Right after I started this blog, a friend of mine asked me to review Arn the Templar Knight (2010, dir. Peter Flinth, Swedish and English with subtitles). The film is based on a trilogy of novels by Jan Guillou. It was filmed in Sweden as two films, Arn the Knight Templar and Arn—the Kingdom at Road’s End, in 2007 and 2008, and then edited into a single film in 2010. The two films together comprise the most expensive film production in Swedish history, and was a fairly big deal over there. The composite version is the one I saw (it’s available on Netflix). So, Sam, this one’s for you.
The film’s story is fairly complex, which is unsurprising for a film that covers three novels’ worth of history. Half the film follows Arn and his adventures in the Holy Land, while the other half follows Cecelia, Arn’s love, and later events in Sweden. Because both halves require some historical background to understand, I’m going to cover the Arn/Holy Land portion of the film in this post, and later this week I’ll cover the Cecilia/Sweden portion of the film.
What Happened in the Holy Land in 1187
In the 1180s, the Kingdom of Jerusalem was a thriving Western European state along the Levant, the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. Since the First Crusade at the very end of the 11th century, Western Europeans had controlled the narrow coastal strip running from Antioch down to Jerusalem. But the Franks, as Europeans living in the Holy Land were broadly known, never possessed a deep population base, and had to be extremely cautious in the way they confronted Muslims efforts to retake the region, because military losses could take decades to replenish.
After the death of King Baldwin IV from leprosy in 1185, the crown of Jerusalem ultimately passed to his sister Sybilla, whose husband Guy de Lusignan became king. Guy was deeply unpopular in Jerusalem; he was from the lower nobility, was a comparatively recent arrival to the kingdom, and had quarreled with Baldwin not long before his death. Efforts had been made to exclude him from the throne, but these had failed because of Sybilla’s loyalty to him. As a result, Guy was eager for a major military success to help secure his control over the kingdom.
In May of 1187, Saladin found a justification for breaking his peace with the Kingdom of Jerusalem and invaded, laying siege to Tiberias. Guy’s chief political rival, Count Raymond of Tripoli, advised Guy to just wait things out, recognizing that Saladin was unlikely to be able to hold Tiberias even if he captured it. But Guy was suspicious of Raymond, who had recently signed a treaty with Saladin, and decided to make a risky gamble. Saladin’s forces were around 30,000 men, and the only way Guy could manage to match that was by calling up virtually every soldier in the kingdom, including most of the Templars and Hospitallers, who were the elite troops of the Crusader States, for an army of around 20,000 men.
Guy made the strategic mistake of leading his army across a dry, dusty plain at the height of the Middle Eastern summer; he was encouraged to do this by Gerard de Ridefort, the Grand Master of the Templars. His army was unable to reach water by nightfall, and eventually took up a position on a low mountain known as the Horns of Hattin, where Saladin promptly encircled the Frankish force. Guy’s army spent an uncomfortable night without water, and Saladin made things worse by having fires set around the base of the mountain, so that the smoke would increase the Frankish discomfort.
Early on the morning of July 4th, Guy made the decision that he had to launch an attack, despite his men being exhausted and parched. The result was predictable; the Franks were badly routed. Guy, Gerard and many other nobles were captured, as well as most of the Templars and Hospitallers. Most of those who were not captured were killed, with only a few thousand Franks escaping, although Raymond of Tripoli was one of these.
Saladin spared the lives of both Guy and Gerard, but joyfully ordered that all the other Templars and Hospitallers be beheaded by elder Sufis; since these old men were not soldiers, most were not particularly skilled with their swords, and the result was a fairly gruesome mass execution.
