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I’ve long been fascinated by the so-called “Children’s Crusade,” historically described as a peaceful march to Jerusalem launched around the year 1212 by a charismatic teen Christian who traveled from town to town in medieval France and Germany, recruiting young people to accompany him to the site of Jesus’ grave because “God told me to.”

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Differing (and highly disputed) accounts have ascribed various motivations and intended goals to the children, but the generally accepted story is that the young people (aged from toddlers to teens) believed that their God-driven mission was to liberate Jerusalem from control by the infidels (Turks and Muslims), armed only with their peaceful intent, love, and innocence.

IE just by the kids showing up on Jesus’ grave (in numbers said to be anywhere from 3,000 to over 20,000), Christianity would rule the Holy Land, a goal that had long been sought via violent and murderous means thanks to that bygone brou-hah-hah known as the Crusades.

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Polish writer Jerzy Andrzejewski wrote a 1960 novel about the Children’s Crusade, which was adapted as the screenplay for 1968’s La Croisade Maudite, aka Gates to Paradise.

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Directed by Polish auteur Andrzej Wajda, the obscure gem unfolds as a sort of 13th century Road Trip, with youthful hormones and selfish impatience trumping nearly all of the (supposedly) pious preoccupations of their handsome leader Jacques (blonde heartthrob John Fordyce, constantly and comically running his fingers through his Beatlesque moptop).

What makes the storytelling so intriguing is how each of the main characters tells their own tale in the form of (frequently alarming) confessions to the one adult accompanying the children, a former Crusader turned monk who seeks to atone for the many murderous sins he committed while still a knight.

The monk is portrayed by Lionel Stander, who years later would play Max on the TV show Hart to Hart, here resembling an unfortunate amalgam of Yogi Berra and Buddy Hackett.

Thusly, we end up seeing the same events through several different POVS, each slightly askew from the others ala Rashomon.

In one notable case, the biographical story told to the monk by the somewhat devious beauty Blanche (egged on by her apparent boyfriend Alexander) differs radically from the more truthful account that we get to see in her private thoughts and recollections.

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Blanche is skillfully portrayed by the almost impossibly beautiful Pauline Challoner (seen above and below), best known for the vintage Titanic drama A Night to Remember and the highly regarded (and stunningly ahead of its time) 1969 Spanish horror classic La Residencia, aka The House That Screamed, said to be one of Dario Argento’s main inspirations for Suspiria.

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Blanche at first appears to be the one teen who holds all the pieces of the puzzle that led to the beginning of the Children’s Crusade.

However, only after several more accounts are unfolded via the recollections and confessions of the other children closest to Jacques does it become clear what REALLY sparked and drives the seemingly endless march on Jerusalem.

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Among the cast is a very young Jenny Agutter (Logan’s Run), shortly before she was hired by Nicolas Roeg to star in the woefully obscure lost-in-the-Australian-outback epic Walkabout (1971).

As the supposedly devout and pious young maiden Maud, she pours her heart out to the audience while hanging from a tree (oddly presaging a similar scene in Walkabout), revealing that she’s in love with the kids’ charismatic leader Jacques – as is just about everyone else at the front of the parade, males and females alike, including/especially Blanche’s sexually omnivorous boytoy Alexander (Mathieu Carrière).

Is Maud’s obsession with Jacques and her determination to always march at his side the only reason she’s on this pilgrimage? What about Blanche's and Alexander's likeminded libidos? Or have they too been called upon by God to free Jerusalem?

The latter notion seems backed up by the fact that none of the kids were willing to follow Jacques until MAUD spoke up and defended his vision, in a passionate life-changing speech that we can only see, not hear, with powerfully persuasive words that – for some unexplained reason (divine intervention?) - not a single one of the children can remember.

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Agutter is most prominently featured in the first half hour of the film, though she’s instantly upstaged within her own flashback when Pauline Challoner’s flirtatious character Blanche skips into the frame and announces her intent to make love to the reclusive and handsome shepherd Jacques (the libidinous goal of just about everyone other than the adult monk, who becomes increasingly horrified by the ungodly hormones raging all around him as the march progresses).

Challoner would play a similarly rebellious teen the following year in The House That Screamed, continuing an intriguing body of work that dates back to playing a somewhat Carrie-like “killer kiddie” in a 1961 episode of the TV thriller One Step Beyond called “The Tiger.”

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A breathtaking beauty (imagine a younger and even more lovely Brigitte Bardot, or perhaps Ewa Aulin from the 1968 Ringo Starr film Candy, only with actual acting chops), the accomplished British actress would make around two dozen films before retiring in the mid-‘70s, despite winning several acting awards and earning herself a small but devotional cult of admirers.

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As Blanche, Challoner goes through the most far reaching character arc of the film, eventually revealing herself to be a pretty decent, if typically amorous and confused, teen.

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She’s even seen comforting her one-time romantic rival Maud as inclement weather beats down on the presumably tired and hungry horde, as well as helping Maud climb a particularly daunting rocky hilltop.

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The only other adult among the major players is seen only in disturbing but revealing flashbacks, the manipulative and predatory Count (Ferdy Mayne, later cast by Roman Polanski as Krolock in Dance of the Vampires).

Director Andrzej Wajda, an honorary Oscar winner, did several mildly religious/historical dramas, including Pilate and Others (1972), Holy Week (1995), and The Promised Land (1974), as well as some wonky takes on classic literature such as Siberian Lady Macbeth (1961). He’s probably best known for his war movie trilogy - A Generation (1954), Kanał (1956), and Ashes and Diamonds (1958) – and for The Maids of Wilko, which in 1979 was nominated for an Academy Award.

Rarely seen or screened for over 40 years, I recently discovered Gates to Paradise has been uploaded in its entirety to YouTube (see below). Unfortunately, the dialogue has been overdubbed in German, but the print does feature English subtitles.

If I’ve piqued your curiosity about this obscure cinematic gem, I highly recommend that you check it out. Be warned, however, that the subject matter becomes increasingly mature - some might even say sordid - in ways I tried to avoid mentioning so as not to incur spoiler alerts.

Though starring and ostensibly about children, Gates to Paradise is definitely NOT a children’s film.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lI-O0EtRB20


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Famous Movie Poster Rejects You've Never Seen Part 1: Private collection of movie poster designs published exclusively on the Reader website for the first time ever: Batman, Witches of Eastwick, Supergirl

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Part 2: The Fly, Vamp, Fright Night, Howard the Duck, Stallone: Over the Top, Ladyhawk

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Part 3: Horror film Near Dark, horsey drama Phar Lap, the Robert DeNiro/Albert Brooks sleeper Midnight Run (still under its working title Running Scared when these two posters were mocked up), 3D cartoon Starchaser: The Legend of Orin, Airplane-style comedy Bad Medicine (with Steve Gutenberg and Julie Hagerty), and war story Hamburger Hill.

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Part 6: Horror comedy Return of the Living Dead, Force III, Meatballs III, plainclothes cop thriller Off Limits (Willem Dafoe, Gregory Hines), sci-fi McDonald’s commercial Mac & Me, the Diane Lane potboiler Lady Beware, UK comedy Mr. Love, Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle, Walter Bannert’s German-language Austrian film the Inheritors, the Dudley Moore/Eddie Murphy flop Best Defense, Richard Donner’s Inside Moves, William Peter Blatty’s Ninth Configuration, adventure flick Tai-Pan, German musical the Frog Prince with Helen Hunt, and the Rosary Murders.



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