Templars in Popular Culture
When Anthony Burgess reviewed The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail–the book that put the Templars at the heart of a millennium of conspiracies–he said, ‘I can only see this as a marvellous theme for a novel.’ How prescient he was. A small army of novelists, from Umberto Eco to Dan Brown, have taken the book’s pseudo-history of the Knights Templar for their plots. The Templars have become screen regulars, too, and are keeping up with the times with starring roles in medieval-themed computer games.
Not that adopting the Templars in fiction is entirely a modern phenomenon. The literary trail starts in the thirteenth century with Wolfram von Eschenbach’s epic poem Parzival (which reworks Chrétien de Troyes’ unfinished Grail romance Perceval) in which a group of knights known as Templeisen guard the Grail.
Rise of the Templar Literary Phenomenon
The writer who really put the Templars on the modern literary map was Sir Walter Scott, whose first foray into medieval fiction, Ivanhoe (1819), featured Sir Brian de Bois-Gilbert, a lustful Grand Master of the Templars, as its chief villain. King Richard the Lionheart–and the Templars–intrigued Scott so much that he returned to the patch in The Talisman (1825). His creation was so successful that it even spawned parody, in American novelist Herman Melville’s Typee (1846) and, in more extended form, The Paradise of Bachelors (1855). In this tale of a dinner at Temple Bar, Melville enjoys musing on the ‘moral blight that tainted at last this sacred brotherhood’ and turned them into hypocrites and rakes.
The Templars then went quiet for a few decades–leaving aside a namecheck in Leslie Charteris’ hero Simon Templar–until the 1950s, when Maurice Druon wrote a series of seven historical novels, The Accursed Kings. These start with James of Molay’s burning in 1314 and his supposed curse on the Capetian dynasty. In the 1970s Druon’s novels were made into an acclaimed mini-series in France. Something was obviously stirring. In 1972 Ishmael Reed made a Templar knight, Hinkle von Hampton, the villain in his post-modernist satire Mumbo Jumbo and Pierre Barbet wrote Baphomet’s Meteor, a bizarre sci-fi take on the legend in which the Templars are manipulated by aliens. The best novel to date about the order, William Watson’s sadly neglected The Last of the Templars, also appeared.
The publication of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982) introduced the order’s puzzling legend to a wider audience. That same year Lawrence Durrell’s Constance, the third volume in his Avignon Quintet, honoured the Templars as secret Gnostics–which is why, he suggests, James of Molay was burned at the stake on Pope Clement V’s orders. Before their destruction, imagines Durrell, the Templars buried a secret treasure near Avignon, a treasure coveted by Hitler, who hopes it will inspire his Nazi ‘black chivalry’. Umberto Eco, that astute student of popular culture, spoofed the Templar obsession and popularised it in his international bestseller Foucault’s Pendulum (1988), memorably noting that you could always tell a lunatic because ‘sooner or later he brings up the Templars’.
However, with Spielberg’s film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), an order that had officially died out seven hundred years ago suddenly came to feel like part of the zeitgeist. In the next decade, Katherine Kurtz, an American novelist (who claims to be a ‘Templar at heart’) launched a series of heroic Templar fantasy novels; British writer Michael Jecks penned various Cadfael-esque murder mysteries starring a Templar called Sir Baldwin; and Swedish author Jan Guillou entered the fray with a trilogy about a Swedish Templar. The pace was hotting up, and as The Da Vinci Code (2003) became one of the bestselling books ever, the Templars entered the book charts centre stage, with Raymond Khoury’s The Last Templar (2005) and Steve Berry’s The Templar Legacy (2006).
The blockbuster Templar plot draws loosely on history and myth. Here are some of the more crucial ingredients.
James of Molay (Jacques de Molay) is a hero. Steven Berry, in The Templar Legacy, dares to suggest that the last Grand Master broke under torture, although, to compensate, he says it is James of Molay’s image on the Turin Shroud. But most of the time, Molay is so brave and far-sighted that it is a mystery how he failed to handle King Philip.
The Templars have secret knowledge. What they know varies but it is often suggested that in the Holy Land they became acquainted with some profound, esoteric wisdom after hobnobbing with their Muslim opponents. For example, a Templar killing of an Assassin envoy becomes a thread with which the most elaborate fantasies can be spun.
