Brotherhood. Bloodshed. Betrayal. They’re three of the central pillars of History’s latest epic, Knightfall, coming next month to SBS. If you’re a fan of Vikings, you’re going to be in your element.
Knightfall begins in 1291 with the Knights Templar defeated – the Holy Grail has been lost as well as control of Acre, their last stronghold in the Holy Land. Years later, Templar Landry (Tom Cullen, Downton Abbey) is tasked with leading the order on a dangerous mission to find the Grail.
Featuring jaw-dropping battle sequences, intrigue, love, sex, money, religion and politics (all those things you shouldn’t talk about in polite company), Knightfall shines a light on the clandestine, legendary world of the warrior monks to show what it was really like.
From executive producer Jeremy Renner, it’s a time in history as fertile as the Vikings era, and just as richly realised. Here’s why you’re gonna love Knightfall.
There are kick-arse warriors and colossal action
Historian and consultant on the show Dan Jones describes the Templars as “medieval supermen” who became famous around the world in the Middle Ages.
“They became the wealthiest fighting force in the world. And they answered to no country, no king, no queen. They only answered to God and to the Pope,” Cullen tells Rotten Tomatoes. “They were kind of untouchable. Fascinating guys.
"The thing that really surprised me was the level of their power. You learn about how they were in the battlefield. They were extraordinary. They would never leave. Even if they were losing, they would never turn their back and run. They would basically only surrender when the last man had been killed. That level of bravery and intelligence is an extraordinary combination.”
The show’s creative team wanted to give the audience a rollicking Knights-eye view of what the men would have experienced during their epic, bloody and muddy battles. So they created “helmet cam”.
“We thought, what would it have been like to have been a Templar with the big helmet on?” explains showrunner and executive producer Dominic Minghella (co-creator of Doc Martin, and brother of the late Oscar-winning director Anthony Minghella) to The Hollywood Reporter. “He only can see out of his little ridge in the visor, so we developed a camera technique which we called ‘helmet cam’ that we patented for our show, where you're actually inside the helmet looking out.”
Getting fit for the mammoth action sequences meant months of intense gym sessions as well as battle boot camp for the cast including Pádraic Delaney (The Tudors) and Simon Merrells (Spartacus: Blood and Sand) as Templars Gawain and Tancrede respectively. The two-week slog featured circuit training, sword fighting and horseback riding sessions. Turns out, you have to be pretty strong to swashbuckle in 50 pounds (22.6 kilograms) of armour every day.
“It's like carrying an eight-year-old child on your back for 12 to 14 hours a day,” Cullen tells The Hollywood Reporter.
It’s epic history
The Knights Templar has proved rich fodder in pop culture from Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Assassin’s Creed to Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Star Wars (George Lucas based his Jedi Knights on them). But Jones, author of The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors, says the real story is “more astonishing than fiction”.
“It’s about global war and international finance, about the clash between Islam and the West for access to the Middle East. It’s a tale of money, faith, violence and power. The Templars were bodyguards in war zones and elite troops in crusader armies.” He goes as far as to say, “They were the Navy Seals of their day.”
Creators Don Handfield (The Founder) and Richard Rayner (L.A Without a Map) made the risky move of setting the drama in the build-up to the Templar’s demise on Friday the 13th, 1307 (some believe that’s where the dreaded day of superstition may have originated). In a full-circle decision, they took inspiration from Lucas.
“We had obviously known that, for Star Wars, George Lucas had taken the history of the Knights Templar for the history of the Jedi Knights and he started it at the end when the Jedi had been almost exterminated," Rayner tells THR. “So, we thought, well if, Lucas did that…”
There’s a hot, morally conflicted holy man
Even with Jonathan Rhys Meyers sizzling up screens as warrior Bishop Heahmund in Vikings, there’s always room for another hot holy man tussling with faith and desires of the flesh.
When we first meet Landry, Cullen says he’s “a very brash, young maverick knight” who has only known “war, fighting and God”. But the defeat in Acre and the loss of the Holy Grail finds him questioning his faith and his identity within the Templars when we pick up with him 15 years later.
“He’s a very contradictory, very complex character,” says the actor. “He is lying to his brothers. He’s having an affair with a woman. But he is immensely loyal. He is maybe the most fearless, brave knight. Yet he is starting to discover his own humanity and his mortality. He is a very pious man and is still a very faithful man, yet he is starting to discover who he is outside of his brotherhood.”
And breaking that all-important Templar vow of chastity leads to some steamy scenes that are hot enough to melt chainmail.
Knightfall premieres Thursday 1 February at 8.30pm on SBS and continues Thursdays at 9.30pm. SBS On Demand will have a sneak preview of episode one available from 25 January. Then, all episodes will be available after broadcast anytime, anywhere, for free via SBS On Demand.