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The 20 Best Movies about the Middle Ages

08 May 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Gordon Knox

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The past may well be a foreign country, but in a world still plagued by political and ideological conflict, Holy Wars in the Middle East, and the threat of a worldwide disease pandemic, the Middle Ages is not so removed from our modern times as you might suppose.

The epoch has always seemed remote, however, not only temporally speaking, but psychologically and spiritually. That exotic, even alien, quality is partly what draws filmmakers to the medieval period, but there are many other reasons why they might choose the age as a vehicle for their particular stories and thematic concerns.

Some come from a propagandistic angle, evoking a nation’s heroic past as a means of fostering a spirit of nationalism. Some use the historical distance of the Middle Ages to deal with topics that were not open to discussion in their own societies. And then there are those who use the historical setting to explore themes and concerns that remain as relevant today as they were over half a millennium ago.

Whatever the case, the medieval past continues to fascinate filmmakers and audiences alike. The following list presents some of the more remarkable and interesting films set in or inspired by the Middle Ages.

Author’s Note: Although there is some dispute amongst historians regarding the precise dates the Middle Ages or medieval period starts and ends, the general consensus is the years 500 to 1500 in Europe and 1185 to 1573/1600 in Japan and so this list is restricted to films set more or less within that timeframe.

 

20. Knights of the Teutonic Order (1960, Aleksander Ford)

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An adaptation of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s bestselling novel Krzyżacy, Ford’s epic Knights of the Teutonic Order is a spectacular historical romance and war film set at the turn of the 14th century and chronicling the events leading up to the monumental Battle of Grunwald, when an alliance of Polish and Lithuanian forces clashed decisively with the invading Knights of the Teutonic Order.

Released on the day of the 550th anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald, the film was part of a communist propaganda campaign which accused West Germany of attempting to revise the borders agreed after World War II, and though it would go on to become one of the most popular Polish pictures of all time, Ford’s toeing of the party line did come in for some criticism – most notably from Andrzej Wajda, who accused Ford and his film of betraying everything the Polish Film School stood for.

The lack of subversive qualities perhaps accounts for Knights of the Teutonic Order being less well known outside the former Soviet Bloc than other Eastern European films of the period, which is a pity as there is much that is enjoyable in Ford’s film.

It’s a wonderfully old-fashioned paean to patriotic heroism and a masterful piece of epic storytelling reminiscent of the kind of swashbuckling adventures Hollywood used to do so well. Battle scenes featuring an incredible 15,000 extras gives you some idea of the scale of a film that easily matches the spectacle of the likes of El Cid or Henry V.

 

19. Vlad Țepeș (1979, Doru Năstase)

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Another film from Eastern Europe with propagandistic undertones, Vlad Țepeș is a historical biopic of the eponymous 15th century ruler of Wallachia – a figure seen as a Romanian national hero for defending his homeland from the previously unstoppable march of the Ottoman Turks, but viewed elsewhere as the epitome of tyrannical cruelty.

With its depiction of a medieval Wallachia beset externally and internally by enemies and its stress on the need for a strong, even ruthless, leader to ensure national security, there’s an unmistakable air of apologia about Năstase’s film; made under the watchful eye of Nicolae Ceaușescu (then at the height of power in communist Romania), Vlad Țepeș is as much about the Romania of the late 1970s as it is of the 15th century.

The film is though faithful to the historical records and it’s refreshing to see a depiction of a figure who famously served as a model for Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula without resorting to hoary vampire clichés.

Năstase had in any case more than enough ghoulish material at hand and his film is at its macabre best when recreating some of the grislier events of Vlad’s reign – from nailing the turbans to the heads of Turkish delegates who failed to remove their headgear in his presence (Vlad was big on etiquette) to inviting his country’s cripples, beggars and thieves to a great feast before sealing the windows and doors and burning the tavern to the ground (he wasn’t so keen on the welfare state).

Unsurprisingly, if the film aimed at rehabilitating Vlad’s reputation it’s not entirely successful: the indelible image of the film is a field of vanquished Turkish soldiers impaled on stakes as far as the eye can see – Vlad’s infamous Forest of the Impaled.

 

18. Häxan (1922, Benjamin Christensen)

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From the 14th to the 17th century, Europe was gripped by periodic witch-hunt crazes leading to an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 people (mostly women) being condemned and executed as witches. Christensen’s silent documentary-cum-horror film Häxan recreates in a quite extraordinary way the medieval mindset that triggered off this persecution.