Having lost most of its manpower, the kingdom of Jerusalem was largely defenseless, and in the next few months, Saladin proceeded to capture most of its territory, including Jerusalem itself. Only the arrival of the forces of the Third Crusade prevented the wholesale destruction of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
What Happens in the Film
Early on in Arn the Knight Templar, Arn de Gothia (Joakim Natterqvist) and his beloved Cecilia (Sofia Hellin) are rightfully accused of fornication and falsely accused of incest by a malicious bishop, who forces Arn to join the Knights Templar for 20 years and Cecelia to enter a Cistercian abbey. There are problems with this, but I’ll save that for the other part of this review. Arn travels to the Holy Land where he becomes a famous knight (the Muslims call him ‘Al Ghouti’, apparently a corruption of ‘de Gothia’) and unintentionally saves the life of Saladin (Milind Soman), who is traveling incognito and is attacked by Muslim bandits. Because of this, Arn and Saladin develop a friendship of a sort despite being on opposite sides.
The whole chronology of the Holy Land part of the film is unclear, perhaps because this film is two films edited down into one. The Holy Land sequences all seem to be happening in 1187, after Arn has apparently been there for 20 years. Saladin sends Arn a message warning that he intends to capture Jerusalem, and offering to let Arn and the Templars leave unharmed. Arn meets Gerard de Ridefort (Nicholas Boulton), who hates him for unspecified reasons, when Saladin’s messenger is captured and refuses to speak to anyone except Arn. The historical Ridefort became Grand Master in 1184, but when Arn meets him, there is another Grand Master, who protects Arn from Ridefort’s hostility.
Arn warns the Grand Master that Saladin is planning to attack, and persuades him to ambush Saladin’s forces at Montgisard, routing Saladin and forcing him to retreat. The major problem here is that the battle of Montgisard happened in 1177, and the commander was not Arn or any other Templar, but King Baldwin IV.
As a result of this victory, the Grand Master gives Arn “discharge papers”, a problem I’ll come back to. Then somehow Ridefort becomes Grand Master; again, perhaps the problem is in the editing. Ridefort decides to launch an attack on Saladin at Hattin, despite Arn’s warning that there is no water there. Ridefort rips up Arn’s discharge papers, thus forcing Arn to either participate in the battle or be a “deserter”.
The film presents the battle of Hattin as involving only Templars, rather than the combined forces of the kingdom, and makes it appear to be entirely Ridefort’s decision, rather than Guy’s. In fact, the film suggests that the kingdom of Jerusalem is basically just the Knights Templar; there isn’t even a mention of a king, other nobles, or any politics at all. So Hattin becomes entirely Ridefort’s responsibility, not Guy’s.
The Templars camp on a flat plain, rather than a mountain, and apparently set no guards, because Saladin’s men sneak up to the camp, light it on fire, and attack, killing everyone except Arn, who is spared because Saladin happens to notice him just before his head is about to be chopped off. Saladin has him nursed back to health and lets him leave the Holy Land for his eventual reunion with Cecelia. Saladin repeats the canard that the First Crusade butchered everyone in the city of Jerusalem in 1099, even though this accusation was debunked years ago by the scholar Benjamin K. Zedar, but the charge was widespread even in the Middle Ages, so it’s not historically inaccurate for Saladin to make the claim.
So while the film gets the broad outlines of Hattin correct (it was based on a bad decision, the troops had no water, Saladin set fires, and Saladin won), it gets most of the details wrong (King Guy and the Franks aren’t involved at all, Ridefort makes the decisions, the battle happens on a plain, Saladin burns the camp). It ignores the mass execution of the Templars after the battle (although back in Sweden, a character does tell Cecelia that all the Templars died). In general, the film relies on a popular, but in my opinion inaccurate, depiction of Saladin as a remarkably decent man in an age of violent xenophobes. But since Saladin isn’t really a major figure in this film, I’ll save that discussion for another movie.
Back to Those Discharge Papers
The film, and presumably Jan Guillou’s novels on which it is based, seems deeply confused about monasticism; this is a problem in the Cecelia portions of the film as well, but in this post I’ll just focus on his depiction of the Templars. The film seems to imagine the Knights Templar as a sort of modern army, which one enlists in and is eventually discharged from. The Swedish bishop sentences Arn to 20 years in a monastic order, and he winds up joining the Templars and going to the Holy Land. After 20 years, the Grand Master gives him “discharge papers” that will allow him to leave, but Ridefort rips them up and tells Arn that if he wants to leave, he will have to desert. Early in the film, while Arn is growing up at the Cistercian abbey of Varnhem, he meets Brother Guilbert, a former Templar who is now a Cistercian; evidently this man was also discharged from the Templar Order. Guilbert trains him to fight.