The Templars criss-cross the globe. Scotland, Paris, New York, Israel, the Languedoc, Turin, Copenhagen–no place on earth is safe as these complex plots unravel as surrogate travelogues.
A modern-day Templar geek is usually a villain, just like Sir Leigh Teabing in The Da Vinci Code and the less eccentrically monikered Vance Williams in Khoury’s The Last Templar.
Popes are devious and none more so than Leo X (1475–1521), who is forever quoted as saying, ‘It has served us well, this myth of Christ.’ In fact this remark was put into the Pope’s mouth by John Bale (1495–1563), a rabidly anti-Catholic propagandist.
Never hesitate to draw on the theories of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail–but in appendices and bibliographies designed to suggest that a fiction is grounded in fact, don’t credit this (nonsensical) book.
Heresy and Satanism make good copy–especially the Templars’ supposed worship of an Anti-christ called Baphomet.
The Templars still exist. And they are behind everything.
Templar novels are beginning to outweigh historical accounts of the period. Here’s the pick of the crop, from Scott to the present.
Sir Walter Scott Ivanhoe (1819) and The Talisman (1825)
The Scottish novelist was obviously fascinated by the Templars–they provide the pantomime villains in these two famous novels–but not so fascinated that he looked much beyond the charges used to justify the order’s suppression. So in The Talisman the Grand Master presides over an order accused of heresy, suspected of being in league with the devil, and so arrogant that it would risk the downfall of Western civilisation to preserve itself. Scott even finds something sinister in the Grand Master’s abacus, ‘a mystic staff of office, the peculiar form of which has given rise to such singular conjectures and commentaries, leading to suspicions that this celebrated fraternity of Christian knights were embodied under the foulest symbols of paganism’. Some traditions suggest that the Templar abacus was modelled on the staff carried by Moses’ brother Aaron, which hardly makes it pagan, even if it later became associated with Freemasonry.
Willing to glorify any calumny against the Templars, Scott has these reckless knights entering into a rash alliance with the Austrians against King Richard I and Saladin in The Talisman. In reality Richard was as obsessed by the Crusades as the Templars, which may be why he confirmed the order’s land holdings in England and granted them a kind of diplomatic immunity from English law.
Scott’s most iconic Templar villain is hard-hearted Sir Brian de Bois-Gilbert, who, the novelist hints, personifies the order. Ivanhoe’s father Cedric describes him as ‘valiant as the bravest of his order but stained with their usual vices, pride, arrogance, cruelty and voluptuousness’. Bois-Gilbert may have about as much in common with the real Templars as the Arthur in Disney’s The Sword in the Stone has with the historical King Arthur. But he has, through sheer charisma–and a wonderful portrayal by George Sanders in the 1952 movie–become the most famous fictional Knight Templar of them all.
Maurice Druon The Accursed Kings (1955–77)
A Prix Goncourt-winning novelist, a minister of culture under Georges Pompidou, and the co-author of an anthem sung by the French resistance, Maurice Druon’s life is almost as interesting as his fiction. In the 1950s he began a series of novels, Les Rois Maudits (The Accursed Kings), on the story of James of Molay’s supposed curse–flung at King Philip as he burnt at the stake. At the heart of Druon’s saga is a real historical puzzle. When Molay burned, Philip was in good health and had three grown sons. Yet within twenty-five years, lack of male issue forced the Capetian dynasty to hand the throne to their Valois cousins.
Druon’s seven novels–The Iron King, The Strangled Queen, The Poisoned Crown, The Royal Succession, The She-Wolf of France, The Lily and the Lion, When a King Loses France–span six tumultuous decades in French history, starting with Philip being refused a loan by the Templars and ending with the Valois dynasty. Although the series is named in honour of Molay’s curse, the plot is driven, in part, by another real story of the era: the campaign by Robert III of Artois, related through marriage to the first Valois king, to reclaim land from his aunt. Robert’s pursuit of this grievance led to exile and war.
Druon takes care to achieve a level of historical accuracy but nonetheless bends the facts to suit his story. The dissolution of the Templars is a spur of the moment enterprise, not the fruit of meticulous planning. Philip does get his hands on Templar gold, but, when the Pope dies, becomes obsessed by James of Molay’s curse and, in the second novel, wastes away to death. Nonetheless, these first two novels are of genuine interest to any Templar aficionado.
