Top movies about the Middle Ages

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A YouTube influencer below picked his top ten medieval movies so let’s see what he went for and whether I agree – see his video at the bottom of this post…

His first is El Cid with Charlton Heston in the lead role.  A typical 1960s historical star vehicle but with a memorable scene where El Cid – scourge of the muslims in medieval Andalusia (though often working for them as a mercenary) – rides out to his last battle….with one twist, he’s already dead.  Sorry, that’s kind of ruined the movie a bit.  Whoops!

13th Warrior is a good choice.  Not the critics’ favourite movie though.  Set in the Dark Ages, a young Islamic noble is sent to live among the Vikings of northern Europe.  There’s a good contrast between the civilised world he has come from and the uncouth one he is forced to join.   The muslim east had inherited all the refinement of Rome and Persia and the learning of Greece but Antonio Banderas, who plays the young Saracen, has to forget all that to fight shoulder to shoulder with his new Viking chums against a mysterious beast.

At number eight, my friend on YouTube has picked The War Lord – another Charlton Heston vehicle but arguably more sinister and brutal than El Cid.

Next up is Ladyhawke – an 80s fantasy thriller where two medieval lovers have difficulty consummating their love as one habitually transforms in to a wolf and the other in to a hawk.  Only by lifting a curse can they get down to it.

Juana La Loca is more my cup of tea – about the first queen of a united Spain and the onset of her madness, believed now to have been clinical depression.  The movie puts forward its explanation for why her majesty lost her marbles.

Kingdom of Heaven is next up.  Obviously steeped in the Templar period and covering the events around the Battle of Hattin, it’s a movie of huge interest to those who study the Knights Templar.  Director Ridley Scott was accused of presenting a nineteenth century romantic view of the struggle between crusaders and Saracens though one has to allow for some dramatic license.  I thought the depiction of Saladin and of the leper king Baldwin were excellent and the battle scenes were gripping.  Where the film fell down for me, as for others, was the casting of Orlando Bloom.  I shall say no more.

Henry V – the Kenneth Branagh version and not the Laurence Olivier war-time movie – is a strangely dated choice.  But it was hugely popular at the time and Branagh evoked a medieval battlefield that was in tune with our modern knowledge of war as messy, dirty and bloody.  No neat sword fights but heaps of mud and piled up corpses.  I remember loving Derek Jacobi’s ultra-hammy prologue at the start of the movie – worth watching just for that.

The Message – Anthony Quinn plays the prophet Mohammad and the movie goes through the key events of the emergence of Islam in the seventh century AD.   As an actor, Quinn always got parts requiring a heavy accent and strong good looks, so he played Mexican hero Zapata, Zorba the Greek, Attila the Hun and he even played an Italian pope.  I’m going to confess I’ve never seen The Message but will put that right as soon as possible.

Good choice of the Seventh Seal next – a Swedish movie directed by the legendary Ingmar Bergman fifty years ago about a knight returning from crusade who plays the devil at chess to be able to live longer.  Massively influential film and a recommended view.

The Name of the Rose is my YouTube friend’s first choice among medieval films with Sean Connery breezing through the movie as a monk getting to grips with dirty doings and clerical corruption in a monastery – ably assisted by a very young Christian Slater.  Based on Umberto Eco’s acclaimed book of the same name, it’s a great film and if you haven’t seen it – book an evening indoors with the DVD.  The fate of the papal envoy is particularly gruesome and well deserved.

My top ten would have excluded one of the Charlton Heston movies in favour of the Lion in Winter – the story of the tempestuous relationship between Henry II (Peter O’Toole) and Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katherine Hepburn).  And I think I’d have swapped Quinn’s biopic of Mohammad for the 1963 movie Saladin (or El Naser Salah el Dine, as it’s also called) because I have a hunch it’s a better movie and there’s lots of interesting resonances with what was going on in Nasserite Egypt at that time.

I would not have included Braveheart – a movie which has diminished rapidly since I saw it in the cinema many years ago.  Neither would I put in the fantasy stuff like Excalibur (which I enjoyed back in 1981) or the Lord of the Rings cycle (also enjoyed but wouldn’t want to sit through again!).

Mojo has also produced its top ten medieval movies – so have a look at what they chose:

Many of these historical movies exerted a huge influence on the writing of my Templar novel Quest for the True Cross which you can download on Amazon in Kindle and Paperback in the US and UK. See if you can spot the movie historical influences! And watch the book trailer promo video here:

7 thoughts on “Top movies about the Middle Ages

  1. I think the movie ironclad is the best of all mentioned, although, as a twist, I would add in “outlander” which may not be totally in the time period or about templars, but SIMILAR and a rollicking good story!

  2. Three you haven’t mentioned but probably should:

    1996 Series Ivanhoe, not a film strictly but a great remake with Christoper Lee as the head of the Templars.

    Robin Hood, the latest version with Russel Crowe, mucn improved Medieval drama and action.

    The best siege story is probably Ironclad, featuring a Templar Knight defending a castle against the mercenaries of King John shortly after Magna Carta.

    And finally…. Joan of Arc, the Luc Besson 1999 classic covering the Hundred Years War.

    13th Warrior is Beowulf related, so not strictly Medieval but Dark Ages, this could be upstaged by the 2007 Gerald Butler version of Beowulf (definitely not the Ray Winstone version!) and also by the 2005 film Tristram & Isolde

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