TV Review: “Knightfall” on The History Channel

knightfall history channel posterOne of the great joys of studying history is that there are so many fantastic and exciting stories left untold. The bravest of heroes, the most cowardly and despicable of backstabbing conspirators, the obsessive greed of despots and the nobility of commoners, all captured in the pages of history. From both a historical and religious perspective, few groups are more interesting than the Knights Templar, however, whose exploits have been mostly hinted at or obliquely referenced in common mythologies like the knights of the round table and the quest for the Holy Grail.

Following on the success of its scripted hit Vikings, The History Channel is launching a new series called Knightfall that follows the Knights Templar during the Middle Ages as they quest for the Holy Grail and fight to protect pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land. Think Game of Thrones. In fact, that’s a good comparison because it turns out that George R.R. Martin was heavily influenced by the political intrigue and fighting of this era between European nations and the church.

Not only that, but as show creator Richard Rayner points out in an interview: “George Lucas had taken the history of the Knights Templar for the history of the Jedi Knights [in Star Wars] and he started it at the end when the Jedi had been almost exterminated.”

The series starts with the fall of the city of Acre, the Templar’s last stronghold in the Holy Land in 1291 and it’s a bloody battle between Christians and Muslims, a milestone in the era of the Crusades. Fleeing the destroyed city, the Templars fail to ensure the safety of the cup that Christ drank from at the Last Supper (the Holy Grail). They head to Paris and spend fifteen years training new warriors, but for what purpose? What’s the role of the Knights Templar in French politics and society?

Turns out, there’s plenty to keep them busy with the duplicitous William De Nogaret (Julian Ovenden) advisor to King Philip IV of France (Ed Stoppard). King Philip has a soft spot for the Knights Templar and Templar Knight Landry (Tom Cullen) is his royal fencing instructor as well as leader of the Knights Templar. Rounding out the cast are Pope Boniface VIII (Jim Carter), Queen Joan of Navarre (Olivia Ross), Princess Isabelle (Sabrina Bartlett), young knight-in-training Parsifal (Bobby Schofield) and Adelina (Sarah-Sofia Boussnina) as the Jewish refugee befriended by the order.

Reasonably historically accurate, Knightfall takes liberties with the stories and era to create a compelling story and drama. Nonetheless, the show quickly establishes the rampant anti-semitism of Paris in the 13th Century and uses that as a jumping off point for a number of storylines. If you’re unaware of the history of anti-semitism in medieval Europe, this segment might make you feel uncomfortable.

knightfall publicity still photo history channel knights templar
Tancrede (Simon Merrells), Landry (Tom Cullen) and Gawain (Pádraic Delaney), from “Knightfall”

The show itself is blunt and aggressive in its depiction of the violence of the era too, starting with the bloody and dramatic battle for Acre and proceeding from there. It’s toned down compared to the in-your-face Game of Thrones violence, but unlike GoT there’s very little nudity. One presumes that The History Channel still has to carefully balance offering an exciting and explicit show against alienating some of their core TV viewing audience.

I had a chance to watch the first three episodes and while the first was okay, by the middle of episode two I was quite engaged with the storyline. The multiple intertwined stories and constant intrigue and attempts to destabilize the monarchy are quite compelling viewing. The series is also very well produced so aerial shots of 13th Century Paris, for example, are quite realistic [the production team built a huge Paris set as part of the Croatian location shooting, which clearly helps with verisimilitude!]

There’s a famous name behind the production too: Jeremy Renner, who apparently wanted to also be in front of the camera during the 10-episode first season, but was too busy with The Avengers movies.

All in all, Knightfall definitely seems like another winner for The History Channel. I found the storylines and characters quite engaging, felt my pulse race at least a few times as things proved not to be what they seemed, and am in for the rest of this first season. It’s graphic, violent, but good viewing nonetheless, and unlike Star Trek Discovery or other modern content, it’s not hidden behind a paywall: The History Channel is widely accessible content.

This is not, however, suitable material for younger viewers. I would say teen or older, and I’d talk about the content, the era, and the violence of the middle ages with teens after each episode so they can understand how it fit into the evolution of our own culture and civilization.

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