Beginning as a lecture with panoramas tracing the roots of beliefs in witchcraft and demonology to antiquity, Häxan really comes to life in its middle part when it evokes such phantoms of the medieval imagination as the Witches’ Sabbath, demonic possession and bewitchery with an unprecedented and quite bizarre mixture of nudity, violence, extraordinary stop-motion sequences and grotesquely made-up demons. Banned outright in some countries, Häxan was and remains a film quite unlike any other.

 

17. Macbeth (1948, Orson Welles)

Macbeth (1948) Directed by Orson Welles Shown from left: Orson Welles (as Macbeth), Jeanette Nolan (as Lady Macbeth)

Welles’ first cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare recreates 11th century Scotland as a nightmarish dreamscape of roiling fog and nearly-impenetrable gloom. Welles directs and stars as the eponymous hero led by prophecy and his wife to the treasonous act that secures him kingship, only to find the crown and his guilt weigh very heavily indeed.

Marking a point in the American director’s career when he was making the transition from a Hollywood style of filmmaking to a more European one, the look of Macbeth – all light and shadow and tortured compositions – betrays an obvious debt to German Expressionism.

It’s a stagy production, but purposefully so; with its cavernous interiors, archetypal rock-hewn castles and primordial mist, the film has a dreamlike quality as though taking place inside the guilt-wracked skull of its protagonist. It’s an achievement all the more remarkable considering the film was shot on an old rickety Western set on the back lot of the Republic Pictures studio.

While far from perfect (the brogues are straight out of the Brigadoon school of Scottish accents and Jeanette Nolan makes for a notoriously awful Lady Macbeth), it’s a far better film than the scathing reviews it received from early critics might suggest. From its magnificently creepy opening scene with the Weird Sisters right through to its brutal climax, the film positively drips with atmosphere and Welles gives a typically towering performance.

 

16. The Decameron (1971, Pier Paolo Pasolini)

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Pasolini followed his Mythical Cycle of films inspired by the ancient mythic past with his Middle Ages set Trilogy of Life: The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales and Arabian Nights. Of the three, the adaptation of Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th century work is possibly the best.

Drawing on nine stories from Boccaccio, the film presents an unapologetically bawdy picture of medieval life filled with what ever the Italian equivalent is of joie de vivre. There are some familiar faces in Pasolini regulars Franco Citti, Ninetto Davoli and Silvana Mangano (as well as a cameo by the director himself as the painter Giotto) but the cast mostly consists of non-professionals drawn from the poorer districts of Naples whom Pasolini admired for their earthy looks and zest for life.

They make up a motley crew of murderers, petty thieves, adulterers and cuckolders, all seemingly united by a shared mission to break every one of the Ten Commandments.

Overall more joyfully amoral than immoral, The Decameron is perhaps Pasolini’s most fun film – a quality not often associated with the iconoclastic director of Salò.

 

15. Ran (1985, Akira Kurosawa)

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Although it contains no words by Shakespeare, Kurosawa’s late masterpiece Ran is considered one of the finest Bard adaptations ever committed to film. Drawing on the tale of King Lear, the film is set in Japan’s Sengoku period (1467-1573) and charts the tragic consequences of an aging warlord’s decision to abdicate power in favour of his three sons.

Epic in scope with masterfully choreographed battle scenes, beautiful colour cinematography by Takao Saito and a monumental central performance by Tatsuya Nakadai, it’s a work that perfectly captures the turmoil that overcomes a feudal society collapsing under the weight of internecine conflict (the film’s title can be translated as ‘madness’ or ‘chaos’). But it’s the haunting elegiac tone of Ran that stays with you, made by a director who, like his film’s hero, was in the autumn years of his life.

 

 

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  • Sercan I.

    Wow, great list dude! Thanks!

  • Jorge Pancolart

    The Last Valley (1971), Ladyhawke (1985), Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Excalibur (1981), Braveheart (1995), Der Name der Rose (1986), Conan the Barbarian (1982), Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991),

    Flesh+Blood (1985), Reign of Fire (2002)

    • knoxvillage

      A lot of those are fantasy and/or not medieval. Reign of Fire is set in the year 2020 for one thing! Braveheart, Monty Python, The Name of the Rose, Flesh & Blood, and perhaps Robin Hood could have made it, but I think the 20 films I went for are better/more interesting

  • Brandon Thompson

    Monty Python and the Holy Grail?

