Saturday, January 22, 2011


Grand Master Gérard de Ridefort was beheaded by Saladin in 1189 at the Siege of Acre.

For decades, Hollywood’s perception of the Templars began and ended with George Sanders’ suave villainy as Sir Brian de Bois-Gilbert in Ivanhoe (1952). Apart from perennial inferior remakes of Scott’s saga, the Templars did not get much of a look-in until the 1970s when Spanish director Amando de Ossorio brought the order back to life as zombies in his Blind Dead movies.

            And then came George Lucas. There is a theory that the Jedi knights in Star Wars (1977) are thinly disguised Templars and that their massacre (in 2005’s Revenge of the Sith) is a reference to the destruction of the order in 1307. There are rumours that in the original script the knights were known as Jedi Templar. The Jedi, like the Templars, were warrior monks whose behaviour was governed by a code. And the Templars–through their supposed association with the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant–are often credited with mysterious, even supernatural powers which, some Star Wars aficionados insist, resembles the Force that the Jedi knights must master.

            More easily identifiable Templar and Grail myths came to the fore in two Steven Spielberg blockbusters that Lucas produced: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). And these created something of a genre, being followed by the confused Dolph Lundgren thriller The Minion (1998), the entertaining Indiana Jones clone National Treasure (2001), the baffling Revelation (2001), Christophe Gans’ horror movie, Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001), and Ridley Scott’s sword and sandal epic, Kingdom of Heaven (2005). Not to mention the movie version of The Da Vinci Code (2006).

            The Blind Deadmovies (1971–75)

            The Blind Dead series kicked off with Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971) in which the Templars–known only as Knights of the East but identifiable from their garb–are brought back from the dead as blind mummies. Slow, creepy and bizarre–the zombie-Templars are blind so they hunt by sound–the film was successful enough for Ossorio to make three more: Return of the Blind Dead (1973), The Ghost Galleon (1974) and Night of the Seagulls (1975). The series inspired a New York punk band called The Templars.

            The Indiana JonesTrilogy (1981–89)

            ‘All of a sudden, whoosh, it was gone.’ That remark by one of the US intelligence officers who recruits Indiana Jones to save the Ark from the Nazis pretty much sums up what we know about the fate of the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). The Ark was supposed to make armies invincible–hence Hitler’s interest–though it mysteriously failed to prevent the occupation of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and, in Spielberg’s version of history, by the Egyptians too. This first film in Steven Spielberg’s series bases its plot on the historically nonsensical proposition that the Ark was taken to Egypt by Pharaoh Shishak, which if true would have made it impossible for the Templars to have made off with it two thousand years later, as some would have us believe.

            The third film in the series, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), has a suggestively Templar theme and features a scene in which the weary Templar-like guardian of the Holy Grail looks forward with quiet relief to ending his 800-year watch. Jones (Harrison Ford) and his father (Sean Connery) combine to prevent the chalice falling into Nazi hands. Even though the sets are full of eight-pointed stars and talk of chivalrous knights abounds, the Templars are not mentioned once. Instead we get a secret military order called the Knights of the Cruciform Sword.

            But the story does capture the Grail’s mythic significance. When the heroes and the villains find the cave where the knight keeps watch over the hidden treasure and the Holy Grail, the knight warns them to choose wisely. The shallow, mercenary villain picks the blingiest goblet and dies. Indy, who has no real interest in the Grail but knows his father is obsessed by it, drinks from a plain wooden cup–the kind of cup a carpenter might have, he suggests–and it heals his troubled relationship with his father. In spirit, the denouement is consistent with Eschenbach’s poem Parzival–a vague source for this movie–which suggests that you have to be truly selfless to be worthy of the Grail.

            The Minion(1998)

            The budget for this film was $12 million. A pity they did not spend a cent on research. Dolph Lundgren is a butt-kicking Templar monk with a spiked leather glove whose sacred duty it is to do what the Templars have always done and stop a key that has kept the Anti-christ imprisoned for thousands of years from falling into the wrong hands. The laughs start as soon as Françoise Robertson’s Native American archaeologist stares at some skeletons in a hidden chamber in New York and decides the Templar garb they are wearing was made in Ireland in the sixth century. Although ostensibly a Templar, Lundgren fails to point out that she is six hundred years out. The idea that the order was founded in the twelfth century, we are told later, is merely conventional wisdom. There are rumours, we are assured, that the Templars may have started a thousand years before and, the film suggests, it may even have been started by Saint Peter. After such revelations, we barely pause to wonder how a bunch of warrior monks in Jerusalem come to be wearing Irish weave and ended up in New York. It is those Templars, you see. They can do anything.

