience. Tremendously directed and staged with all the splendor needed for such a large-scale film, this is a testament to the quality of film coming from Egypt and the impressive skill of Youssef Chahine. As one of his films that has recently been restored to its full glory, Saladin the Victorious is a woefully underseen and essential piece of filmmaking.