The medieval setting has always been a treasure trove mined by movie producers all across the world, and the brave knights of the silver screen go off in search for the holy grail that is a good story, and more often than not, the object of their desire eludes them.
And speaking of holy grails, that is the focus on what Knightfall is all about. This History Channel production is set in the 13th century, and follows a small squadron of Knights Templar, led by Sir Landry, a knight of somewhat mixed virtue in their search for the Holy Grail (or the cup in which Jesus held as he broke the bread at the Last Supper) in which they lose at the siege of Acre (about 100 odd years after Richard The Lionheart took the damn city), thanks to the forces of the Sultan of Egypt. 15 years later, the Holy Grail somehow surfaces again, conveniently in the fair, beautiful country of France.
The premise is distinctly average, with as much appropriation of the Arthurian legend incorporated into a historical setting, that as far as the first episode goes, seems to be more window dressing than a central plot device. The main character, Ser Landry, played by the totally-not-French Tom Cullen, is almost as interesting as watching paint dry. The rest of his entourage are equally British in cast, and just as dull. But then again dull zealotry is probably something one ought to expect out of knightly orders anyway. As with every show set in this period, there’s the obligatory scandalous sex scenes, as well as the obligatory feasting, splendor and that scheming Littlefinger-wannabe.
Visually, it's pretty cringeworthy- ramping is used time after time for every quarrel, sword thrust, and couched lance. Then there’s the baffling choice of a shot of the character’s speaking inside their helmets. In addition to this, the CGI isn’t clean, and you can see it on the image.
If one thing the showrunners are ambitious, with plans to add novels and comic books into the franchise, in their words, to expand the rich world of the series. To give credit where credit is due- but the show is highly unlikely to be captivating enough for more than a few novelty comic issues and limited run paperbacks.
Knightfall isn’t even bad enough for it to be ‘so-bad-that-it’s-good’- it’s that its distinctly average; it fails to inspire any sympathy for its heroes and just feeling like an exercise in box-ticking. So far it seems like it is manning the battlements for a real series that never quite emerges. The only reason I had the chance to watch it, was that I was curious enough to see what sort of historical fiction shows were on offer (that isn’t the Vikings).
Historical Context: The Knights Templar
The Knights Templar's rise and fall and their legacy have been the staple of many books, games and movies from many writers and creators across the Western world. Their rise from humble and impoverished origins, to their glorying peaks of wealth and riches, and their swift and fiery fall thanks to the machinations of European politics makes for great drama.
The Knights Templar were initially founded under the name Poor-Fellow Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, but the use of the "Knights Templar" became common parlance for the many common soldiers and the occasional noble scion who would end up in its ranks- and those who joined swore monastic vows.
Their initial duties were simply to serve as watchmen and safeguard the passage of Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land, who were vulnerable to the highwaymen and bandits of the desert whilst they made the long overland journey from the port of Jaffa to the holy city of Jerusalem.
However, their reputation as tireless and reliable defenders of Christendom grew back in the mainland Europe, and they had an influential advocate in the person of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (who is best known for his aphorism "the road to hell is paved with good intentions") and he praised these knights in the same way that music journalists today would at swoon and gush at emerging superstars. Soon they were inundated with donations and high-born volunteers who had their own cash. And tireless and reliable defenders they were, as they engaged in the Muslim Saracens in various battles, and scoring many a victory through the fearsome, heavily armored warriors who rode on equally armoured horses.
With this new-found wealth, they bought farms, vineyards, got involved in manufacturing and trade, whilst building great stone castles across the Outremer (the part of the Middle East that is now Israel). At one point in history, they even claimed ownership of the island of Cyprus. They would also accidentally become bankers as pilgrims would often deposit valuables in the treasury of the Templars, who would in turn issue promissory notes worth equal to the valuables stored. The Templars, thus can lay claim to being the world's first multinational corporation.
However, the riches, glory and praise were not to last long as the 12th century loomed. The Saracens, now united by a skilled and charismatic (and likely blonde, blue-eyed) leader in the form of Saladin whilst the Christian princes who held titles and lands in the area were engaged in behaviour they knew well back at home- fighting and bickering amongst each other. Meanwhile, the Knights Templar had to contend with new rivals, such as the Knights of St. John (or better known as the Knights Hospitaller) and the Teutonic Knights. In the end, at close of the 13th century, they would lose all of their holdings in the Middle East.
The wealth of the Templars was to bring their downfall. The King of France, Phillp the Fair (as depicted in Knightfall by Ed Stoppard, son of the famed playwright), who was in heavily debt to the Templars, and decided to find a way to get out of this prickly situation. An arrest warrant was issued towards the Templar's grandmasters, and several confessions (under duress) later, they were all charged with all sorts of trumped up charges and sentenced to burning at the stake. As for the property of the Templars, they were passed over to the Knights Hospitaller, who would go on to do a much better job at fighting, holding out until the 18th century as Napoleon, the famed French general, besieged Valletta on the island of Malta.
Today, the Templars are best known as fodder for conspiracy theories- not helped by their depiction as a secret New World Order organization in the Assassins' Creed video game series.