Wednesday, January 07, 2009

SWEDISH CINEMA—Arn: The Knight Templar as Small Country Blockbuster

The cover article of the November 2008 issue of Film International (Vol. 6, No. 5, pp. 60-67)—"The Arn Franchise: Launching a Small Country Blockbuster"—authored by the issue's guest editor Erik Hedling argues that "with the advent of Arn, Sweden has obtained its first fully fledged Hollywood-style film franchise in the manner of Lord of the Rings, complete with bestselling books, thus far a highly successful historical epic, and an aspiring tourist industry, drawing heavily on the books and films." Acknowledging that the film has set a new standard, Hedling proposes: "In Arn, a particularly powerful historical fetish—the very foundation of Sweden as a country—can be discerned lurking behind the whole project."

As reported at
Wikipedia: "Arn–The Knight Templar (original title in Swedish: Arn–Tempel Riddaren) is a 2007 epic film based on Jan Guillou's trilogy about the fictional Swedish Knight Templar Arn Magnusson. The film was released in December 2007 and the sequel, Arn–The Kingdom at Road's End (Arn–Riket vid vägens slut), was released August 22, 2008. While the film is mostly in Swedish and most of the production was made in Sweden, the film is a joint production between Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Germany. With a total budget of around US$30,000,000 for the whole production, it is the most expensive production in Scandinavian film history." An international version—a single film comprised of parts from the first two films in the trilogy—will be launched in the autumn of 2009.

Svensk Filmindustri, the co-producers and Swedish distributors of Arn, encapsulate the plot as follows at their website: "The film about Arn and Cecilia is set in Sweden as well as the Middle East, and offers a rich gallery of brave knights, powerful queens and treacherous kings. It is a tale of war and intrigue, friendship and betrayal, but also an unforgettable love story. Arn Magnussson [portrayed by relative newcomer Joakim Nätterqvist] is born in 1150 on Arnas farm in West Gothia in the western part of Sweden. He grows up to become an educated young man and a skilled swordsman. He meets Cecilia [Sofia Heflin], the love of his life, but a cruel and jealous world forces them apart. Cecilia is imprisoned in a convent and Arn is sent away as a Knight Templar to the Holy Land, where war is raging between Christians and Muslims. They both have to fight to survive, they have to learn how to confront evil and overcome physical hardship. Their painful separation causes their faith in God and his goodness to waver—though not their faith in each other and their confidence that they will one day be reunited. When Arn returns home he has to fight for his love and what has become his life's mission: to unite Sweden into one kingdom."

Based on Guillou's Crusader series of novels, The Road to Jerusalem / Vägen til Jerusalem (1998), The Knight Templar / Tempel Riddaren (1999) and The Kingdom at the End of the Road / Riket vid vägens slut (2000), which have sold more than two million copies in Sweden and have been translated into multiple languages including English, Spanish and German, Guillou—an avowed atheist well-known for his pro-Palestinian views—has admitted he felt compelled to write the trilogy in response to the "War on Terror." As Hedling has reported, in Guillou's epilogue to the 2007 edition of his novel, the novelist opined that "already by the mid-1990s one could see that the big war—what we now label as the 'War on Terror'—was approaching. …Everywhere, Arabs and Muslims were depicted as demons. In precisely that way, the first Holy War, the mediaeval crusade to Palestine, was initiated. …And now, on our way towards the third millennium, the Holy War was to start again, as if we had learnt nothing from history. Thus, I have to write the story about how this war appeared when it was first fought."

This political admission complicates the Arn franchise with a compelling relevancy. As Hedling has researched: "In the preface to their anthology
The Medieval Hero on Screen [published by McFarland], Martha W. Driver and Sid Ray claim that the popularity of the kind of film represented by Arn is due to [the fact] that 'reference to the Middle Ages seems to grant films license to present extreme forms of masculinity and to justify, even celebrate, war'; the authors also allude to the War on Terror by invoking the idea that the Gulf War (1990) 'was a bonanza for medievalists' as American politicians depicted nations in the Middle East as fiefdoms of the Middle Ages and cast themselves as the crusading hero of democracy' (Driver and Ray 2004:9)." Compounded by Guillou's frank self-confessed motives for writing the trilogy, Hedling points out that Guillou's admission adheres "to Driver and Ray's theory regarding the appearance of films with mediaeval settings in the 1990s—albeit from exactly the opposite point of view." [Emphasis added.]

