History will always trump horror, even if it is largely a load of crap like Medieval. I will explain more about that later. For now, know that I went to my movie app this weekend to see what was playing, and the choices were Medieval and Barbarian. I could not remember what the latter was about, so I refreshed my memory with the trailer. As it turned out, I had previously seen this trailer. According to my app, it also had the better reviews. Now that I have seen Medieval, I can better guess why that would be the case. As you will see, the film is mainly two hours of people wandering around in the woods with swords. The main character, Jan Žižka (Ben Foster), was a real-life Czech hero, then a part of the kingdom known as Bohemia. As for whether this is all historically accurate, I could not tell you. I am guessing there is much that is dramatized, and I hope there are no Czech fans of The Legionnaire out there that get mad at me for me saying so, or for the rest of this review. As a trained historian, I can tell you that there are a few problems with the history I do know, not to mention the actual title. Yet, again, stay tuned for that discussion.
Medieval begins with a voice over by Lord Bores (Michael Caine) explaining how crappy are the title times. Indeed, they do seem pretty bad with lots of people dying. So many people dying, including those tasked with protecting Lord Bores from a band of marauders. Watching this happen and riding to the rescue is Žižka and his men. They arrive in time not only to save their paymaster, this being their job, but to find out who is responsible for the attack. As it turns out, it is men-at-arms employed by Henry III of Rosenberg (Til Schweiger). Rosenberg is the most powerful and wealthy of the Bohemian noblemen, and is part of a cabal known as the League of Lords dedicated to overthrowing King Wenceslaus IV (Karel Roden). Lord Bores, for his part, sees Wenceslaus as the only hope for saving a divided and war-torn Europe, desiring his monarch to be placed on the throne of the Holy Roman Empire by the pope in Rome. He says as much when, thanks to Žižka’s intervention and to the surprise of Rosenberg, Lord Bores appears in Wenceslaus’ court and urges the king to get a move on to Rome. Knowing that Rosenberg is wanting to get rid of Wenceslaus, Lord Bores tasks Žižka and his men with kidnapping Rosenberg’s fiancée, Catherine (Sophie Lowe). The idea here is that having Catherine in their power will force Rosenberg’s cooperation. This is more of an irritant for the noblemen, who finds comfort in the arms of other women. Still, appearances being important, he sends his men after Žižka and company, who flee into the woods and begin the trek to deliver Catherine to Lord Bores. Seeing an opportunity, Wenceslaus’ brother, King Sigismund of Hungary (Mathew Goode) aligns with Rosenberg. Sigismund lends his support to Rosenburg, mainly in the form of Sigismund’s chief henchman Torak (Roland Møller). Torak has a personal connection with Žižka, having taught the younger knight how to fight. Torak is also ruthless, murdering Žižka’s nephew and driving the denizens in his home village out to join the rebels in the mountains. Oh yeah, there are rebels. Anyway, this is where the wandering begins. Torak and his men are trying to retrieve Catherine, and Žižka and his guys are trying to keep her away from them and head towards Lord Bores. There are battles, there are chases through caves, etc. Catherine gets taken by Torak, then recaptured by Žižka, is taken again, recaptured, repeat, repeat, repeat. . . . For her part, Catherine begins to see the problems that her husband-to-be is causing for the common people of the land. She also falls in love with her captor Žižka, nursing him back to health when he loses an eye in battle and is almost insensate from his wound. The final act of this plodding, möbius strip of a movie comes when Žižka has had enough of the political machinations in which he has become entangled and decides to take Catherine back to France where her father is king. His men decide they do not like this plan and betray him, though they do not kill him. In turn, they continue with their original mission of bringing Catherine to Lord Bores, only to find out that Rosenberg and Sigismund have taken over the palace. Luckily (I guess), Lord Bores had gotten out in time to warn Žižka and the rebels, who free Žižka. He then gathers up a new posse and heads to the castle. The stage is set for a final showdown, and of course he and Torak cross swords. Seeing the carnage around her and feeling it is largely the result of people fighting over her, Catherine decides to jump off the ramparts to her death, hitting a few rocks on the way down before plunging into a lake. Žižka tackles Torak, and they go down after her. Žižka subdues Torak with a rock under water before making it to Catherine. She dies in his arms. After this there is some information about how Žižka continued to leads the rebels against Sigismund, which, according to my research, appears to be untrue.
That problem with the history in Medieval mentioned at the end of the last paragraph is somewhat small when you consider the title. The Medieval time period is usually considered to be the centuries spanning the fall of the Roman Empire in the West to the beginning of the Renaissance. Put differently, it is a rough thousand years from 476 to about 1450. Please indulge me for a moment. I am sorry for delving into historical minutiae, but filmmakers often count on you, the audience, not doing so either. At any rate, the “dark ages,” as this era is alternatively called and Lord Bores described, were everything the opening monologue says. When you have one power basically ordering an entire continent suddenly disappearing, those eager to fill that power vacuum are often not eager to play nice. There were brief times of stability, such as that brought by the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire, not to be confused with the, er, regular Roman Empire, under Charlemagne. Still, today’s film is set in 1402. That is practically the Renaissance. One of the more famous Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles, uh, I mean, Renaissance masters, Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, otherwise known as Donatello, was born in 1386. Countries were still fighting each other, but by the fifteenth century things were a bit calmer. There was not this dire need for unity as Lord Bores kept saying. Hence, the title should be Barely Medieval, Barely Renaissance, or, as this Czech-made film called it: Warrior of God.
As a Catholic reviewer, you can imagine that I would prefer Warrior of God over Medieval, never mind the historical problems. Unfortunately, Faith is a bit of a sad mess in this film as well. Part of this has to do with history. One of the issues of the day mentioned in the film is the Papal Schism. From 1378 to 1417, there were two popes, though the Church only recognized the one in Rome. So did most others at that time, except for the French, who decided to have their own in Avignon. This supposedly had something to do with Wenceslaus IV and Catherine, though the movie makes this vague. For this reviewer, such references are frustrating because it paints that tired picture of the Church being this corrupt body on the whole. The rest of the characters do not help with this perception, either. The worst is Sigismund. Most of his scenes are of him praying before an altar asking God to give him the strength to do awful things. On top of being a poor thing for which to pray, it also does not seem to line up with Sigismund’s true character. My conspiracy theory is that whoever is behind the making of this film did the cursory amount of research I did, saw that he seemed to be a faithful and successful guy, and decided to make him a villain. You rarely see the good guys doing the things you would expect a good Catholic to do, but more often it is those who are up to no good, like Sigismund, on their knees before God. This is one of the more troubling aspects of Hollywood, even if this is a Czech-made film.
You could be in the mood to be bored out of your mind for two hours, though there are better uses of your boredom than to spend it watching Medieval. Besides the repetitive action is the repetitive use of drone shots. So. Many. Drone. Shots. There is also a good deal of blood and gore, with a little bit of nudity sprinkled in for no good reason. This becomes particularly prominent when you see Torak and his men pillaging a village, and one of his lot is raping a woman. On top of not needing to see that in order to understand what is going on, we could do without having to witness her clothes being torn from her. In summation, it is a film I would avoid.