For many people, their first encounter with Arn: Knight Templar will have been with the original UK DVD-release, a 130-minute edited merging of the two original Swedish films that, though enjoyable, cut whole swathes from the story and left a superficial and at times confusing narrative. Happily, with this extended 'director's cut' we can now enjoy the whole story in two 100-minute features that ably fill all the gaps.
Set in the 12th-century in both Gothia (southern Sweden) and the Holy Land, Arn: Knight Templar tells the sprawling tale of young Swedish nobleman Arn Magnusson's journey from a childhood spent in a Cistercian monastery, where he learns martial qualities from a kindly French monk and former Knight Templar, all the way to the bloody battlefields of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, where he is sent to join the Templars in their fight against the Saracens as penance for a forbidden love affair with the beautiful Cecilia Algotsdotter, who in turn is sent to a nunnery. While Arn forges a reputation as a Templar knight of renown on the searing sands, back home Cecilia battles with sadistic nuns and her doubts that she will ever see her beloved Arn again. Meanwhile dynastic feuding rages all around her as the unified Kingdom of Sweden slowly and brutally takes shape.
Now to be enjoyed here in its full glory, Arn: Knight Templar is quite simply the best medieval film drama around. Though largely in Swedish with English subtitles (the sequences in the Holy Land and in the monastery are in English), this production, the most expensive ever to come out of Sweden, is exciting, engaging and moving, and not a little instructive for those unfamiliar with Swedish history. The narrative itself is taut and mature, with the three distinct strands - Arn as crusader, the struggles of Cecilia, and the clan warfare in Gothia - cleverly and neatly intertwined. Though bound to be compared with Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven, Arn: Knight Templar, while perhaps not as epic a spectacle, is a deeper and more involving story than Scott's revisionist Hollywood hokum and one that portrays the Templars as something more than just a rabble of psychotic pantomime villains.
Performances are excellent throughout, with Joakim Nätterqvist and Sofia Helin perfect as the lovers who will not be denied. Nätterqvist lends a grizzled vulnerability to the character of Arn and Sofia Helin, though achingly beautiful as the stoical Cecilia, is also flawed and scarred, which adds to her medieval authenticity. Simon Callow and Vincent Perez pop up as kindly and wise Cistercian monks, the latter playing Arn's childhood mentor Brother Guilbert, and Stellan Skarsgård gives a typically robust performance as Arn's uncle and clan hard-man Birger Brosa. Perhaps the only unconvincing performance comes from Nicholas Boulton playing real-life Templar Grand-Master Gerard de Ridefort, who is just a little too sneering and just a little too incompetent (senior Templars would not have elected a military buffoon as Grand Master). The larger battle scenes in the Holy Land too, though well realized, are a little too sparsely populated to be wholly convincing, with the seminal Battle of Hattin consisting of little more than a skirmish outside some tents.
All in all though, this extended version of Arn: Knight Templar is great entertainment and well worth your time. I was originally going to watch each of the two features here separately, but I became so engrossed in the first that I ultimately watched the whole story through to the end in one sitting. It's that good.
The two features are presented in anamorphic widescreen and are mostly in Swedish with English subtitles. There is also the normal 'scene selection' option as well as a 20-minute 'behind the scenes' documentary that is worth a watch.