Pierre Barbet Baphomet’s Meteor (1972)
As the Templars have long existed in an alternative dimension, between fact and fiction, it was smart of pseudonymous French sci-fi author Pierre Barbet to write a fictional alternative history in which Baphomet, the mysterious head the knights were accused of worshipping, is a stranded extraterrestrial who gives the Templars the scientific expertise and atomic weaponry they need to take over the world and develop the technology he needs to repair his spaceship. Alas, Baphomet has not allowed for human deviousness.
The mysteries of Christianity were obviously of lifelong interest to Barbet, who was a doctor and wrote A Doctor at Calvary, one of the definitive medical accounts of the crucifixion.
Last Of The Templars (1979)
If you only read one Templar novel, try this. Watson brings a novelist’s insight into his historically scrupulous account of the Templars’ precipitous decline from the fall of Acre in 1291 to the burning of James of Molay in 1314. For once the Templars are not mystics, seers or heretics blackmailing the Church but the soldiers and bankers of historical record. Watson’s clever, dreamlike narrative offers a cogent analysis of the factors that doomed the order: the rise of nationalism, the order’s arrogance, the greed of King Philip, Papal acquiescence and, most of all, the loss of the Holy Land and the end of the Crusades, which left the Templars, without a mission, suddenly superfluous.
Beltran, the last of the order, is a soldier-monk whose personal allegiance lies with Thibaud Gaudin, the penultimate Grand Master, who effectively dies from the strain of trying to reverse the decline in the Templars’ fortunes. Watson convincingly records the milestones on the order’s road to nowhere. While most novelists describe Molay’s death as a ceremony accompanied by pomp and circumstance, Watson presents the burning as a hurried, slightly disorganised spectacle, unforgettably noting, ‘The Grand Master has become a cinder.’
Watson sees the brutal, unpredictable reality behind the noble stereotypes of conflict in the Holy Land and handles his historical cast–especially King Philip, his unscrupulous aide William of Nogaret and Pope Clement–with aplomb, even offering an intriguing explanation for the fact that all three were dead by Christmas 1314. Last of the Templars is worth reading both for its insight into the order and as a brilliant historical novel.
Umberto Eco Foucault’s Pendulum (1988)
In Eco’s second novel–following his hugely successful medieval whodunit, The Name of the Rose–three Italian intellectuals jokingly prepare The Plan, a ludicrously comprehensive plot which will explain everything–the Templars, the Rosicrucians, the Count of St Germain (an eighteenth-century con man who claimed to be immortal), the Merovingians, Jesus, the Nazis. A plot that anticipates, in some ways, the central premise of The Da Vinci Code.
In Eco’s book, the Templars, according to a history written by a sinister colonel, were guardians of a secret treasure and ought to have taken over the world in 1944 but were mysteriously foiled. From this, Eco spins all manner of conceits with such enthusiasm that, at times, you can feel as if you are listening to a monologue by a very erudite pub bore. But you can forgive him a lot for inventing a secret society drolly known as the Synarchic Knights of Templar Rebirth.
Jan Guillou The Crusades Trilogy (1998–2000)
Swedish author Guillou’s novels are characterised by macho, politically correct heroes. In this trilogy set in the twelfth century, Swedish knight Arn Magnusson arrives in the Holy Land, condemned to serve twenty years as a Knight Templar for a youthful indiscretion, with the usual preconceptions about infidel Muslims being a brutish and uncivilised lot. But he soon casts off those prejudices and becomes a pro-Muslim multiculturalist who only fights for the Christians out of a sense of duty. Guillou blends fact, legend and fiction to make his point, even having his hero pardoned by Saladin because he once saved the great Muslim leader’s life from robbers.
Guillou has a sure feel for the nuanced relationship between the Templars and their royal allies in the Holy Land and for the detail of historical battle. He blames the destruction of the Christian armies and the fall of Jerusalem on certain non-Templar military leaders and the King of Jerusalem. His Templars are brave, noble, well trained and ruthless; it is the incompetence that surrounds them that dooms their cause. A Templar spin doctor could not have put it better. Guillou does a similarly eloquent PR job for Saladin.