However, medieval monastic orders did not function like modern monastic orders or like the modern military. In the later Middle Ages, joining an order was always, at least in theory, a voluntary action. In the early Middle Ages, children were sometimes given to a monastery and required to stay in the order as adults; this had become much less common by the 12th century, as had the occasional practice of forcing defeated nobles or kings into monastic orders as a way of forcing them out of politics. Bishops could impose crusading as a penance for a sin, but to the best of my knowledge, they could not force a layman to join a monastic order. (I’m willing to be proven wrong on this point, but I don’t know of any example on this from the period in question). And the Templars were a monastic order, not a volunteer army.
But even if a bishop could force a man to join the Knights Templar, there’s a bigger problem. Entry into a monastic order was understood to be a permanent change in a man’s life. Such a ‘conversion’ (as it was often termed) was one-way. Having joined a monastic order, a man was a monk forever. He swore an oath that was considered permanently binding. Monks were sometimes permitted to relocate from one monastery of their order to another, and in some cases they were permitted to move from a more relaxed order to a more strict order. This generally required authorization by a bishop; perhaps Arn’s trainer had political connections that enabled him to get permission to become a Cistercian. Women were sometimes permitted to leave to get married, but this again generally required episcopal permission, and was granted to politically important families.
So when Arn joins the Templars, he’s never going to be discharged; he’s going to die a Templar. Perhaps he could get transferred from the Holy Land to a European house of the order, but he’s not going to be allowed to ‘become a civilian’. Even if such a thing were possible, he would certainly need dispensation from a bishop, which he’s not going to get because literally the only bishop in the whole film is an evil Swede who hates him. So when Arn returns to Sweden, he does so as a deserter. More precisely, he does so as an “apostate”, the technical term for a monk who has broken his oath and fled his monastery. This would have given the evil Swedish bishop exactly the excuse he needed to thwart Arn and Cecelia’s happiness, because he could have ordered Arn back to the Templar Order forever.
Finally, it’s important to remember that in the 12th century, it was thought that monks and nuns lived lives much more pleasing to God than those of the laity. When they died, they were assumed to have a much better chance of reaching Heaven; many nobles and kings joined monastic orders, particularly the Templars, very late in life, to get an extra boost toward salvation. Arn’s choice to leave the Templars would have seemed very strange to his contemporaries. But the film makes clear that pretty much Arn’s only motive for his actions is to be reunited with Cecelia. It’s really sort of creepy; Arn and Cecilia have a one-night stand and spend the next 20 years obsessively thinking about each other. But I suppose since they’re both in monasteries, they don’t get much chance to date.
While we’re on the subject of the Templars, there’s also a small issue that bugs me. The Templar cross was a red equilateral cross, like this:
But for some reason, the film generally depicts the Templars wearing a red cross with a white one superimposed on it , like this:
It’s a small point, but it irks me. I can’t see why some costume designer thought that this cross was better than the real thing, especially given how well-known the Templar cross is. (As ‘Miguel’ points out in the comments, the film’s cross is a genuine heraldic cross, but not one that Templars in this period would have used.)
In the next post, I’ll look at the material in Sweden, and come back to some of the same themes I’ve touched on here.
Note: An earlier version of the post misspelled “Cecilia” as “Cecelia”. The mistake has been corrected.
Want to Know More?
Arn: The Knight Templaris available on Amazon.
As I mentioned, it’s based on Jan Guillou’s Crusades trilogy: The Road to Jerusalem: Book One of the Crusades Trilogy; The Templar Knight: Book Two of the Crusades Trilogy; and Birth of the Kingdom: Book Three of the Crusades Trilogy.
There are lot of really bad books on the Templars. As a general rule, anything that connects the Templars to the Holy Grail is full of shit. As another general rule, books on the Templars that weren’t written by Helen Nicholson, Jonathan Riley-Smith, or Malcolm Barber are probably not worth spending time on. Try Nicholson’s The Knights Templar.