If you have never seen The Seventh Seal – then watch it. A tortured medieval knight is played by a very young Max von Sydow, who you may have seen in The Minority Report and other movies. In this scene, he plays a game of chess with Death in order to remain alive. It’s a Swedish movie with subtitles but don’t let that put you off.
I will be appearing as a guest several times in a special edition of Forbidden History devoted to exposing the secrets of the Knights Templar. Presented by Jamie Theakston and broadcast on UKTV/Yesterday TV, Forbidden History asks the questions you have all been dying to know the answers to.
I will be discussing:
- The trial of the Knights Templar in 1307
- Pagan rituals that may have become part of the Templar rites
- How did the Templars become so rich, so quickly?
- Were the Templars influenced by eastern ideas?
- Did they reject church authority?
- Why was such violence used to put down the Templars?
- The way in which the order was wiped out
Here are ten movies with great medieval battles!
The first is the Battle of Montgisard in 1177 where the leper king of Jerusalem Baldwin IV managed to defeat a numerically superior Saracen force. Here’s how the movie Arn portrayed it. An incredible crusader victory!
Ten years later and Saladin turned the tables on the crusaders defeating them at the Horns of Hattin – depicted in the movie Kingdom of Heaven. A miserable crusader defeat!
This is a mythical medieval battle from Game of Thrones but really brings the sights and smells plus unmitigated horror of conflict to your screen. The Battle of the Bastards!
Scotland and England were forever at war with each other in the Middle Ages and some believe the Knights Templar helped the Scots at the Battle of Bannockburn. Here’s Mel Gibson and a lot of men in kilts killing the English.
The 13th Warrior is about a Muslim young man forced to live among the Vikings in the Dark Ages. This movie has its fans and detractors in equal measure. I loved it. It’s trashy and confused but I come back to it again and again.
More Vikings – why not? This time from the History Channel.
This takes us 100 years after the Templars were suppressed to the life of Joan of Arc leading her French army to defeat at the hands of the English. She would later be burnt at the stake.
Before Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings was giving us a mythical take on the Middle Ages.
Maleficent – another fantasy set in an imaginary medieval kind of landscape. Didn’t happen of course but the battle scene is interesting nevertheless.
And finally – a battle that really happened between the Russians and the Teutonic Knights – on ice! This is an old black and white movie but a fantastic music score, amazing atmosphere and released shortly before the Russians went to war for real with Nazi Germany. So just imagine how terrified audiences in Moscow felt.
A detective thriller set in a medieval monastery. This genre bending story from the pen of Italian author Umberto Eco had “make me into a movie” written all over it.
And so it came to pass that Sean Connery (the first James Bond) and a very young Christian Slater played the roles of priest and young assistant investigating some murderous goings on among Italian monks. The movie of the book was a runaway success and if you have never seen it, please download it as a top priority.
Umberto Eco was something of a post-modernist, which is not necessarily a good thing in my world view. But he redeemed himself with some gripping tomes. Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum are the most memorable. In the former book, Brother William of Baskerville and his assistant Adso must find out why monks are being bumped off.
But this being Umberto Eco, William is also the embodiment of a new type of thinking that was emerging in the Templar period. He is clearly influenced by Thomas of Aquinas who was, to put it crudely, fusing Christianity with the philosophy of Aristotle. He is a friend of Occam and follower of Bacon, thinkers at this time who took an almost scientific interest in getting to the truth.
The medieval world that Eco reveals is bursting with new thoughts but it’s also corrupt, violent and frankly very sinister. This leads us to William’s antagonist, a Dominican friar and Inquisitor called Bernard Gui – who really existed. He is the face of the official church – intolerant and prepared to resort to any measures to protect its wealth and privilege.
It’s men like Bernard Gui who will destroy the Knights Templar, prepared to torture and burn in the name of the faith. Their only raison d’etre was to defend ecclesiastical power. And they understood the deadly power of ideas that could undermine the church. In real life, Gui had taken on the Cathar heresy in France that had threatened to overthrow papal authority in that kingdom.