Dan Brown The Da Vinci Code (2003)
Everyone loves a conspiracy. Brown is so convinced this is true, he tells us twice. The assumption being that our obsession with a nothing-is-as-it-seems version of history might blind us to the way this compelling story edits, stretches and wilfully misunderstands the facts. Any reader who took Brown’s guidance on the Templars literally would conclude that they were founded by a mysterious order called the Priory of Sion, busied themselves by ensuring that motifs of the vagina, womb and clitoris were incorporated into many medieval cathedrals, and worshipped their own fertility god. Alas and alack, the Priory–which Brown seems to think was a real entity–was the fanciful invention of one Pierre Plantard, a French forger who came up with the idea in 1956, elaborated and reinforced his claims with a series of further forgeries, then finally admitted under oath that he had made the whole thing up–but of course if you are a true conspiracy theorist you know what that means! Apart from possibly those knights who jousted in drag at Acre in 1286–and the chronicler does not say that there were any Templars among them–there is no evidence that the Templars ever made any attempt to get in touch with their feminine side. In fact, their rule warned: ‘The company of woman is a dangerous thing.’
The novel’s central anti-clerical message means that the downfall of the Templars is attributed not to King Philip IV but to ‘Machiavellian’ Pope Clement V, who, fed up with being blackmailed about the secret of the Grail, unleashed an ‘ingeniously planned sting operation’ on the innocent order and saw to it that the tortured knights’ ashes were ‘tossed unceremoniously into the Tiber’. This would have been some toss as Clement V never stepped foot in Italy, never mind Rome.
Kate Mosse Labyrinth (2005)
Labyrinth reads like one of those books where the author is more worried about achieving the desired blockbuster pagination (700 pages) than how the story is told. But after 250 pages, the narrative begins to gather momentum as the threads of her parallel lives–Cathar Alaïs and modern-day volunteer archaeologist Alice Tanner–intersect compellingly. Mosse takes many themes associated with the Templars–the Grail, the Cathars, the implication of secret knowledge from the East–but only mentions the order in passing as she builds to a finale in which the Grail is revealed as a chalice, something that enables initiates to live for 800 years and ‘the love that is handed down from generation to generation’.
When she researched the novel, Mosse writes, she felt sure there would be a role for the Templars but decided ‘the connections people like to make between the Albigensian heresy and the Knights Templar are based on nothing more than historical coincidence’. On her website www.mosselabyrinth.co.uk she has published her notes on the man she refers to as ‘the great Jacques de Molay’ and speculates that the Knights Templar may have been the ‘fair-headed people using the power of the covenant’ who, in Ethiopian tradition, raised the massive obelisk at Axum. While many rumours and legends link the Templars to Ethiopia (usually in connection with the Ark of the Covenant), the obelisk is 1600–1700 years old. So not historical nor a coincidence.
Julia Navarro The Brotherhood of the Holy Shroud (2006)
This is one of the best Templar-inspired novels, Navarro alternating between a modern-day investigation into a mutilated body at Turin Cathedral and a well-told, and in large part nicely conceived, secret history of the Shroud. In this, the Templars–and a ruthless secret brotherhood from the biblical town of Edessa–are the antagonists.
The Templars are portrayed, as one of the investigators says, ‘as supermen who can do anything’ whose most sacred mission, once they have blackmailed the Byzantine emperor to hand it over, is to protect the Shroud. They manage to smuggle it out of Acre just before the Holy Land falls in 1291, but their annus horribilis, 1307, forces the order into desperate measures. One of the plotters trying to get his hands on the Shroud is said to be a direct descendant of Geoffrey of Charney, who burned with James of Molay. This makes possible sense as the widow of a man called Charney, who may have been the nephew of Geoffrey of Charney, put the Shroud on display in 1357. Navarro suggests that the Templars survived–initially in such places as Portugal, where, as she correctly notes, the order was simply nationalised, and in Scotland–and are so powerful today that they can, with impunity, organise the assassination of policemen who get too close to their secret.
Navarro tantalises readers with the idea that ‘there was a figure to whom the Templars prayed throughout the world though His name was not Baphomet’. In secret chapel meetings, she suggests they worshipped ‘a painting, an image of a strange figure, an idol’. Wisely, she does not elucidate, so the reader can take their pick from the usual suspects: Sophia the Greek goddess of wisdom, the Prophet Mohammed, the mummified head of Jesus, an Egyptian cat or the head of a Sufi martyr.