    Also most of theses movies are black and white so that shows how lacking hollywood is with medieval films

    • knoxvillage

      It might have something to do with my old school tastes, but I honestly couldn’t think of any decent films about the Middle Ages that were made more recently, especially coming out of Hollywood.
      I didn’t choose the Holy Grail as it would have stuck out like a sore thumb on that list, but you should check out Blanche if you don’t already know it. The Pythons surely must have seen it before they were making their own film, especially considering how much of an influence Borowczyk had on Gilliam

  • Daxton Norton

    Good list. Definitely needs Holy Trail and Name of the Rose

    • knoxvillage

      Thanks, Daxton. I studied the original novel of The Name of the Rose in a class on medieval literature at uni and in terms of its philosophy it could not be more medieval, but the film version just never really struck a chord with me. And though Holy Grail is very funny, it would have appeared a bit incongruous on this list. My tastes tend towards the dark and grim I guess!

      • Daxton Norton

        Thanks for responding. I love dark and grim films too! I have The Name of the Rose but haven’t read it. I definitely need too. Marketa Lazarova has been on my list of films to watch. And I love Bergman and Passion of Joan of Arc is a masterpiece.

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  • Scott Coveau

    Great list, have you seen The Devils 1971, by Ken Russell? A great story about religion, sex, and the crown.

    • knoxvillage

      Thanks, Scott. Yes, I’ve seen The Devils and it’s a great film, but it’s set in the 17th century so not medieval. If you enjoyed The Devils then I highly recommend Mother Joan of the Angels. It deals with the same story but is set just after the events depicted in Russell’s film

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DIAgK8575kE

  • EnosBurrows

    The list author is said to like “Eastern European and Japanese cinema from the 1960s and 70s, as well as the films of Werner Herzog, Andrei Tarkovsky, Béla Tarr and František Vláčil.” Well, everyone is entitled to their tastes, but I think it really weird basis on which to select a list of great films about the middle ages.

    While I certainly applaud looking beyond Hollywood for cinematic entertainment, there comes a point with film enthusiasts and cineastes when is no longer contemplating a refined sensibility with respect to film, but the kind of anorak obsessionalism one associates with train spotters and bird watchers.

    • knoxvillage

      I think you’re confusing the author bio with the article itself. Where does it say that the list is based on those criteria? It’s a list of 20 films about the Middle Ages that I personally consider great and of course it’s going to be subjective and informed by my own personal tastes (it’s in the nature of the thing).

      You’re welcome to your own opinion, of course; it’s just I’m having difficulty working out what you’re getting at. As far as I can make out, you’re saying the films are too obscure???

      • EnosBurrows

        I was interested in the recommendations, and will follow some up, but I think it odd to include no films that appealed to an average audiences. Ivanhoe, with Elizabeth Taylor, is based on the Walter Scott novel of the same name, the very novel that created historical fiction as a genre. Le moine et la sorciere, on the other hand, is probably the historical film that tried most keenly to reflect the findings of modern historiography in its presentation.

        • knoxvillage

          By ‘average audiences’, I’m presuming you mean Anglo-American audiences? Because many of the films on the list are very well known and popular in their own countries (eg. Knights of the Teutonic Order, Alexander Nevsky or Marketa Lazarova). But thanks for recommending Le moine et la sorciere. I’m not familiar with that film, but it looks interesting

  • Osnat Finesilver Barda

    Good list. I think you forgot “The Mill and the Cross” – a great movie

    • Piotr Grabowski

      Great movie, a real moving picture actually, but it’s set in XVI th c.

  • Zabriskie

    The name of the rose.

  • Oscar Carrasco

    La passion Béatrice ( Tavernier)

  • Wolfgang

    Beautiful list, although i don’t think Marketa Lazarová deserves the first place.

  • email_mike

    Wonderful list. I was a little sad to see that Macbeth (1971) didn’t make it on there, but if its inclusion would mean excluding one of the films you did choose, I can’t really complain. Here I wasn’t even aware that Welles had adapted it as well, so I’ll have to track that one down now!

  • Valentina Pasquali

    L’armata Brancaleone by Mario Monicelli.

  • JV

    Some of my favourite films on this list. Andrei Rublev, Passion of Joan of Arc, The Virgin Spring, The Seventh Seal, Marketa Lazarova, and The Valley of the Bees. (`Haven’t seen ‘Blanche’.)

  • Stelios M.

    I would also recommend Excalibur and Flesh+Blood.

  • Darren

    Excellent list

  • Aleksandar Šurbatović

    Now, thats what I call a credible list! One of the best here.