Many directors have made films set in medieval times, to mixed critical and commercial results. Guy Ritchie’s last film, Man From U.N.C.L.E. (it’s so good! And he didn’t even know how much people liked it), was critically liked, but commercially unsuccessful (seriously, go watch it. I’ll wait). Sadly, it seems like his King Arthur film may suffer a similar fate. In honor of his attempt, I thought it would be a good time to look back at a few other films set in the “Dark Ages” that never got the praise they deserve.
Kingdom of Heaven Director’s Cut (dir. Ridley Scott, 2005)
There are surprisingly few medieval epics, and this is definitely the best one of the past few decades. I’m specifically calling out the Director’s Cut, which clocks in at a whopping 3 hours and 14 minutes, (and some releases even include a roadshow style overture and intermission) as it is truly the complete film and a vast improvement over the lackluster theatrical release. The extra minutes actually fix Balian’s (Orlando Bloom) character, and his actions in the film have motivations to explain them.
Like all of Scott’s films, this is a technical marvel, and he uses cinematographer John Mathieson’s eye for landscapes to give the film a unique look. In addition, the shooting style feels like an homage to Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha in the way that Matheison and Scott use light and color, especially in the stunning battle scenes.
Robin Hood (dir. Ridley Scott, 2010)
Ridley Scott appears more than once on this list, and for good reason. Despite making some of the most beloved films of all time, some of his output is simply overlooked. The reception to Robin Hood was mixed at the time, but the film seems to have simply been forgotten. And while it doesn’t feature much, if any, swashbuckling, it is an interesting look at how a man becomes a legend.
Firstly, it is gorgeously shot by John Mathieson, like Kingdom of Heaven above. and while the English countryside here is mostly gray shoreline rather than the green we typically associate with Sherwood, some of the shots are still breathtaking. Mathieson also shot this year’s Logan, which also features stark landscapes as amazing backdrop.
Secondly, the cast of this film is also legendary. Russell Crowe doing what he does best, but also Oscar Isaac, William Hurt, Max von Sydow, and the always perfect Cate Blanchett are the central figures, and they bring gravitas and nuance to these figures. It’s a more weighty drama than most summer blockbusters, and it favors that over historical accuracy, which makes sense given its legendary objective.
A Knight’s Tale (dir. Brian Helgoland, 2001)
Another film not at all concerned with historical accuracy from director Brian Helgeland, the writer of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, L.A. Confidential, and after this, Mystic River (this is an amazing resume). He also wrote Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, which I did not realize until writing this post. More than the other three films on this list, this is primarily concerned with taking familiar iconography and crafting it like a contemporary sports film. It’s a fun conceit that works better than it sounds conceptually, and Heath Ledger’s charming lead performance, supported by the diverse comedic talents of Paul Bettany, Mark Addy, and Adam Tudyk, really bring the film together.
And no other movie can boast making me excited to read The Canterbury Tales.
Valhalla Rising (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn, 2009)
A polarizing filmmaker, this might be Refn’s most unique film from his entire filmography. It is his only film that takes place more than a few decades in the past, and perhaps his most sparse in terms of story. This is a fever dream of a viking movie with a silent protagonist (played with all the intensity of Mads Mikkelsen) going on some twisted journey. It’s a foreign language film that doesn’t require subtitles. Everything in Valhalla Rising is communicated visually, even religious differences and philosophical ideas. It is also interesting as the film is firmly pro-pagan, casting the Christians in a very negative light that is rarely seen in Western films.
Like most of Refn’s work, it also contains brutal violence and moments of beautiful stillness. Watching it made me uneasy, as there is just an overarching sense of dread that the film evokes. It isn’t a film that will appeal to many, but it is uncompromising in executing Refn’s vision.
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan has been writing thoughtful film reviews and pop culture commentary on and off for over a decade. He spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area. His other interests include comic books, coffee, experimental beer, discovering new music, and books.