The trouble with being a British, non bilingual fan of the late Polish film director Andrzej Wajda is that you can be rather limited in the opportunities of seeing much of his work. But even so, his 1968 film Gates to Paradise should be much more accessible to the likes of me than it actually is, because Gates to Paradise was a film Wajda made in English, using familiar actors such as Lionel Stander of Hart to Hart fame, a young and luminescent Jenny Agutter and the original silver fox Ferdy Mayne, yet for some reason it has become an obscure and forgotten production to English or Western audiences - as evinced by the fact that there are only 7 other users on Letterboxd who have logged it as watched.
The only copy I could find was on YouTube which allowed me the somewhat surreal practice of witnessing an English language film dubbed into German, with English subtitles! This print is also missing ten minutes of running time (the original version is said to be 89 minutes long) though I don't think anything was truly lost narrative wise from these cuts - I suspect the edit may have removed some erotic scenes as the film seems a trifle coy about some of the issues relating to sex (and specifically homosexuality, incest and paedophilia) that it subsequently raises.
Gates to Paradise is another collaboration between Wajda and the writer Jerzy Andrzejewski (Ashes and Diamonds, Innocent Sorcerers) and it was adapted by the latter from his own novel published in 1960. published in 1960. An exercise in constrained writing, Andrzejewski's novel consists of 40,000 words written in just two sentences, possessing little to no punctuation. The second sentence I believe contains only four words "And they marched all night". Let's just say I'm glad they made a film because I doubt that would be on the top of my reading list!
Both the novel and the film tells the story of the Children's Crusade of 1212, which purported that, in either France or Germany (the accounts differ and Wajda and Andrzejewski seem to take a little from both here) a boy began to claim that he had been visited by Jesus and told to lead a peaceful Crusade to Jerusalem, whereupon he would convert Muslims to Christianity without bloodshed. It is said that his preaching gained a considerable following from children around his own age, estimating around 30,000 in number. The boy subsequently led his followers south towards the Mediterranean Sea, in the belief that the sea would part on their arrival, allowing him and his followers to march to Jerusalem. Upon arriving at the sea, which failed to part, the young crusaders began to look for an alternative means of passage. By this point many of the group had succumbed to fever, exhaustion, starvation or injury, but the remaining survivors were sold to merchants, believing they would receive free passage to their destination. However, it is said that some of the adults in the group betrayed the children and they were in fact sent to Tunisia and subsequently sold into slavery by the merchants. However, it is worth pointing out that modern historians argue that it is unlikely that either account is wholly truthful and that, as with most folkloric traditions, the whole affair has been deeply mythologised for whatever reason.
Wajda's film focuses on Lionel Stander's turn as a guilt-wracked former crusader turned monk who accepts the church's order to join the Children's Crusade, led by a shepherd boy Jacques de Cloyes (John Fordyce) to hear their confessions and give it his blessing. Each confession reveals more on more of about the Crusade and ultimately why it is doomed to fail; Jenny Agutter's Maud is a virginal village girl who admits that the reason she joined the Crusade is not for spiritual matters, but because she is utterly besotted with the blonde and handsome Jacques, who does not even register her presence. A second confession from farm boy Robert (Dennis Gilmore) reveals he is there because of his own unrequited love - with Maud, and that he could not bear the thought of her leaving and being alone. The flighty and vivacious Bianca (Pauline Challoner) is obviously the least spiritual child and soon admits that her motivation stems from her own feelings for Jacques and the desire to bed him simply to spite Maud. But the most devastating confessions to the nameless monk's ears come later, in the form of Alexis Melissen (Mathieu Carrière) and Jacques himself. Both of which centre on the powerful landowner and former crusader, Count Ludovic de Vendôme (Ferdy Mayne).
Alexis hails from Greece and was spared in a massacre led by crusaders which saw the death of his parents. Adopted by Count Ludovic, the pair develop a deeply incestuous relationship that blurs the line between father and son, and lovers. Coming of age, Alexis learns that it was Ludovic himself who killed his parents and the pair become briefly estranged. Riding his land, Ludovic comes across Jacques and he tutors him on the meaning and purpose of the Crusade and to rid paganism from the Holy Land, before becoming intimate. Seeking his father/lover, Alexis also happens upon Jacques who is shelters Ludovic and denies knowledge of the man. But Alexis sees through the lie and promptly meets and sleeps with Bianca, seemingly to spite Ludovic. Caught in their tryst, Ludovic becomes angry with the boy before taking himself to the river whereupon he commits suicide by drowning - watched by an unmoved Alexis.
Upon hearing these confessions, the monk realises that no one's motivations is as pure and spiritual as was first thought and that Jacques has in fact mistaken the voice of God for the words Ludovic shared with him during their night together. Since the inspiration for the crusade stems from an ordinary man, the monk knows that their efforts are not God's will and that they must all fail; the titular 'Gates to Paradise' will be death. However, he proves unable to stop the tide of children from moving forward pursuing their own paths under the collective allusion of religion and is left behind, helpless to avert disaster.
Gates to Paradise is an interesting film for two reasons; the first, it allows the homosexual Andrzejewski the chance to fully acknowledge and write about his sexuality perhaps for the first time (it's worth pointing out that Tadeusz Łomnicki, star of Wajda's 1960 film Innocent Sorcerers, wanted to play the part of the bleach blonde mod Andrzej as bisexual, as a nod to Andrzejewski's, one of the film's scriptwriters, own homosexuality). The second is because of the inherent parallels both he and Wajda draw out relating to Communist Poland at the time. Like the crusade depicted, the regime fed off the idealistic naivety of its participants, whilst at its heart what in fact powered the ideology was the moral corruption and self-interest of those leading the way. It's a parallel that I imagine was lost on the atheist Soviet authorities who preferred to take the tale at face value; discrediting the blind faith that religion (which, along with capitalism, was its biggest rival for the hearts and minds for the people) brought about.
Ultimately, Gates to Paradise is a desperately sad story, not just in the truth that paradise eluded the children as they either died or became slaves (Wajda doesn't even depict such fates, he simply leaves it to a concluding narration over the hopeful progress of his ensemble, making it all the more starker) but because its central message is the desperation of unrequited love and how such an intense emotion can lead to tragedy and disaster.