Ah, the Middle Ages. What better time to be alive? Between the bubonic plague, the hyper-violent religious wars, and the rampant lack of proper hygiene and basic cleanliness, the medieval era truly was a high point in human history.
In all seriousness, the Middle Ages were an obviously awful time, with virtually every aspect of daily life grueling and horrible in its own distinct way. As horrendous a time period as it was, though, many fantastic films have been made set against the backdrop of the Middle Ages, including numerous European and American medieval epics, in addition to movies set in Japan’s feudal era.
From classics in Japanese cinema to adaptations of Shakespearean tragedies, here are the greatest medieval movies ever made, ranked from best to worst.
Regularly raided by a gang of vicious bandits, a poor village in the countryside recruits seven ronin to protect them.
To call Seven Samurai the first modern action film wouldn’t be an exaggeration. One of the pillars of the Japanese film industry, it’s the legendary Akira Kurosawa’s ultimate masterpiece, combining a pitch-perfect script with some well-shot action sequences and similarly incredible performances (especially from Kurosawa’s favorite collaborator, Toshiro Mifune).
The Seventh Seal
Returning from the Crusades to a plague-swept Sweden, a stoic knight (Max von Sydow) is challenged to a game of chess by Death himself (Bengt Ekerot), the knight’s life hanging in the balance.
Another classic of world cinema, The Seventh Seal is quite possibly the most famous movie ever directed by influential filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman. Drawing on the foremost characteristics of the Middle Ages (plague, the Crusades, and casual violence in everyday society), it’s a brilliant film that explores some weighty existential issues in a non-condescending way, making it a suitably approachable movie for every potential audience member.
Hoping to retire in peace, an elderly lord (Tatsuya Nakadai) divides his kingdom between his three sons, all of whom quickly turn against each other in their bid to conquer one another’s lands.
You can’t mention medieval movies without Shakespeare, and you can’t mention Shakespeare without bringing up Akira Kurosawa’s brilliant rendition of King Lear, Ran. A vivid and stylish undertaking of one of the Bard’s most famous plays, Ran features some of the largest-scale battle sequences of Kurosawa’s career, bringing the full might of Japan’s feudal-era battlefields to the big screen without holding anything back.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
In search of the coveted Holy Grail, King Arthur (Graham Chapman) recruits a contingent of brave but foolish knights to his cause, embarking on a journey that takes them face to face with eccentric wizards, man-eating rabbits, and rival French soldiers.
More a mockery of medieval films than anything else, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is perhaps the crowning achievement of Monty Python’s work together, showcasing the indomitable talent of Britain’s celebrated comedy troupe at their absolute best. A satirical take on Arthurian legend, it’s lightweight, fun, and openly lampoons many aspects of medieval life, featuring some of Python’s most standout comedic moments.
Chimes at Midnight
As his estranged royal father (John Gielgud) tries to stamp out a rebellion against England’s monarchy, the immature Prince Hal (Keith Baxter) must heed his father’s desperate cries for help, thrusting him and his best friend, the life-loving Falstaff (Orson Welles), to the front lines of battle.
Influential filmmaker Orson Welles has always expressed a deep interest in Shakespeare, having directed and starred in some of the Bard’s most famous plays on-screen and on the stage. With Chimes at Midnight, Welles channels his love and knowledge of Shakespeare’s work to deliver an abbreviated version of the Henriad, mixing elements from Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. The result is a film that lives up to Shakespeare’s creative vision, encapsulating Hal’s transcendence from a carefree, fun-loving youth into the cold-hearted Henry V.
Goaded into war by the King of France (Paul Scofield), the recently-crowned King of England, Henry V (Kenneth Branagh), launches a massive invasion of France from the sea.
Shakespeare’s follow-up to Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, Henry V sees the titular monarch encounter his first true test as a king, battling France, the fleeting morale of his army, and his own inner uncertainty regarding his ability to rule. Incidentally making for a great double feature with the above Chimes at Midnight, it’s Branagh’s best Shakespearean film to date.
The Passion of Joan of Arc
Captured by clergymen loyal to England, the devout Joan of Arc (Renée Jeanne Falconetti) faces an intense tribunal from her religious gaolers, most of whom try to get her to rescind her claims that she is a messenger sent from God.
An early classic from the silent era, The Passion of Joan of Arc continues to resonate among modern audiences nearly a century later for its brilliant innovations and harrowing narrative. Based on actual historical records of Joan of Arc’s trial and sentencing, it’s a film well worthy of the name of France’s patron saint, portraying her complete, unwavering faithfulness to religious belief amidst barbaric threats of torture and death.
