BOOTLEG FILES 524: “Gates to Paradise” (1968 drama directed by Andrzej Wajda).
LAST SEEN: The film is on YouTube in a German dubbed version.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A half-forgotten film from one of Poland’s great filmmakers.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: I would love to see the English version in release.
One of the most peculiar events in the history of medieval Europe was the Children’s Crusade. This crusade was actually a pair of unprecedented occurrences that reportedly took place in the year 1212. One of these involved a French 12-year-old named Stephen of Cloyes, who claimed that Jesus Christ directed him to lead an army of children to liberate Jerusalem from Turkish control. At the same time, a German boy named Nicholas also rallied a small army of children with an identical goal. Both Stephen and Nicholas promised their respective followers that the Mediterranean Sea would part for them, allowing a dry passage to the Holy Land. Once in Palestine, the sheer strength of their faith plus the power of the Man from Nazareth would overpower the Turks.
In both cases, the children met with tragedy. Many of the French children reportedly died of hunger and illness on their march to the sea, which obviously did not part for them. Two merchant seamen allegedly offered them passage to the Holy Land, only to sail the children into North African ports, where they were sold as slaves. (Two of the ships of the seamen’s fleet reportedly sank in a storm while crossing the Mediterranean.) The German children fared just as miserably, dying in droves while attempting to cross the Alps on their way to the Mediterranean. Some of the children supposedly found sanctuary in the homes of Genoa, while others made it to Rome and received a papal audience. The fate of Stephen and Nicholas was not recorded, but Nicholas’ father was reportedly hanged by the parents of the children who died in the ill-planned crusade.
You may have noticed that I keep saying words like “reportedly,” because some historians have placed a great deal of skepticism on the events related to the Children’s Crusade. Indeed, the notion of two near-identical but unrelated child-level movements occurring at the same time seems a little unlikely. But if historians were not comfortable in accepting this story as fact, many creative artists were inspired by the extraordinary dramatic possibilities presented in the concept of innocent children marching to their doom in the name of Christ.
Among those that embraced the story of the Children’s Crusade was Jerzy Andrzejewski, a Polish novelist who used this event as the basis of his experimental novel “Gates of Paradise.” Published in 1960, “Gates of Paradise” was unusual because the book consisted exactly of two sentences: the first covered some 40,000 words in a challenging, punctuation-free stream of consciousness flow, while the second consisted of a mere four words.
Andrzejewski’s most famous work was “Ashes and Diamonds,” which was adapted into an acclaimed film by director Andrzej Wajda, who was a great admirer of “Gates of Paradise.” Alas, Poland’s state-run film industry was highly uncomfortable about financing a film version of “Gates of Paradise” – a motion picture with an overtly Catholic theme and a subversive homosexual subplot did not correspond with the basic tenets of Communist bloc cinema. Wajda received permission to travel abroad to create “Gates of Paradise,” and his hunt for backers brought together a shaky consortium of British and Yugoslavian financial sources. However, this required the film (now called “Gates to Paradise”) to be shot in English on Yugoslavian locations with a multinational cast and crew with whom he had no previous connection. Wajda would later regret the circumstances that went into the film’s creation.
“I had trusted my most intimate dreams to a group of chance people – producers, actors, technicians – who reduced them down to match their own tastes and sensibilities, leaving me absolutely helpless,” Wajda later stated.
But, quite frankly, Wajda may have been unusually harsh on himself. “Gates to Paradise” is actually a compelling and often disturbing film that brutally dissects human nature, revealing a complex web of jealousy, pettiness, dishonesty and delusion. By setting this against a religious crusade and making the main characters a group of seemingly innocent children, the result is purely astonishing.
“Gates to Paradise” takes place during the French Children’s Crusade, with the young leader dubbed Jacob of Cloyes. Jacob (played by British juvenile actor John Fordyce) is a tall, lean, strikingly handsome youth with a rich head of blonde hair. He rarely smiles, yet his physical beauty (accentuated by tight pants and an open vest over his shirtless upper torso) makes him stand out.
