Battle Castle Review: Medieval Castles brought to life

Battle Castle LogoBattle Castle a new series by Parallax Film Productions (Blowdown, Ancient Megastructures) is set to debut tomorrow night on History Television (Canada). There are numerous posts on this site highlighting the media released leading up to the premiere. Like the medieval recipes they released (I recommend the Cherry Soup!) and the 3D pictures of the castles.

Yesterday, while sipping my morning coffee sifting through emails I received a package containing the first episode of Battle Castle featuring Crac des Chevaliers! I had a busy day scheduled and didn’t/wouldn’t have time to watch the show until late in the evening. And let me tell you how hard it was to wait nine hours to pop that baby in the DVD player!

Alright, kids in bed…check, refreshing beverage…check, lights out…check, let’s charge in and see how this series looks.

Battle Castle features six “medieval fortifications and the epic sieges they resist” and is hosted by the brilliant Dan Snow. Dan is a familiar face to BBC viewers hosting numerous shows including Filthy Cities, Norman Walks and Battlefield Britain. His passion for the history is captivating and draws you into the show. (As an aside, my wife wasn’t upset that Dan happened to be handsome as well. She said ‘he looks pretty tall’, but I knew what she meant…)

The Story
The first episode transports us to modern day Syria, where we find the magnificent Crac des Chevaliers, one of the best preserved medieval castles in the world. Crac des Chevaliers was given to the Knights Hospitaller in 1142 and that’s where the story begins. Battle Castle examines the location, the materials and the techniques used to construct the castle. But they don’t stop at presenting the concepts. They send Dan to Guédelon, France, where a medieval castle is being erected using only medieval tools and techniques. At Guédelon, Dan and the viewer get to experience how hard and time consuming it is to precisely crave and shape the stone.

In addition to travelling to Guédelon there is also a trip to Caerphilly Castle in Wales to see a working medieval trebuchet! Talking about the siege engines is one thing, but getting to see one in action is phenomenal. It’s easy to read about siege engines and say, ‘yep, they are big and take seven men to fire.’ But, seeing those seven men struggle and sweat as they lift the 2-ton counterweight to arm the machine adds a fantastic perspective to history and to the show. And they only did it once. Imagine if that was your job, for 12 hours or more a day! Makes sitting at desk almost enjoyable…almost.

Throughout the episode we are treated to live action reenactments of the siege. This adds to the visual appeal and the arcing story line of the episode. It’s easier and less expensive not to have these scenes, but today’s audience wants them, demands them even. And the producers rise to the challenge. The battle scenes are well done and put the struggles of both sides into perspective.

The History
So what about the history? Does it hold up, any fabrications to make this more sensational then it already is? Nope, not that I can see. Written by Nicole Tomlinson, the story of Crac des Chevaliers and its history are well researched. It’s not just a high level overview of the castles history; it gets down to the nuts and bolts (or stones and mortar if you prefer) as well. But not in the boring tenured-professor-lecture sort of way, it remains interesting and engaging throughout the episode. You will be absorbed in the story telling, waiting, wanting to see the outcome of the siege and which side is victorious. It covers everything during the time frame presented, from the Knights Hospitaller taking over, to the devastating earthquake around 1170, to the massive rebuilding project to create the castle we see today. The episode also offers a broader historical perspective for better overall understanding of the time period.

Technical aspects
Filmed in stunning 1080p HD the visual effects of Battle Castle are amazing. The use of different camera angles and points of view enhance the viewing experience. The multiply angles on the trebuchet point of view is excellent. The score grabs you throughout the episode and your sound system will beg to be turned to 11! The great use of sound will have you ducking arrows and wincing every time the trebuchet fires.

Battle Castle utilizes CGI effects to reveal how the castle would have looked in the 12th century The CGI effects are able to highlight internal tunnels, devastating trebuchet hits and wooden palisades long gone. However, the CGI did look a little clumsy when showing a rotating, topographic view of the castle, but overall it was used extremely well.

Final Decree
Battle Castle is a medievalists dream come true! From the opening scene I was hooked. The magnificent view of Crac des Chevaliers with wind swept clouds rolling by is awe inspiring. I can only imagine how it must have felt to look upon the massive fortification, knowing that against all odds you must break through its defenses.

Battle Castle has everything you could want in a historical documentary: an outstanding host, great story telling, well researched history and modern technology to tie it all together. Sending Dan Snow to locations like Guédelon and Caerphilly Castle adds an element of authenticity that mere words cannot.

For the medievalist this series should be mandatory! Armchair historians and non-historians alike will enjoy it for the excellent story and visual effects. While writing this review I racked my brains trying to come up with a series to compare with Battle Castle. There are a few WWII related ones but that didn’t seem like a fair comparison. As far as medieval documentaries go, Battle Castle is in a league of its own.

I understand I sound like a gushing school girl, but honestly Battle Castle is simply that good. It’s been a long time coming for a medieval documentary to hit all the senses, be enjoyable and historically accurate and Battle Castle succeeds on all three. There’s really only one way to decide, tune in tomorrow night and watch for yourself.

If you live in Canada you now have a new show to watch on Thursday nights. I highly recommend you tune into Battle Castle on History Television.

Now, for a bit of bad news, the series is only airing in Canada for now. It is scheduled to air in the UK this spring. For those of us in the USA, well, we are at the mercy of the BBC. They own the worldwide rights for the series. I would expect to see it on the BBC America channel at some point. (Of course that is total speculation so don’t hold me or anyone to that)

Until then check back here or the official Battle Castle website for updates.

Battle Castle premieres tomorrow night, 23 February on History Television Canada at 9 ET.

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