Our Roundtable this week is literally about the Round Table. At least, it’s about movies set in the medieval era in which the myth of King Arthur was spawned.
We’ll take a broad brush in defining movies that qualify as medieval. Basically, any story set in the Middle Ages period from roughly the 5th Century to 15th Century A.D. will do. However, I want to specify that the movie must take place on our Earth, not some fantasy kingdom like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones.
Well, clearly it’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I mean, do I even need to argue, or can we just agree that a duck’s a duck, and small rocks also float?
My favorite film set during medieval times (outside of Bryan Adams’ video for “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You”) is The Virgin Spring. Ingmar Bergman’s classic rape-revenge film laid the framework for nearly every other film within that horror genre, without necessarily setting out to be a horror movie. In fact, Wes Craven’s first non-porn film, The Last House on the Left, was a direct adaptation of Bergman’s plot. Even without the historical significance, The Virgin Spring is a great film. It’s slow and atmospheric at first, but then devolves into a rumination on brutality and vengeance. It has a meanness that makes you appreciate how nice most movies tend to be. Given Craven’s translation into a contemporary setting, the plot itself needn’t be set in the medieval era, but that setting does add to the film’s greater sense of innocence lost.
Forget King Arthur and his Round Table. I’ll take King Henry II, his deliciously devious wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their three backstabbing, neurotic sons any day of the week. The Lion in Winter may be grounded in history and take place in 1183 at the French castle of a bombastic English king, but it’s really a timeless tale of family dynamics. Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn (in an Oscar-winning portrayal) bicker, spar, flirt, twist the knife, and let their hair down in this bitingly funny and wonderfully literate portrait of palace intrigue. Both O’Toole and Hepburn relish every razor-sharp retort, and their terrific chemistry – as well as the priceless script – drives director Anthony Harvey’s underrated film, which also includes fine performances from Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton.
I’m an avowed devotee of Excalibur, and I think it’s the standard by which just about anything involving the Arthurian legend should be judged. However, to offer up another choice, I’ve always found the Robert Zemeckis-directed Beowulf from 2007 gripping. The mo-cap animation is excellent if flawed, and I find the cast’s serious plodding through the rise and fall of the title character to be so compelling that I’m immediately drawn in if I catch it at any point on cable. The movie was great in 3D in theaters (admittedly with plenty of gimmick shots), and it has been great on Blu-ray for ten years now.
The film snob in me wants to say The Seventh Seal, but I haven’t watched it in ages and I think Deirdre has Bergman covered for this topic. (Not to suggest that Deirdre’s a film snob!) Instead, I’ll go with lighter fare and admit to really enjoying A Knight’s Tale. The Brian Helgeland comedy is completely frivolous, lightweight entertainment that mutilates history for a laugh and throws out a constant stream of amusing anachronisms. It’s also very witty, breezy fun, and proved that the late Heath Ledger was more than a pretty face and teen heartthrob. He had charisma to spare. I’ve watched this movie a bunch of times and never tire of it.
What are your favorite sword-and-armor movies? Tell us in the Comments.