- Saracens Abroad:Imagining Medieval Muslim Warriors on the Silver Screen
Despite describing Islam as a false faith and an outrage to God, medieval Europeans showed an acute interest in their Muslim counterparts. In literature, this curiosity about the world of Islam manifested itself in the central role often assigned to Muslim—or Saracen—characters. From the twelfth century onwards, Saracen knights and princesses became stock characters of chansons de geste and romances. Today, we find ourselves understandably more concerned with modern Muslims than with their medieval forebears. Nevertheless, the Saracen knight still appears occasionally on the silver screen. In this essay, I wish to explore five films featuring this figure: Cecil B. DeMille's The Crusades (1935); The Black Knight (1954); Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991); Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993); and Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven (2005). Each of these films portrays the Saracen knight in a very different light, and my goal lies not only in juxtaposing and contrasting these popular products but, further, in suggesting some of the ways in which they part from the medieval tradition of representing the Muslim Other.
Of the several different kinds of Saracen characters found in medieval European literature—categories include the converted Saracen knight, the Saracen Sultan, the Saracen princess, and the Saracen giant/ess—the converted Saracen knight lies closest to the majority of modern representations of medieval Muslim warriors.1 Powerful and capable of great prowess, the Saracen knight initially poses a terrifying threat to the Christian hero. For example, in the fourteenth-century Old French chanson de geste Baudouin de Sebourc, the soon-to-be converted Caliph of Baghdad orders the Christian community to make mountains move on pain of death. Often, the Saracen knight is convinced of the truth of Christianity either through witnessing a miracle—as is the case with the Caliph of Baghdad—or through defeat at the hands of the Christian hero. In both Fierabras, a twelfth-century Old French chanson, and its fourteenth-century Middle English [End Page 5] translation, The Sultan of Babylon, Fierabras chooses to convert to Christianity after his defeat in single combat. Once the Saracen knight has converted, he is not only assimilated into Latin Christian society, but also seen as more worthy than knights born into the faith. Thus, both the Caliph of Baghdad in Baudouin de Sebourc and Fierabras in Fierabras and The Sultan of Babylon show their deep allegiance and devotion to their Christian lords: the Caliph of Baghdad rescues Baudouin when the latter is about to be attacked by another Muslim lord, and Fierabras stands by Charlemagne when Ganelon attempts to betray him. In those rare instances where worthy Saracen knights do not convert to Christianity, such as in Le Roman de Saladin, the fault lies in the flawed nature of the Christians he encounters. Throughout most, if not all, of these works, the converted Saracen knight bears witness to the grace and power of God. At the same time, the popularity of the figure also betrays a very real desire for the conversion of the Muslim Other.
As might be expected, twentieth-century American film audiences encountered a rather different version of the Saracen knight than the one outlined above. I will begin with a brief discussion of Cecil B. DeMille's 1935 spectacular The Crusades. Though certainly not the earliest motion picture to deal with the topic of the Crusades or to feature medieval Muslim characters, The Crusades stands out both for its lavish fictionalization of the Third Crusade and for its emphatic anti-war message. Set against the background of the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187, The Crusades begins in Jerusalem itself before turning to Europe, where the kings of England and France, Richard the Lion Heart and Philip Augustus, take the cross. The necessary romantic subplot is set into motion when Richard's arm is twisted into marrying the daughter of King Pancho of Navarre, Berengaria, in exchange for livestock to feed his army. The rest of the film is divided between epic scenes pitting Muslims against Christians and Berengaria's interaction with Richard and Saladin, both of whom fall in love with...