Despite being highly anticipated by Todd Brown at
Twitch—"Looking forward to it? You bet."—some growsing ensued in the comments section about grand, epic battle scenes becoming tiresome and that some new and different stylization was required to keep the genre fresh. First, I would query: "Fresh for whom?" Western audiences already saturated with trilogy franchises? Does that not demean the projected and actual success of marketing the Arn trilogy as a franchise, first for Scandanavian audiences, and now—securing that achievement—international ones? Secondly, reading the film with the above-stated political intentions is arguably a "fresh"—perhaps even necessary—perspective on the mediaeval epic. Notwithstanding, I'll concede the complaint bears some legitimacy. As Boyd von Hoeij has written at "Though the books have been bestsellers in Scandinavia and several other European countries including Germany, it remains to be seen whether the cinema-going public is ready for a Crusades epic so shortly after the lukewarm reception of Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven, in which heartthrob Orlando Bloom was sent off to the Holy Land."

"Kingdom of Heaven," Hedling points out, "draws on the same historical circumstances and the same historical figures as Jan Guillou's Arn trilogy regarding, for instance, the representation of the Holy Land…. Both works also contain representations of Salah ad-Din, the mighty warrior-sultan of Syria and Egypt, who eventually won the struggle for Jerusalem." It will be fascinating to monitor how Guillou's "opposite point of view" will be received by non-Scandanavian (i.e., Christianized Western) audiences, given statistical evidence that—as of 2005—85% of Swedes do not believe in God, which might account for their embrace of Guillou's literary perspective.

As for whether the shifting of the books' dramaturgy towards "standard swashbuckling antics" via a more simplified, marketable "masculine spectacle" (the story of Arn's beloved Cecilia has been greatly reduced in the films) will, indeed, prove tiresome for being overly familiar, only time will tell. Like Todd, I'm eager to decide for myself whether director Peter Flinth (Mastermind, 2005) and screenwriter Hans Gunnarsson (Evil / Ondskan, 2003) have succeeded in their filmic adaptation of Guillou's Crusaders trilogy.

As for the rest of the November 2008 issue of Film International and its focus on the "new wave in Swedish cinema", Hedling has historicized Scandanavia's contributions, most notably with the art-house classics of Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ingmar Bergman, the contributions of such Danish auteurs as Lars von Trier, Susanne Bier and Tomas Vinterberg, and Finnish auteurs Aki and Mika Kaurismäki. Cognizant that the hope for the emergence of a new wave of Swedish cinema inspired by the work of Lukas Moodysson's Together (2000) and Josef Fares' Jalla! Jalla! (2000)—to name just two main examples—has, perhaps, peaked in this last decade and "slightly faded", Hedling nonetheless solicited contributions from film scholars working at the Department of Film Studies at Lund University in southern Sweden, just across the strait from Copenhagen in Denmark. In his introductory editorial, Hedling synopsizes those contributions.

In "A New Deal in European film? Notes on the Swedish regional production turn", Olof Hedling analyzes the drastic industrial changes in Swedish film production during the last decade. In "The Black Pimpernel: The Biopic as a mediator of the past" Tommy Gustafsson traces the history of Harald Edelstam, Swedish ambassador in Santiago during the Pinochet coup d'etat in 1973. Although The Black Pimpernel failed at the box office, Gustafsson's article "draws attention to the biopic in particular by discussing the 'genre' of the biopic in general and also touches upon the question of why some biopics succeed as mediators of the past when others do not." In "Cinematic Sex Education in the Twenty-first Century: Narration, Reflexivity, and Sexuality in Kärlekens språk (2004)", Elisabet Björklund investsigates the Swedish sex education film, particularly the remake of Kärlekens språk (1969) in 2004. Mikael Marcimain, the young director nominated in December 2007 for Sweden's prestigious Dagens Nyheter Arts Prize, is at the center of Mats Jönsson's discussions in "Marcimainstream? History in two contemporary Swedish TV-series." Finally, in "Hollywood in Sweden: Cinematic references imagining America", Ann-Kristin Wallengren looks closer at the direct influence of Hollywood cinema on Swedish film, both in terms of genre and, above all, the explicit use of filmic characters, stereotypes and common images and ideals.

Yet again, a great, informative read.

Cross-published on Twitch.


Anonymous said...

"In Arn, a particularly powerful historical fetish—the very foundation of Sweden as a country—can be discerned lurking behind the whole project."

This sounds like the same motivation for the making of the most expensive films in Thailand, about King Naresuan, again using the Lord of the Rings as inspiration to make a national epic.

Michael Guillen said...

Indeed! Never underestimate the vigor of the national spirit to harness any means of epic entertainment at their disposal.

Thanks for stopping by to comment, Peter. I wish you the best in 2009.