Confronted by the ghost of his father, the young Prince Hamlet (Laurence Olivier) must decide on whether to kill his kingly uncle (Basil Sydney), who he believes has murdered his father to ascend to the throne.
As mentioned previously, you can’t bring up medieval films without bringing up Shakespeare. As closely tied to the Bard’s name as Iago, Lear, or Romeo and Juliet is the definitively greatest Shakespearean actor, Laurence Olivier. A director and actor of virtually limitless potential, Olivier produced several adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, but it’s his 1948 film, Hamlet, that remains his best.
Having grown tired of the autocratic rule of England, the people of Scotland rally around the noble warrior William Wallace (Mel Gibson), who leads an army against the mighty forces of England’s King Edward I (Patrick McGoohan).
Though its presentation of historical events is shockingly inaccurate and oversimplified for dramatic effect, Braveheart continues to be the best film ever directed by Gibson, as well as containing his greatest performance as an actor. The brutality of the battle scenes alone are worthy of praise, as is the movie’s exploration of freedom in the face of tyrannical authoritarianism.
Andrei Rublev (Anatoly Solonitsyn) is a renowned icon painter in 15th-century Russia. Over the course of his lifetime, he witnesses the changing atmosphere of medieval Russia, characterized by constant war between rival nobles and the looming threat of a Tatar invasion.
While the film’s study of Rublev is largely dramatized, Andrei Tarkovsky’s look at life in medieval Russia is mostly factual, portraying it with startling clarity and authenticity. The most ambitious of Tarkovsky’s many films, Andrei Rublev is as much a representation of contemporary artistry at the time of its making (the Soviet Union in the mid 1960s) as it is an examination of Rublev’s lifetime.
After his royal father (Ethan Hawke) is killed by his usurping uncle (Claes Bang), the Viking prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) goes on the run. Growing into adulthood, Amleth uses the help of a young witch (Anya Taylor-Joy) to plot revenge against his uncle.
Adapted from the Norse legend of Amleth – the main narrative influence for Shakespeare’s Hamlet – The Northman is a disturbing and brutal film from the promising young director, Robert Eggers. Shocking, disorienting, and hallucinogenic to no end, it’s like a heavy metal adaptation of Skyrim, complete with numerous medieval Norse conventions like Vikings, draugs, and otherworldly valkyries bound for Valhalla.
The Last Duel
Accused of a heinous crime by his friend’s wife (Jodie Comer), a squire (Adam Driver) is forced to battle the knight (Matt Damon) he once apprenticed for in what would later become known as the last judicial duel in French history.
Touching upon its historical source material in a wholly unconventional way, The Last Duel presents its central storyline from three different points of view, all told in succession (think of a medieval European version of Rashomon). Director Ridley Scott’s most impressive film in years, The Last Duel raises some poignant questions about truth, perspective, and friendship, boasting fine performances from its three principal leads.
Facing an invasion from the Catholic Teutonic Order in the 13th century, Russia’s population calls for the former prince Alexander Nevsky (Nikolay Cherkasov) to defend the state of Novgorod from the ruthless aggressors.
A titan in the early Russian film industry, Sergei Eisenstein will forever be singled out for his iconic silent film, Battleship Potemkin. Aside from that monumental 1925 drama film, Eisenstein’s achievements in the world of film are clear in each of his movies, most especially Alexander Nevsky. Known for its famous battle sequences above all else, it’s a lasting testament to Eisenstein’s foremost skills as a director.
The Green Knight
Looking to fulfill his end of a bargain, King Arthur’s nephew, Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), travels across medieval England to meet the mythical Green Knight (Ralph Ineson).
Along with The Northman, The Green Knight is among the best medieval films of recent memory. A luminous and psychedelic take on the Arthurian legend of Gawain and his duel with the eponymous Green Knight, it examines some fascinating aspects of Gawain’s story, including masculinity, nobility, destiny, and bravery.
Kingdom of Heaven
Following in his noble father’s (Liam Neeson) footsteps, a French blacksmith (Orlando Bloom) ventures to the Holy Land, aiding the Catholic Crusaders’ efforts to defend Jerusalem from the powerful Sultan, Saladin (Ghassan Massoud).
While the theatrical cut is middling at best, the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven ranks with the best of Ridley Scott’s filmography, every bit as singularly great as Scott’s work on Gladiator. Exploring religious fundamentalism, fate, and the Western world’s growing involvement in the Middle East, it’s a spectacularly underrated entry in Scott’s large body of work.