Raymond Khoury The Last Templar (2005)
Khoury used to write for BBC TV’s superior spy drama Spooks and he kicks off his bestselling novel with a stunning conceit, as four horsemen dressed as Templars storm the opening of an exhibition of Vatican artefacts in New York. As FBI agent Sean Reilly and archaeologist Tess Chaykin investigate, they discover a secret that has lain buried for a thousand years.
As a page turner, Khoury’s ‘deadly game of cat and mouse across three continents’ is as compelling as Dan Brown’s novels. Like Brown and Berry, he finds the idea that the Templars’ real treasure was gold, money or the medieval equivalent of traveller’s cheques just too mundane. So he has a Templar ship called Falcon Temple setting sail on the order of the Grand Master days before the fall of Acre with a mysterious chest that contains the writings of ‘a man the entire world knew as Jesus Christ’. This seems to conflate two historical events: the real removal of the Templar treasure from the Holy Land and the activities of a disgraced Templar sergeant called Roger of Flor who made a fortune by ferrying the desperate and wealthy out of Acre in his galley called the Falcon. Khoury also mentions the legend of the Templars’ maritime escape, specifically the fleet of eighteen galleys that sailed out of La Rochelle the night before the Templars were arrested in 1307, never to be seen again.
For Khoury’s Templars, the treasure is a sideshow. Their real purpose is to unite the three religions that held sway in medieval times–Christianity, Judaism and Islam–by exposing the fraud at the heart of the resurrection myth and humbling the arrogant clergy. It is at this point that fiction and history finally part company for good. But this final implausibility does not spoil the fun.
Steve Berry The Templar Legacy (2006)
This blockbuster never quite recovers from having a hero named Cotton (‘it’s a long story,’ he says whenever someone asks, which they do tediously often) and an evil Templar mastermind called Raymond de Roquefort who wants to bring Christianity to its knees and restore the Templars to their former power by publishing a secret gospel which proves that Jesus never physically came back from the dead.
In interviews, Berry talks as if the Templars are old chums so it would be intriguing to discover where he gets some of his ideas from. He often quotes the Templar Rule in the novel, suggesting that it forbade knights from washing, though nobody who comes into contact with his Templars seems deterred by body odours. And his imagination goes into overdrive when it comes to James of Molay’s burning. He has King Philip watching dispassionately, though the historical sources seem pretty clear that he was not present, and then a crack squad of Templars swimming across the Seine to fetch the Master’s burnt bones back in their mouths. That said, Berry gets quite a lot of stuff right. Like the battle cry (‘Beauséant’) and the fact, recently confirmed, that the Templars were absolved by Clement V of the charges brought against them.
The novel’s most original suggestion is that James of Molay’s image, not Christ’s, is mysteriously preserved on the Turin Shroud. The order is linked with the Shroud and the famous carbon-dating does suggest that the portion of tested cloth comes from the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries, the Templar era. Berry says he got the idea from The Second Messiah by Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas, two Freemasons turned amateur historians. The book suggests that James of Molay was tortured and crucified in a parody of Christ’s agony by Philip’s henchman William of Nogaret, a theory Berry draws on in some truly excruciating scenes. But historians find a conflict of evidence about whether James of Molay confessed with or without torture, let alone that he underwent a kind of crucifixion.
Robyn Young The Brethren Trilogy (2006–08)
The rise of the Mamelukes and their mounting pressure against the Crusader states during the last decades of the thirteenth century provides the setting for Robyn Young’s Brethren trilogy. Brethren is the first volume of the trilogy, and the plot turns on a mysterious book that goes missing from the order’s vaults which holds the key to a secret group of knights. The locations run from the filthy backstreets of medieval London and Paris to the shimmering light and burning heat of Syria and Palestine where the Mameluke Sultan Baybars is renewing the struggle against the Christians. Also there are girls, and love. The second volume, Crusade, brings the reader to Acre where ‘a ruthless cabal of Western merchants, profiteering from slaves and armaments, has devised a shocking plan to reignite hostilities in the Holy Land’. Also there are girls, and love. Requiem, the final volume, covers the downfall of the Templars at the hands of Philip IV of France. And there are girls, and love. The tragedy of the Crusades, and of the Templars, we are led to understand, was that nobody listened to the Brethren, that secret group of social workers operating within the heart of the Knights Templar who might have made everything nice. The trilogy’s lashings of love interest ensures that where historical fiction fails, as it does throughout, Mills and Boon rushes to the breach.
