OK, quick! What are your top ten movies about the Middle Ages?
What, nobody responding? Can’t think of ten movies about the Middle Ages? How many can you think of, then?
Making my own top 10 list was challenging: there was a whole list of titles crowding the entrance. When I applied rules, there were still films that wanted to be let in. This list does not feel satisfactory, even after some serious head-scratching. Here are my criteria:
- They are mostly about England (with one exception)
- They are set roughly between the tenth and 14th centuries (i.e. no films about Rome or the Renaissance)
- No film adaptations of Shakespeare’s historical plays
- A strong bias towards historical films, but I allowed a few fantasies or films that stretch the facts quite a bit.
I have added a few sentences to each of my selections, so the post has grown a little long — too long for one sitting. Consequently, I’ll post it over two days, first five today, the rest tomorrow.
And so, here, in all its glory is my Top Ten All-Time Favourite Films About the Middle Ages:
- The Name of the Rose (1986) – My personal favourite, as it depicts monks in an isolated mountain-top monastery in Italy. Sean Connery plays a Cistercian monk named Baskerville who travels arrives at the monastery with his novice, played by a young Christian Slater. The two become embroiled in solving a series of bizarre murders inside the abbey … and of course everyone is tight-lipped! I like the silences in this movie and the pregnant facial gestures. Vivid references to medieval dental hygiene, or lack thereof. Great plot, based on the novel by Umberto Eco.
- Braveheart (1995) – A perennial favourite, especially for Scots and wannabe Scots, like me. Loosely based on the Scottish hero, William Wallace, who is played by Mel Gibson, in one of his definitive roles. About the Scottish battles for independance against Edward I. Rousing and inspiring and some of the most violent and grisly battle scenes you’ll ever see: medieval or otherwise. And Mel Gibson’s painted face in the famous “Freedom” speech is a great moment in cinema history. Won Oscars for best picture, director (Gibson), cinematography and others.
- Becket (1964) – Have patience with the Hollywood schlock at the beginning of this dramatization of Henry II’s murder of Thomas á Becket, one of the most momentous developments in the early Middle Ages. Superbly acted by Richard Burton (Becket) and Peter O’Toole (Henry), the film develops into a superb study of friendship and betrayal and the struggle between church and state. There is even an unsubtle undertone of homoerotic tension between Henry and Thomas. The screenplay won an Oscar in 1964 as well as 11 other nominations.
- The Seventh Seal (1957) – The existential bleakness of this film is almost too much for some, but the famous chess match between the main character (played by Max Von Sydow) and Death is worth the price of admission alone. A weary medieval knight and his squire are returning from the Crusades in the Holy Land and encounter a Europe in the midst of the Black Death. They ride through empty villages, groups of self-flagellating monks and townspeople repenting for the sins and corruptions of the world. The knight plays chess to buy time so that he can see his wife again, but Death is not the most trustworthy opponent …
- Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) – At last, a little fun with the Middle Ages. Monty Python “takes the piss” out of the period by satirizing pretty much every medieval archetype, starting with the horseless soldiers and the coconut-clopping assistants, the Arthurian legends, the belligerent French soldiers (“Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!”) and the “anarcho-syndicalist” peasants. Who could forget the Black Knight, who refuses to give up his sword-fight with Arthur, despite losing both arms and legs. The film was made for an absurdly low budget, but the Pythons wear it with pride. Worth watching several times!
See Part Two of the list in tomorrow’s post.