            National Treasure(2001)

            Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, two thirds of the trinity behind The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, suggested in their book The Temple and the Lodge that the Knights Templar survived their dissolution by hiding in Scotland and centuries later, as Freemasons, plotted the independence of the United States. The seductive idea of a Templar-mason continuum was first floated in France in the 1740s, by Scottish-born Freemason Andrew Michael Ramsay, and provides the slender hook for this Indiana Jones-style adventure in which Nicolas Cage–and eventually his dotty dad Jon Voight–seek the lost Templar treasure with the aid of a map some Templars thoughtfully drew, in invisible ink, on the back of the Declaration of Independence. The clues seem inordinately complex, as if a Templar Einstein had conceived them for other Einsteins to crack. And there is no credible reason for the treasure to be in America at all–other than box-office takings. The film also goes into the business of unfinished pyramids and all-seeing eyes as found on American dollars being masonic symbols.


            A sacred artefact from the time of Christ, missing for centuries, suddenly turns up in the back of a camper van and becomes the focus for a struggle between good (billionaire Terence Stamp, his son James D’Arcy and alchemist Natasha Wightman) and evil, personified by a 2000-year-old demonic Grand Master (Udo Kier) who is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after watching Christ’s crucifixion. The artefact is a wooden box, containing the first coded reference to Christ on the cross, which has since had all kinds of arcane graffiti carved on it. The Templars protected the box and its explosive secret but Kier is desperate to get hold of it, crack the code and use it to clone Jesus. Badly acted and scripted, exhibiting a heroic disregard for continuity, this movie draws on The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail’s heretical proposition about Jesus and Mary Magdalene and the idea of a secret order that links Christ, the Merovingian kings and Sir Isaac Newton, but it adds a few more bizarre scenarios and throws in some occult lore to achieve a truly magnificent incoherence.

            Brotherhood of the Wolf(2001)

            Gans’ unusual horror movie is silly but compelling. A rogue branch of the Templars–the brotherhood of the film’s title–have been sent to France by the Pope to scare Louis XV. They take a rather lateral view of their brief, deciding the best way to frighten the monarch is to let a beast, wearing Templar armour, feast on the women and children in a small town.

            Kingdom of Heaven(2005)

            Making a film about the Crusades at the time of the war in Iraq was bound to be politically sensitive. So in pursuit of an acceptable and simplistic message–that the Christian West is not always good and the Muslim East is not all bad–director Ridley Scott revises history wholesale, or rather makes it up.

            To be fair, he might have been unduly influenced by the novels of his namesake, Walter Scott. His Saladin (charismatically played by the Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud), who is wise, benevolent and omnipotent, owes more to Scott’s portrayal of him in The Talisman than to the historical character. And the film’s war-crazed Templars are partly descended from the Templar baddie in Ivanhoe. Both Guy of Lusignan, the king of Jerusalem, and Rainald of Chatillon, who are presented as unmitigated villains, are also presented as Templars, which in reality they were not. The real Templar in the film, the Grand Master Gerard of Ridefort, is presented in the worst possible terms, exceeding the most hostile accounts given of him in the more biased chronicles of the time.

            Time and again the point is made that religion is a bad thing, or at least Christianity is, and so the only really good Franks in the film are absurdly anachronistic liberal humanists and agnostics like Jeremy Irons’ Tiberias (in effect Count Raymond III of Tripoli, who was also lord of Tiberias), and Orlando Bloom’s Balian. This may help explain why Bloom has all the charisma and martial presence of a petulant office supply manager complaining about missing paperclips. Fortunately the Muslims in the film are permitted their devout convictions and come across as far more real if no less sanguinary people. Apart from some generalities–there was such a place as Jerusalem and it fell to Saladin–there is nothing that bears much relation to historical fact.

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