The first good Swedish medieval movie!

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Film review: Arn the Temple Knight, part I

Directed by: Peter Flinth
Year: 2007
Length: 133 minutes
Language: Swedish and English

This is a review of the first movie about Arn Magnusson.

The movie is based on the book triology about the fictional figure Arn Magnusson, written by Jan Guillou. It is the most expensive movie so far in Scandinavia with a budget of 210 million SEK.

Historical setting
The main character Arn Magnusson was born in Västra Götaland 1150. This was a time when Sweden did not exist as a Kingdom. Västra Götaland was its own Kingdom but two powerful clans were fighting for dominance and the crown.

These two were the Erik’s clan and the Sverker’s clan, and the struggle for power was made through marriages, alliance-building and sheer violence. The Erik clan had tight connections with Norway and with the smaller Folkunga clan. The Sverker clan on the other hand, had closer connections with Denmark and with the Church in Sweden.

This was also a time when the Christian Church and the Christian monasteries had an important role in Scandinavia. The Church, which was only 150-200 years old in Västra Götaland, had with its Cathedral in the city of Skara consolidated its power.

At the same time, the monasteries played an important role as centres of knowledge. They had good knowledge of medicine and history and they could read and write latin.
Both the power struggle of the clans for power and the Church have a critical importance for the plot of the movie.

Plot
Arn Magnusson is born 1150 into the Folkunga clan and this means that he is drawn into the power struggle from the beginning. As a child, Arn has an accident and almost dies. His mother swears that she will give him to God’s holy work if he lets her Arn stay live.

When Arn wakes up, he is therefore taken to a Monastery belonging to the Cicterciens in Varnhem. There, he is fostered in the ascetic life as a monk but he is also trained to be a skilled warrior by a former Knight Templar monk.

When he is sent back to his home he is directly drawn into politics. He soon falls in love with the beautiful Cecilia but it shows that a marriage is impossible since she belongs to the wrong clan. Arn and Cecilia, deeply in love, see each other despite this and get engaged since she bears his child.

Arn and Cecilia however, are betrayed by her jealous sister and they are punished for having sex outside marriage and that Arn before this had sex with the sister. They are sentenced by the Church to 20 years of penance in two different monasteries. This is part of the power struggle since the Sverker clan controlled the Church.

Cecilia is put into a Monastery controlled by the Sverker clans and led by the evil Abedissa Rikissa. Arn on the other hand is sent to the holy land to serve 20 years as a Knight Templar.

In the second part of the movie we can follow how Arn is deeply involved in the war between Saladin’s armies and the Christian armies of Jerusalem. On the other hand we can follow how Cecilia is harassed and bullied in the Monastery in Sweden.

Both of them have sworn to return to each other after the penance.

The movie in today’s context
It is obvious that the movie has a political message. It is based on Jan Guillou’s books which were written in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in September 11th in 2001.

The debate about Muslims in Sweden has maybe not been too tough compared to for example in Denmark but still the Muslims have often been connected to either terrorists or extremely conservative family relations with forced marriages.

In the books and in the movie we can see “Swedish” people being the religious fanatics and forcing girls to marry. We also see how the Muslims are portrayed as more modern and more tolerant than the Christians. Especially Saladin is portrayed as a very honest and decent man.

The message is quite clear in this view. Historically, it is the Christians who have been most violent, fanatic and intolerant. But there is also a message of reconciliation when Arn meets Saladin. A joint respect between the two camps, that we see more of in the second movie.

A second message, which is perhaps more in the background, is how backward the society and economy was in today’s Sweden during this era. It was the Christian monasteries that provided knowledge in practically every field (medicine, cooking and even the art of war).

Qualities of the movie
It is always a difficult task to make a movie out of books which have been very popular. I have read the triology and the books are very well written and the writer Guillou is as usual well informed of all the details of the history.

The books are of course more informative and detailed but the director Peter Flinth seems to have made a good balance in what to cut out from the books and what small changes to make so to make the story more easy to follow.

One thing that is even better in the movie is that Arn is not pictured as the super-man as he is in the books. There, he is the world´s best cook, singer, smith, house-builder and fighter. He is also so extremely humble in the books that it becomes almost ridiculous.

It can be seen that this movie is the most expensive production so far in Sweden. It is quite well-made and the actors are surprisingly good, especially because many of them are not well-known even in Sweden.

What is best with the movie from my view is the feeling it provides. If we scratch away the politics and the historical-political messages, it is a love-story. It is even a beautiful love-story between hope and despair which in my opinion becomes a bit more exciting with the old monasterical milieus and the historical costumes.

The part of the movie, which is placed in the holy land, is also very well made. Especially I found it satisfying that the battles were not artificially data-animated, which takes away the whole feeling of originality. The Arn-character, Joakim Nätterqvist, is also a very competent horse-rider which makes the scenes more realistic.

The movie has some weaker spots however. It is sometimes a bit slow when it is about to tell the background. It is also a bit annoying that they speak English in the Monastery and in the Holy land. We all know that Latin was the monks’ language and that either Latin or French were spoken among the Knight Templars in Jerusalem. On the other hand, this is a compromise I guess to make the movie more accessible.

Finally, as an old university student in history, I must confess that the books and the movie is very accurate when it comes to the historical setting in Sweden. Arn is a made up figure, but almost all other characters are historical persons.

So if you want to not only see a good movie, but also learn about the time when Sweden was about to be formed, see this movie!

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Mats Öhlén
mats.ohlen@stockholmnews.com