THE TEMPLARS IN MOVIES
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 Dead movies (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 Jones Trilogy (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.
TEMPLARS ON TV
The Knights Templar have only intermittently fascinated programme makers. Until Raymond Khoury finally adapts his own novel The Last Templar for television, the order’s greatest contribution to TV drama must be the first dramatisation of Maurice Druon’s The Accursed Kings novels made for French television in 1972 and shown with subtitles on the BBC. The original series was as acclaimed in France as I Claudius was in Britain. Remaking it was always going to be risky but thanks to the presence of such big names as Gerard Depardieu (who shone as James of Molay) and Jeanne Moreau, and decent effects using computer-generated imagery, the 2005 remake was not bad.
In Britain and America the Templars have inspired more documentarists than dramatists. In the acclaimed eco-thriller Edge of Darkness (1985), Troy Kennedy Martin worked the Templars into the drama’s back story, suggesting that two of the protagonists, Grogan and Jedburgh, were a Templar and a Teutonic knight in previous lives. Martin admitted to being fascinated by the secret myth of the Templars and in his story their descendants are plotting to take humanity–or at least the order’s soldier-scholars–to another planet.
Another rare exception to the general indifference of television to the subject is The Last Knight (2000), an episode in the US fantasy/adventure series Relic Hunter, in which Tia Carrere’s globetrotting professor and Christien Anholt’s linguist investigate a medallion that may have belonged to James of Molay and search for his famed invincible sword. The medallion’s inscription reads, in part, ‘Pierre Chevalier’, which, Carrere says, happens to be a painting in the Louvre. By finding the abbey in the picture, they discover a secret Templar burial ground and James of Molay’s disappointingly unmagical sword. They are told by a French confidant that ‘the Templars were the rock stars of their times’, a notion that rather spoils the historical background.
The knights who guard the Grail in Richard Wagner’s Parsifal (1882) were never actually identified as Templars by the composer, though he did suggest their costumes should resemble those worn by the order’s knights. If you judge the knights purely by their costumes, you would have to say this magnificent, influential and controversial opera is probably the best musical work associated with the order.
But Wagner is not the only classical composer to touch on Templar themes. Sir Arthur Sullivan (Ivanhoe), Otto Nicolai (Il Templario), Heinrich Marschner (Der Templer und die Jüdin), and Michael William Balfe (Il Talismano) have all written operas inspired by Sir Walter Scott’s Templar sagas, Ivanhoe and The Talisman.
The Templars have also had a marginal influence on pop and rock music. Amando de Ossorio’s Blind Dead movies inspired a New York punk band called The Templars. Formed in 1991, this multi-racial skinhead band drew on punk, glam rock and rock and roll, named their studios Acre, and adopted Templar surnames. Their first album The Return of Jacques de Molay was released in 1994 on Dim Records. Other Templar-themed releases followed, alluding to the battle at the Horns of Hattin, Ossorio’s movies and Outremer. Drummer Phil Rigaud says the band’s name was ‘an homage to the warriors of the past’. Their song ‘The Templars’ manages to compress the order’s history into four surprisingly conventional rhyming verses.
In 1997, the epic German heavy metal band Grave Digger released a concept album devoted to the order, called Knights of the Cross. The album, the second in a medieval trilogy, included such tracks as ‘Baphomet’, ‘The Curse of Jacques’, ‘Monks of War’ and ‘Keepers of the Holy Grail’, not to mention ‘Battle of Bannockburn’, their allusion to the Baigent and Leigh theory that a band of Templars helped the Scots achieve independence.
The Templars’ curious appeal to European heavy-metal bands was confirmed when, from the late 1990s onwards, Swedish band HammerFall released tracks like ‘Templars Of Steel’ and ‘The Templar Flame’, and released a concert DVD called The Templar Renegade Crusades. The band’s official website (www.hammerfall.net) even has a forum called The Templar Area.
As you might expect, the Templars have appeared in many of the medieval-themed video games. Medieval Total War allows players to build up divisions of Templar knights and do battle with Turks and Almohads across Europe and the Middle East. It is surprisingly instructive. And most recently, the Templars have been given rather more sinister walk-on parts in Assassin’s Creed (pictured), a game which conjures a graphically rich reconstruction of the Crusader era and in good Templar fiction style introduces a kind of Matrix dimension to the plot. There is clearly pop culture life in the order yet.