Ten Medieval Stories certain to both inspire and wonder aboutby Rebecca Huston
May 7, 2004 (Updated May 20, 2004)
The Bottom Line You won't find King Arthur or Camelot in this list. But these films will be certain to let you know more about the real middle ages.
I tend to get pretty fussy when it comes to films about the middle ages, that time between the fall of Rome and the death of Queen Elizabeth I, or for you purists out there, the years 500 to 1600 ce. You tend to think of the Crusades, King Arthur, knights in armor, fierce battles and all the rest.
But me, I tend to look at the medieval world in a different way, I want to know what was going on, not necessarily the stories that they were telling. In no particular order, here's my list of what else is out there besides charging horses, the clang of battle, and fair maidens swooning.
The Lion in Winter
Taken from James Goldman's stage play of the same name, this is still my favorite of the lot. Fantastic cast, great script, and a gutsy, thought provoking look at family politics. King Henry II of England has to decide which of his three sons is going to rule when he dies. And whether or not he's going to let his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, out of prison for good. The longer movie review is here.
The Name of the Rose
Based on Umberto Eco's novel of the same name, we get to follow a Franciscan friar, William of Baskerville (Sean Connery) into a forbidding monestary in Italy. With his young student, Adso (Christian Slater) in tow, we get to see the desperate poverty outside the walls, and a seething, corrupt band of monks on the inside, where knowledge itself may lead to damnation. Great settings, atmosphere, and mood, despite carving great slices out of the original book.
The Brother Cadfael Mysteries
Aha, another medieval detective story set in a monestary, but this time, it's an entire series. Taken from the novels by Ellis Peters, there's plenty of plotting, murder, revenge and politics, and yes, love, to be found here. Derek Jacobi stars as the clever Brother Cadfael.
Here we go, swinging into the Norman Conquest (surely the greatest snatch and grab in history), as a Norman knight (Charlton Heston) is sent to tame a village of them unruly Anglo-Saxons. Despite some really glaring historical inaccuracies, it's still one of the better films to come out of the sixties with a historical base.
Robin and Marian
James Goldman returns in this story of what happened after Robin Hood returns from running off to the crusades with Richard the Lionhearted. Maid Marian is a nun, Little John is wonderful, and the Sherrif of Nottingham is, well, a bit different than what you would expect. Sean Connery, Audrey Hepburn and Robert Shaw in an England that probably was.
Anne of the Thousand Days
Henry VIII, and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Great costumes, a stunning Genevieve Bujold and at least, nothing too cheesy about this one. Richard Burton makes a rather intriguing Henry, all roar, but soft putty in the hands of a clever woman. The longer review of this is here.
Another one of my favorites, this tells one of the most scandalous stories of the middle ages -- that of Abelard and Heloise. Mostly unknown cast, but again, great costumes, settings and a love affair (and its consequences), that really happened. You can still see the grave of Abelard and Heloise in Paris today, and read the letters that they sent one another. Not for the teens, as the film gets very frank about adult matters. The longer review is here.
Another little tale of forbidden love, this time in the lively, glittering Venice of the 1500's. Lovely Veronica Franco (Catherine McCormack) is desperate in love with Marco Venier (Rufus Sewell) but too poor to marry him. So what does our lovely, educated, poet to do -- why she becomes the best known courtesan in the city! Yes, Veronica Franco lived, and her poetry about men, women and love became quite famous. If you're curious, check out the book that the film was based on, The Honest Courtesan by Margaret Rosenthal. Costume and set junkies will have a field day with the over the top clothing, plenty of very good looking men, and some interesting cameos. Warning, this one is rated R for a very good reason. The longer review is here.
Royal Deceit/Prince of Jutland
Another film that sort of vanished into the mist here. Another true tale, this time set in ancient Denmark, home of -- well, let's just say that the young prince's name is Amled (Christian Bale), and he has an uncle (Gabriel Byrne) who has murdered his father and older brothers. There's also Mum, played to the hilt by Helen Mirren. You may have heard of this tale, but the twists here are certainly new, and very entertaining to see.
This time, it's the daughter of Anne Boleyn and King Henry VIII, and how a girl third in line to the throne became the greatest ruler England ever saw. Great casting, and Cate Blanchett shines as Elizabeth. Honorable mention here: Shakespeare in Love, which has little basis in reality, but still, fun to watch, and much lighter in tone.
So there you all have it, my top ten picks for those who want to see the real middle ages. I've purposely left out a few films, as I am not much of one for what Hollywood tends to do to history. One day, I will write up a list of the ten medieval flicks that I despise. In the meantime, give these a glance -- you might be surprised.