It is a part of history which does not get the attention it deserves – the middle ages give so much potential for film makers across the globe but unfortunately they are often too expensive to make or require dragons and magic to make it “interesting”. For that purpose, we will not be including any fantasy medieval in this list (Sorry King Arthur: Legend of the Sword 2017). But what makes a good medieval movie? For us it has to be gritty, ruthless and dark. My personal favourite season of Game of Thrones was the first one… The one with realistic sword fights, very limited magic and a reliance on practical effects instead of CGI – and that is also what has influenced the list we have today (with a few exceptions).
Let us know if you agree with our list – if you think we’ve missed something or disagree let us know in the comments!
1. Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
I remember when my sister and mum went to see this at the cinema, I was deemed too young and had to stay behind at home – as a child obsessed with knights I was suitably disappointed especially as my sister’s main reason for going was for her dreamy Orlando Bloom. They came home thoroughly displeased and when I asked why they said “It was just so depressing and dark, there wasn’t a single bit of comic relief or happy moment.” This stuck with me right until I watched the film during which I retrospectively agreed with them but instead I had absolutely loved it because of those things.
Kingdom of Heaven is a brutal and frank look at the cause of the Third Crusade – the critical loss of Jerusalem to Saladin, leader of the Ayyubid Sultanate. In the film we follow Balian of Ibelin (very loosely based on the real Balian’s life) as he leaves his small French village to become a Crusader and travel across the sea to the Holy Land where he seeks redemption, purpose and glory. What he finds instead is death, disease, futility of war and ultimately how religion can polarise men who would otherwise likely be friends.
The battles and siege work throughout Kingdom of Heaven are a feast for the eyes and the sheer amount of extras involved in this production is outstanding. In many ways it is ahead of it’s time and it ages very well. Cavalry charges, catapults, siege towers and exhilarating close quarters combat are in their abundance throughout the film. Although Kingdom of Heaven’s main proving point is in the futility and pointlessness of the crusades it does not take anything away from the men who fought in it. Director, Ridley Scott, is very careful to show how both sides had their heroes and villains who were tangled up in the powder keg of the Holy Lands.
2. Outlaw King (2018)
Being set just a few months after William Wallace’s death isn’t the only reason as to why we mentioned Braveheart in the caption above. Like it’s counter part, Outlaw King, is filled with historical inaccuracies in order to show Robert Bruce in a positive light and the King Edward in a negative one – in reality they were both more or less the same level of good and bad (and Bruce was actually unlikely ever present at the Battle of Loudoun Hill). HOWEVER, I digress.
Regardless, Outlaw King, deserves to be in our list purely based on its absolutely outstanding production, exemplary acting and realistic foot solider combat. The first scene is arguably the best in the entire film, all captured in one shot the sequence lasts approximately 9 minutes covering a sparring scene, political discussion and culminating in the firing of the largest trebuchet the Kingdom of England ever brought to a siege. From then on the film continues at a steady pace but rarely lives up to what the first 9 minutes were like in terms of suspense.
If you’re squeamish then for full disclosure there is a scene you are 100% not going to want to see which involves a poor fellow being hung and drawn in what is potentially the most violent execution scene in modern cinema.
The combat sequences are deadly and the acting is spot on. Full credit must be given to Chris Pine, an American acting an old Scottish or old English role is always a challenge but he nailed it. If you’re a medieval film lover then Outlaw King has to make your list.
3. Ironclad (2011)
Ironclad had the smallest budget of all the five films we’ve included in the list at $25 million. Yet it is undoubtedly the most action packed of them all. We’ll say from the get go: do not watch Ironclad if you’re wanting a realistic portrayal of medieval society, politics or combat. Do watch it if you want a satisfying story, no complex themes, good fight scenes, blood, gore and an overall entertaining yet thrilling siege.
The medieval action adventure follows Thomas Marshall (James Purefoy), a former crusader and knight’s templar who finds himself entangled in a war against the ever tyrannical and vilified King John I of England. He bands with a group of men and women who hold themselves away in Rochester Castle and begin to defend against waves of attacks. Trebuchets, executions, archery, hand to hand combat – this siege has it all.
Large parts of Ironclad were filmed on location at the real Rochester Castle which gives the film a sense of realism in what is otherwise a sword clashing thrill seeker of a film. Thomas Marshall resembles what can only be described as a 13th Century armoured tank who is an absolute beast on the medieval battlefield.
If you’ve enjoyed films like 300, The Eagle and the series The Last Kingdom then you can’t go wrong with adding this to your never-ending watch list.
4. The 13th Warrior (1999)
The 13th Warrior got off to a very rocky start absolutely flopping at the box office and receiving a number of negative reviews. However, much like the Star Wars Prequals and a fine wine, it has aged tremendously well. Modern films are filled with CGI, complicated plots and photoshopped landscapes that look like they belong in a fantasy world. The 13th Warrior, however, is a breath of fresh air. Filmed almost entirely using practical effects and filmed in British Columbia meaning no touch-ups or photoshop was needed to create the murky, dense and misty woods of a medieval Norse-land. The fight scenes are not over the top and you can keep of track of what’s happening whilst still creating the chaos of battle.
Antonio Banderas plays a Baghdadi court poet who is also a skilled swordsman. He is exiled from his lands and meets a group of Vikings who he embarks on a journey with to a Lord asking for help against “demons”. The idea of a Saracen fighting alongside Vikings is not explored enough but Banderas manages to add his Zorro flair into his fight scenes. Whilst his combat encounters are swift, elegant and efficient – his Viking counterparts rely on heavy hitting, uncalculated swings of great swords to better their opponents.
The 13th Warrior is the Viking answer to 13 Assassins and follows a very similar plot which has largely gone unnoticed. There are 13 warriors, many with different specialties, defending a helpless town, outnumbered, booby traps and the majority meet a ghastly end… Am I missing something or is it the exact same plot?
Regardless, it’s a fun film to watch and follows the “Defend the Town” genre of combat films.
5. A Knight’s Tale (2001)
This is the film I was most sure about making the list, but also the one I felt might kick up the most controversy due to it being an adventure romance comedy film more than anything. But hear me out… I watched this film when it came out as a child and I absolutely loved it. Is it historically accurate? No. Is it a realistic portrayal of medieval life? No. Did it get me interested in medieval history? Yes. And that seems to be the case for the many thousands of children who got to watch it.
And to be fair to it, A Knight’s Tale never really tries to be a serious historically accurate film. It has a modern rock and roll soundtrack and in fact makes an effort to mix modern life with medieval fairs. The story is simple and endearing – a poor impoverished squire working his way up the medieval tournaments to joust his arch rival. The jousts are so entertaining to watch with splinters and knights tumbling off their horses. It has it’s serious moments, but the general mood of the film is good natured.
How can you not like this film? The sets are vibrant and colourful, the cast is stellar, the romance is bearable and the character arcs are uplifting. If you want a medieval film to brighten your day, this is the one for you.
When discussing actors who have sadly passed away it is only a matter of time before the tragedy of Heath Ledger is brought up. Many will say “I loved him as Joker.” or “No one will ever play a better Joker than him.”. For me, I always think of this film and I like to think of Heath Ledger like I think of William Thatcher – Cheeky, a witty sense of humour, life loving, putting his friends above himself and with a truly good genuine soul.
Agree with our list? Disagree? Let us know in the comments!