Sunday, May 1, 2011


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The film opens with a prologue describing how the barons of England, aided by the Knights Templar, rebelled against King John in a war that lasted three years and ended with the tyrant's defeat. John was allowed to remain on the throne, but at the cost of signing the famous Magna Carta ("Great Charter"), a document granting equal rights to all Englishmen and reducing the power of the monarchy. Not long after, however, he breaks his word and begins a bloody campaign of revenge against the barons who humiliated him thus, commanding an army of Danish mercenaries to whose leader he has promised that the Church would keep its missionaries out of Denmark in exchange for Danish military aid.
The abbot Marcus, leading three Templar knights who have taken vows of silence, shelters from a storm at Darnay Castle on his way to Canterbury for pilgrimage. Baron Darnay grants them accommodation, despite the fact that the Knights Templar had fought against the King, but mocks the silence and unarmed condition of the three knights. Abbot Marcus speaks in private with one of them, Thomas Marshall, regarding Marshall's guilt for the atrocities wrought by his hand while on crusade in the Holy Land, and promises he will secure Marshall's release from the Templar Order once they reach Canterbury. However, their journey is interrupted by the arrival of the King and his Danish army.
John orders Darnay's execution by hanging, and Abbot Marcus has his tongue sliced off by the Danes when he tries to intervene. Seeing this, the Templars reveal themselves and attack, displaying their superior fighting prowess as they cut a path to the grievously wounded abbot. Two of the elite warrior-monks give their lives to hold the Danes at bay while the third, Marshall, escapes the castle with the abbot on horseback. It is too late for the abbot, however, who dies of his wound shortly after; Marshall breaks his vow of silence to swear that his sacrifice will not be in vain.
Upon arrival at Canterbury, Marshall meets with Archbishop Langton, the author of the Magna Carta, and Baron William de Albany, a former soldier turned wool merchant. Langton reveals that the Pope has sided with King John, sanctioning the tyrant's revenge, and that he himself is to be excommunicated for writing the Great Charter. The three men agree that John must be stopped, and the place to do so is Rochester Castle: a strategically important stronghold that controls all of southern England. As there can be no men spared from the defense of London, Albany sets off with his young, idealistic squire Guy and Marshall to track down and recruit his old men-at-arms instead. They are to hold Rochester until the French Prince Louis arrives with his army in England to claim the English crown and save the realm from John's depredations.
Albany finds three of his men in town: Daniel Marks, a skilled bowman, Gil Becket, a sullen, smouldering warrior who fights with a poleaxe, and Joseph Wulfstan, a bear of a man armed with a serrated falchion, but a fourth turns down the baron's call to arms. On their way out, the party picks up a seventh member: Jedediah Coterol, a criminal imprisoned in the town stocks, who turns out to display a proficiency with throwing weapons. The seven men arrive at Rochester, however, to find that the King's men have beaten them there; a spy, having gotten wind of Albany's recruiting efforts, had sent word to John who ordered fast scouts sent ahead to secure the castle. Albany's party fights and kills the Danish scouts and then claims Rochester Castle in the name of the rebellion, much to the displeasure of its aging lord, Baron Cornhill, who wants nothing to do with the fighting.
Marshall takes over the direction of the defense, noting the castle's strengths and features and organizing the twenty or so defenders. Cornhill's young, beautiful, and disaffected wife, Lady Isabel, takes an interest in him despite her maid's warnings that Templars are sworn to chastity and are forbidden to interact with or even look at women. When John's army finally arrives and lays siege to Rochester, the garrison holds fast and manages to beat back the initial Danish assault. In the aftermath, Albany offers his men the chance to leave if they wish; none accept.
For the second assault the Danes build a siege tower, but the defenders destroy it with a makeshift catapult and the attackers are repulsed again, but this time at the cost of Marks' death to a Danish arrow. After this, the King's army holds back and begins to starve the defenders out. Back at Canterbury, the Archbishop is informed that Prince Louis is biding his time in France and negotiating with John, and sets off immediately to expedite affairs. As weeks become months and the hunger and suffering of the castle's occupants increase, Marshall leaves under cover of night and steals several sacks of food from the Danish camp, making it back just ahead of his pursuers. The defenders' morale is bolstered for the first time in months, and Marshall finally succumbs to Isabel's advances, breaking his Templar vows.
Incensed at this insult, John reveals to the Danish leader, Tiberius, that he had lied about the Church's promises and orders him to take Rochester at any cost or he "will be sailing home to quite a different world". Thus encouraged, Tiberius adopts a different approach in his next assault, and manages to sneak a small force of men over the walls before dawn while he and the rest of his warriors wait for them to open the castle gates from within. Guy discovers the infiltrators and sounds the alarm, but it is too late, and Marshall is incapacitated while attempting to stop them opening the gates. Tiberius leads the charge into the castle grounds and kills Wulfstan in single combat while his Danes slaughter the garrison. Marshall recovers in time to don his knight's battle armor and charge the Danes on his war-horse, buying time for the survivors to pull back to the keep.
Albany, grievously wounded in the assault, is dragged before the King and forced to watch as the hands and feet of garrison prisoners are brutally chopped off. After a defiant exchange with John, he is subjected to the same fate and then killed by being flung from the makeshift catapult against the keep walls. Seeing this, Cornhill tries to surrender, but after being stopped and berated by a grieving, enraged Guy, goes upstairs to his bedroom and hangs himself instead. John's royal engineers then collapse one of the walls by tunneling under its foundations and setting a fire from the fat of forty pigs, and the final assault begins.
Coterol fights a rearguard action to hold the Danes off while Becket carries Marshall, incapacitated again from his horseback charge, to safety. Leaving him with Guy and Isabel, and forcing Guy to swear an oath to kill Isabel if the Danes break through, he heads back to join Coterol and the two are killed. Guy, however, finds himself unable to take Isabel's life, and goes out to die fighting instead. He encounters Tiberius and is almost killed until a recovered Marshall intervenes.
Tiberius challenges Marshall to single combat, the giant Dane's double-headed battleaxe against the Templar knight's hand-and-a-half cruciform sword, and Marshall triumphs after an exhausting duel, symbolically throwing down his broken blade at the end of it. Horns are heard in the distance as the French army arrives at last, and the Danes disperse in panic. Marshall meets Prince Louis and Archbishop Langton at the castle gates; the latter tells him that he is now free of the Templar Order. Acknowledging England's new king with a nod, Marshall rides off with Isabel, while Guy tells his dead baron that "We held".
The film ends with an epilogue describing King John's death during his retreat and the reconstruction of Rochester Castle, and how it, like the Magna Carta, still stands today.


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