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Medieval Drama - Classic Movies

Good medieval drama and classic movies about the early days of the British Isles are in somewhat short supply, but when attention has been paid, great films have been the result.

Here's a brief selection of medieval drama classic movies about kings and queens, swordsmen and saints, drawn from the history and legends of the middle ages.

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Kingdom of Heaven
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Kingdom of Heaven (2004)
directed by Ridley Scott, starring Orlando Bloom, Liam Neeson, Edward Norton, Ghassan Massoud, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, and David Thewlis

It is the time of the Crusades during the Dark Ages - the world shaping 200-year collision between Europe and the East. Balian, a blacksmith, is called to the Holy Land. Amid the pageantry and intrigues of medieval Jerusalem he falls in love, grows into a leader, and ultimately uses all his courage and skill to defend the city against staggering odds. Destiny comes seeking Balian in the form of a great knight, Godfrey of Ibelin, a Crusader briefly home to France from fighting in the East. Revealing himself as Balian's father, Godfrey shows him the true meaning of knighthood and takes him on a journey across continents to the fabled Holy City. As Godfrey passes his sword to his son, he also passes on that sacred oath: to protect the helpless, safeguard the peace, and work toward harmony between religions and cultures, so that a kingdom of heaven can flourish on earth.
The Lion in Winter
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The Lion in Winter (1968)
directed by Anthony Harvey, starring Peter O'Toole, Katherine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, Nigel Terry, Timothy Dalton

Hepburn won one of her Oscars for her performance as Eleanor of Aquitaine, perhaps the most powerful and influencial woman in 12th century Europe. Henry II (O'Toole) and older wife Eleanor tangle over the future of the kingdom, while sons (including the future Richard the Lionheart and John, whose incompetence won us Magna Carta) plot for the throne. Not a happy family. A wordy and wickedly humorous movie.
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Becket (1964)
directed by Peter Glenville, starring Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton

Burton has the title role, while O'Toole practices his Henry II (this was filmed four years before Lion in Winter). Henry appoints good friend Becket to the archdiocese of Canterbury thinking to have a strong ally in the church. On the contrary, Becket takes up the cause of church authority over secular and opposes the king. Result: death for Becket, embarrassment for Henry, and a new saint for the Catholic church. Oscar for screenplay; everyone nominated. VHS only.
The Name of the Rose
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The Name of the Rose (1986)
directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, starring Sean Connery, Christian Slater, Ron Perlman

In this movie based on the book by Umberto Eco, a medieval English monk in Italy unravels a murder mystery. Considering that the reviewers worship the book (it is a great book) and that the movie, naturally, could not live up to it, they still gave the movie very high marks. That's great praise from a critical audience. And it has Sean Connery.
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Ivanhoe (1952)
directed by Richard Thorpe, starring Robert Taylor, Elizabeth Taylor

There are several movie takes on Sir Walter Scott's swashbuckler, but this one's best. Returning Crusader seeks to raise King Richard's ransom, receives help from beautiful Jewess (and Taylor was so beautiful), and fights his sworn enemy, an evil Norman knight. Explores anti-semitism and conflicts between Saxon and Norman, along with great jousting, battle and romance - all in glorious color. Classic 50s movie-making. VHS only.

Richard Thorpe and Robert Taylor teamed up a year later for Knights of the Round Table, another classic.
Joan of Arc
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Joan of Arc (1999)
directed by Christian Duquay, starring Leelee Sobeiski, Neil Patrick Harris, Peter O'Toole

While made for TV, this is an outstanding historical drama about the short and immortal career of Joan of Arc, respectful of her faith, the climate of early 15th century France, and the facts as we know them. Extremely well acted (though Sobeiski's Joan is a little wooden; it can be difficult to play a fanatic), with several famous actors in small roles. Well filmed and produced; our family was very moved by this movie. Whole-heartedly recommended.
Robin Hood : Prince of Thieves
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Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)
directed by Kevin Reynolds, starring Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman, Alan Rickman, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio

Modern retelling of the Robin Hood legend. Costner is his usual charming self, Mastrantonio is her beautiful and spunky self, Morgan Freeman is his wise and reassuring self. The best part is the hilariously wicked Alan Rickman as the sheriff. Incredible archery, exciting sword play, romance and action. Aside from Disney's cartoon version, the best of the Robin Hood bunch.
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Braveheart (1995)
directed by Mel Gibson, starring Mel Gibson, Patrick McGoohan, Sophie Marceau, Angus MacFadyen, Brendan Gleeson

As you may know, in 1997 the Scots voted for independence and, in 1999, sat their first parliament in almost 300 years. In researching these historic events, we discovered that Scottish Nationalists stood outside of movie theaters throughout Scotland where Braveheart was playing and handed out brochures to the exiting viewers. They attribute to Braveheart a profound influence on their countrymen's hearts and minds.

Just as William Wallace inspired the Scots of the 13th century to cast off the yoke of England, the story of his life, recreated with some (quite a bit, actually) historical revisionism by Mel Gibson, once again inflamed Scottish passions and contributed to modern Scotland's independence. And they say popular films are merely entertainment.

This is a spectacular movie, filled with memorable characters, some of the most realistic and exciting medieval battle scenes ever filmed, the lovely landscapes of Scotland, and a hauntingly immortal musical score.
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MacBeth (1971)
directed by Roman Polanski, starring Jon Finch, Francesca Annis, Martin Shaw, Terence Bayler

Polanski's version is for those with strong stomachs. Nevertheless, an outstanding film with a very dark vision of Scotland's most infamous king. Well acted, beautiful location shots (North Wales, rather than Scotland, though), and the famous nude sleeping walking scene.

For a traditional take on the play, try Macbeth, Royal Shakespeare Company starring Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judi Dench, filmed on stage in 1978.
Ran - Masterworks Edition
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Ran (1985)
directed by Akira Kurosawa, starring Tatsuya Nakadai

Magnificent retelling of King Lear brought to the screen by Japan's foremost director, Akira Kurosawa, now in a new and far superior DVD edition. Set in 16th century Japan, the heirs are male, rather than female, in this version. "As familial tensions rise and betrayal sends Lord Hidetora into the throes of escalating madness, Ran (the title is the Japanese character for "chaos" or "rebellion") reaches a fever pitch through epic battles and a fortress assault that is simply one of the most amazing sequences on film."--Jeff Shannon for amazon.com.

Though set in Japan, rather than England, this film is such a masterpiece, so much better than other versions of Lear, we just had to include it here. Highly recommended.