Arn: The Knight Templar (2007; US DVD release 2010)
Directed by Peter Flinth. Screenplay by Hans Gunnarsson, base on the Crusades Trilogy by Jan Guillou
The most expensive film ever made in Scandinavian, with a budget that exceeded thirty million US dollars, “Arn: The Knight Templar” is an epic masterpiece that rivals many US films of far greater cost such as “Braveheart,” “Gladiator,” and “Kingdom of Heaven.” In fact, comparing it to Ridley Scott’s 2005 epic “Kingdom of Heaven” would seem appropriate, since the two stories cover the same period and place, at least in part, as Saladin, the Kurdish Muslim and masterful tactician, leads his army against the Knights Templar and other Christian defenders of Jerusalem who took control of the city during the Second Crusade. The two films overlap, but from different points of view. Arn tells a much greater story of which his years in the Holy Land are only a part.
In fact, the film draws on the heroic trilogy by Jan Guillou about Arn Magnusson: “The Road to Jerusalem,” “Arn: The Knight Templar,” and “The Kingdom at the End of the Road.” The film combines elements of all three books to weave a coherent tale. As a young man, Arn is whisked away to a monastery where he comes under the care of a former Knight Templar. This man sees Arn’s natural abilities as a warrior and trains him. Meanwhile, tensions grow between Arn’s family as supporters of the King and the Sverkers, who claim their own right to the throne.
Returning home, Arn defends the family honor against a supporter of the Sverker claim, entrenching their enmity. He also falls in love with Cecelia, who is betrothed to the Sverker king-apparent. The lovers defy the wishes of all around them, and Cecelia becomes pregnant. For their crime in this strict age and place each is sent into religious life for twenty years. Cecelia enters a convent run by a Sverker. Arn is made a Knight Templar and goes to war.
In 1187 Arn saves Saladin’s life and the two sworn enemies become respectful friends. It does not affect either man’s determination to fight for his side, but it causes Arn antagonism among several of his fellow knights, especially when his own brilliant tactic stalls Saladin’s march on Jerusalem. At a subsequent battle, however, the Muslim army has the upper hand and the Templars are all but destroyed. Through Saladin’s respect, Arn is saved and eventually allowed to return home, his twenty years‘ penance finished..
Once home he reunites with Cecelia and tries to make a life for himself as a farmer. But once again history intervenes. The Sverker King, with the aid of a Danish army, marches against the true King, Erik. Arn leads the resisting army. Again, his tactical brilliance saves the day, but he is mortally wounded in the conflict and dies, a few days later, in his wife’s grieving arms.
The film ends with the historical footnote that Sweden and Norway soon unite, largely due to Arn’s success at the Battle of Lena. Arn, of course, is fictional. But the Battle of Lena did happen, and King Sverker was killed there and the Swedish throne protected.
The international cast (the film has passages in Swedish, French, Arabic and English) is headed by the most attractive pair of actors: Juaquim Natterkvist as Arn Magnusson and Sophia Helin as Cecelia portray their characters as strong willed, determined people who are ready to endure twenty years of absence and abstinence, and whatever dangers are thrown at them for just the chance to be reunited.
This is the American version, released on DVD in 2010. As it is, it is deeply romantic, powerfully sad, and filled with amazing action sequences. But when you watch the two extra documentaries on the DVD, you realize that this is only half a film, or less. It turns out that the concept for Arn was originally to be a mini-series on television but was so grand that it was released as two movies in Scandinavia, each about 2 ½ hours long. Although the editing for the American release is flawless and presents a complete story line, seeing references to what we missed makes one wish he or she could see the entire project as intended. The richness of detail, the missing pieces, the longer timeline all make the film we do not see even more compelling. As careful as the American version is not to let dangling loose ends show, the wealth is missing. Some critics have hinted that the filmmakers had very little confidence in Americans’ ability to stay the course in what would have been a much more character driven than action driven film.
One example of the missing pieces is the arrival of Richard the Lionheart to spearhead the Third Crusade, toward the end of Arn’s experience as Christian defender of the Holy Land. We have the opportunity to see the honor and dignity with which Saladin deals with Arn and with the problem of satisfying his own people’s blood lust for revenge. The contrast with Richard is never shown us, although in the extended version of the film Lionheart’s brutality against his enemy is made clear. Another example is a true dangling subplot. When Arn returns home he comes back with a small assortment of Crusaders like himself. They sort of come and go in the US version. In the full version we get to understand that they are craftsmen of various skills, including weaponry, which would play nicely into the final battle.
But we cannot quibble. Since there is no plan at this time to release the full two movie version in America we will have to content ourselves with half a movie. Half of this movie is far better than most films their creators thought to be complete.