Fifteen year old Dolf Vega (Joe Flynn) blows Holland’s chance at winning the junior league football championships, but sees an opportunity for redemption in the experimental time machine being developed in top secret by his scientist mother (Emily Watson). Aiming to journey back to yesterday and win the game, Dolph accidentally catapults himself back to the 13th Century, where he is saved from bandits by the beautiful and tough Jenne (Stephanie Leonidas).
Jenne and her young friends Little Thies (Mykola Allen), Bertho (Luke Gell) and Maria (Amy Jenkins) are part of a children’s crusade, with eight thousand youngsters led by the charismatic Nicholas (Robert Timmins) on their way to free Jerusalem from its Moorish occupiers. Armed with 21st century wits and know-how, Dolf helps the children defy the terrible mountains, conquer disease and fight evil knights. Gradually he begins to realise the real danger is the crusade itself and that the duplicitous Father Anselmus (Michael Culkin) is using them all as pawns in a horrifying plan.
Written in 1973 by Thea Beckman, Kruistocht in Spijkerbroek (Crusade in Jeans) is one of the most popular Dutch children’s novels and its film adaptation was in development for years. Shot in English, the film has a real epic sweep with striking locations, authentic costumes and production design, plus special effects that belie its $12 million budget. In dealing with one of the most shameful episodes in Medieval History, veteran filmmaker Dutch filmmaker Ben Sombogaart - an Oscar nominee for Twin Sisters (2002) - has produced a thoughtful, intelligent children’s movie that uses its outlandish premise to examine the difference between genuine faith and the way religion is abused as a means of exploitation and manipulation.
Far removed from a sugar-coated Walt Disney vision of history, this exposes the pampered teen hero to the dirt, disease and hardship endured by children seen as little more than commodities in Medieval Europe. At times it’s downright grim, as sympathetic child characters succumb to illness, violence, or are eaten by wolves, yet the events feel authentic and make for powerfully emotive drama, including surprising hints of sex and sword-fighting action. Although a more positive religious figure is embodied in kindly, travelling monk Thaddeus (Benno Fürmann), this highlights instances where the holy keep marching even when children start dropping dead, or partake of lavish banquets in pristine white tents while others lie starving in the mud. Only the characterisation of Nicholas is fumbled, as the makers seem unable to decide whether he is a naïve pawn, genuine saint or schemer.
There are more light hearted episodes where Dolf delights the younger children with a Mars bar, teaches them how to play football and leads them in a chorus of Queen’s “We Are the Champions”, before trading his MP3 Player (“a troubadour in a box”) for grain to bake bread. What impresses is, despite Dolf using 21st century smarts to treat fever or make gunpowder, the makers downplay the super-heroic qualities displayed in the novel in favour of a more believably vulnerable hero, whose idealism proves both hindrance and help. Even though the much younger (and shorter) Carolus (Jake Kedge) trains him how to use a sword, it’s rock-slinging Jenne (a character not in the original novel) who proves more capable in a fight. The expected teen romance is well-handled and proves affecting. Young British leads Joe Flynn and Stephanie Leonidas (who played Mina in the BBC’s Dracula (2006)) are excellent and Emily Watson registers strongly as Dolf’s mother, who in a neat twist researches her son’s exploits in historical documents. Lookout for Udo Kier as her duplicitous project sponsor. A superior children’s movie, this deserves a more widespread DVD release.