Jacob’s crusade travels through the countryside, and it is clearly a weird sight to behold: scores of children, many carrying wooden crosses, some dressed as angels, others dressed like miniature soldiers, follow Jacob in solemn and near-silent pursuit. This march is viewed by an ex-Crusader who became a monk (American comic character actor Lionel Stander, in a rare dramatic leading role), and he is intrigued by the movement to join up, appointing himself the confessor for the children. The rest of the film consists of flashback stories in which the would-be crusaders admit how they wound up on the road to Jerusalem.
The first child to seek confession is Maud (a young Jenny Agutter), who admits her infatuation with Jacob. She tells the monk that she joined the crusade only to be close to Jacob. It seems that Maud’s mania for Jacob is noticed by nearly everyone – only Jacob seems oblivious to her pining.
Maud is followed into the open-air confession by Robert (British actor Denis Gilmore, a one-time Disney juvenile). Robert is in love with Maud, but she is uninterested in him. When Maud leaves to follow Jacob, Robert abandons his family and his work obligations to trail Maud, convincing himself that he will protect her against any dangers that may occur.
The next child to confess is Blanche (British actress Pauline Challoner). She comes from the same village as Maud and is also infatuated with Jacob. But Blanche is mean to Maud, taunting and insulting her for being afraid to approach Jacob. But when Blanche tries to seduce Jacob, he angrily rejects her. Not one to let her sexual appetite go without nourishment, Blanche agrees for a quickie romp with Alexis, the protégé of a local nobleman. She ends their tryst by admitting she was thinking of Jacob while making love – and, to her astonishment, Alexis says he had the same thoughts. (Blanche later makes amends for her casual cruelty by sheltering Maud from the rain with her robes.)
Alexis (German actor Mathieu Carriere) is the next in line for confession. He was born in Greece, but his parents were killed by Count Ludovic of Vendome (German actor Ferdy Mayne) during a Crusade. The count took Alexis home and raised him, naming him as his heir. But the count’s interests were not entirely paternal – by the age of 14, Alexis was being used as the count’s sexual plaything. Alexis later discovered the count visiting Jacob’s hut. Infatuated with Jacob and jealous that the count felt the same way, Alexis became a mess of raging emotions. When the count fell into a river during a riding accident, Alexis refused to save him, dooming the aristocrat to a watery death. But his newly inherited wealth left him empty, and he joined Jacob in the hope of winning the crusade leader’s love.
The monk is, not surprisingly, angry to learn that the children at the head of the crusade are not participating for any genuine religious purpose. He demands that Jacob comes up for confession. And, good reader, at this point I will stop my synopsis – to tell you what occurs in Jacob’s confession would ruin the film’s emotional impact.
For 1968, “Gates to Paradise” was a fascinating challenge to the notion of youthful innocence and sincerity – not to mention a bold slap at religious piety. At a time when the youth generation openly questioned the hypocrisy of their elders, Wajda’s angrily questioned whether younger people were in any position to make lofty statements on the values of others. But the monk was hardly a pillar of virtue, as the film’s denouement gives the impression of someone without moral or intellectual authority to bring about his vision of religious justice.
When “Gates to Paradise” was first presented, it was criticized by Polish writers for failing to capture the avant-garde magic of Andrzejewski’s novel; Poland’s Communist government banned it from theatrical release. Oddly, it was barely shown elsewhere – outside of a Berlin Film Festival screening, it received scant European distribution. Perhaps the film did not catch on because it was perceived as being anti-Christian and/or anti-youth, or maybe its unapologetic gay subplot left audiences cold and uncomfortable. I am not certain if it ever received an American theatrical release – to date, the original English-language version has never been made available in any U.S. home entertainment format. (There are German and Russian DVDs available.)
“Gates to Paradise” can be seen on YouTube in a German dubbed version with English subtitles that appears to have been copied off German television. This print is adequate, although about a dozen minutes were cut from the original edition; the subtitles have more than a few distracting typos. Nonetheless, the unauthorized YouTube posting is the only way to experience this curious and interesting production.
Wajda would always insist “Gates to Paradise” was a failure. I beg to differ, and I truly hope that someday this film receives a proper reconsideration. In many ways, this is one of the finest works of Wajda’s prominent output, and one of the most surprising works of late-1960s cinema.
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