I won’t plant any spoilers in this blog post – watch and find out what happens!
Arn Magnusson – our heroic knight – hails from West Gothia and is hopelessly in love with Cecilia. Needless to say they are torn apart from each other and Arn’s quest is not just to be a great knight but also to be reunited with Cecilia.
I have one small sartorial quibble about Arn and that is the cross emblazoned on his white mantle. To me, it more closely resembles the later cross used by the Order of Christ in Portugal after 1314 – over 150 years after Arn would have been alive. The Order of Christ was what the Templars became in Portugal after they were dissolved. The Templar cross was simpler.
Key facts about Arn:
- He is part of the Swedish Folkung aristocratic dynasty, a family originating from Östergötland in the south of the country
- Arn grows up in a Cistercian monastery. This order of monks were very closely related to the Templars, so much so that the Templars have sometimes been referred to as their military wing. The biggest spiritual influence on the knights was a Cistercian abbot in France called Bernard of Clairvaux who led a very severe and self-punishing existence
- Arn has to become a Templar as penance for having premarital relations. It is true that some knights had committed crimes and sought to redeem themselves in the order by fighting for Christ in the Holy Land
- Arn meets Saladin, the great Saracen leader, but is then instrumental in defeating him at the Battle of Montgisard. Unfortunately, Saladin would later inflict an even worse defeat on the crusaders and Templars at the Battle of Hattin
- Arn making friends with Saladin may seem far fetched but the Templars were later accused of being on way too cordial terms with the Muslim enemy, something used against them at their trials from 1307 onwards
- The movie about Arn is based on a trilogy of novels by Jan Guillou, an author and journalist who also writes spy fiction
Here’s a reminder of what a great movie Arn is:
When a Templar movie has the strapline – heavy metal goes medieval – you might want to think twice about pressing the play button. But I’m a brave person and persevered.
The movie starts with ‘bad’ King John (boo hiss) signing Magna Carta but then being a treacherous so-and-so, he seeks retribution against the barons who have humiliated him.
John brings over foreign soldiers to England to fight his enemies – who include the Templars. Actor James Purefoy – who you may recall played Mark Antony in the HBO series ‘Rome’ – is a brooding Templar.
Charles Dance plays an excommunicated Archbishop who seems to be wearing Tudor costume in a movie set three hundred years before – must have been a slip up in the costumer department. Brian Cox plays a baron called Albany who delivers some of the unintentionally funniest lines in any historical movie I’ve watched. “You are no more a king than the boil on my arse” is pretty silly and not an isolated case.
One castle stands in the way of King John and his mercenaries – Rochester. So potty-mouthed Albany with the blessing of excommunicated Archbishop and broody Templar Purefoy ride off to Rochester to stop King John getting any further. King John, by the way, is played by Paul Giamatti which kind of works.
When they get to Rochester, some of King John’s mercenaries have already arrived and taken up residence. Needless to say that Albany and Purefoy kill them all, arteries severed with gusto and blood literally spurting all over the furniture in the Great Hall. I felt sorry for the servants who’d have a devil of a time getting all those stains out of the woodwork and tapestries.
The baron is charge of the castle is played by Derek Jacobi who metaphorically chews the furniture in his usual manner. He’s none too happy with his new guests who are defying the king. But the baron’s young and rather good looking wife takes a shine to the Templars, particularly Purefoy. Shame they’re celibate, a bitchy old servant points out. However we will soon discover that the Templars were capable of some laxity in the trouser department.
The king arrives at Rochester with a huge mercenary army and Albany/Purefoy must defend it which they do with unbelievable carnage. If you like watching heavy swords cleave bodies in two then you’re in for a treat. I can’t believe one reviewer on a movie website complained that you couldn’t see the violence! There was more than enough for me thank you very much! Needless to say that this battle makes the point that one Templar is worth about a hundred ordinary soldiers – they’re like medieval superheroes.
I’m not going to spoil the rest of the movie for you but it’s not the stinker some have suggested. If you’re in to this period of history, get the popcorn in and forgive some of its shortcomings.