The Crusades took place at the beginning of the High Medieval Era, when Feudalism, knights and castles had begun to replace the social and martial culture of Dark Ages Europe. Some of our most enduring legends and beloved stories come from this time period - from Robin Hood to Ivanhoe and El Cid, the heroes of this time period are larger than life. Edwardian and Victorian society idealised the High Middle Ages, longing back to a time of noble heroes and evil villains that never really existed. Nevertheless, tales of medieval knights and heroes remain popular in literature and in film, and there is a wealth of good material out there, both the more idealised and the more realistic.
Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
Ridley Scott's epic tale of the Second Crusade tells the story of Balien of Ibelin, a blacksmith who flees to the Holy Land after committing a terrible crime in a moment of anger. The film follows Balien as he becomes embroiled in the politics of the Crusader States and their conflict with Saladin, and ultimately the siege and defense of Jerusalem.
It wouldn't be a Ridley Scott movie without addressing some Big Issues©. Kingdom of Heaven is all about the futility of war, especially over religious arguments, and how it can blind people to the honour and nobility in those who might think or believe differently than we do. And while it is a message that I agree with and feel enriches the film, it might be a tad on the nose to some viewers. This movie proudly wears its heart on its sleeve, but if you don't mind that, or you can look past or even enjoy it, the film is a fantastic look at the people and places that were important during the Second Crusade.
- Historical Accuracy: 8 - While Balien of Ibelin did exist, the depiction of his life in this film is heavily fictionalised. The film goes to considerable trouble however to get the other details right, depicting the life and politics of the late 12th century Levant with care and consideration.
- Martial Accuracy: 9 - The depictions of combat and warfare in this film are fantastic to behold. Scott clearly went to great trouble (and expense), to get the big stuff such as the Siege of Jerusalem just right, while paying just as much attention to individual combat, armour and tactics. And best of all... everybody has a helmet, and a shield. Glorious day.
- Overall: 9 - As with most of Scott's films, Kingdom of Heaven is gorgeous. The locations, costume and props are deeply evocative, the cast is excellent and the story well-told. The film tries to strike a balanced view on the conflict and to remain as historically accurate as it can, and makes for an enjoyable and thought-provoking experience.
Forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1215CE, King John of England resented his pledge guaranteeing the rights of all freemen, and reneged at the first opportunity to strike back at the rebellious Barons. Ironclad tells the tale of the siege of Rochester Castle, which controlled all of Southern England and served as a gateway to London and the interior.
Ironclad was produced towards the end of a surprisingly fertile period for mid-budget European historical and fantasy films, joining such films as Centurion, Solomon Kane, Black Death and many others in my favourite films list. Ironclad's story is simple but excellently told, with great acting and brutal action bringing this critical moment in English history to life. James Purefoy is excellent as always, and he is joined by actors such as Paul Giamatti, Brian Cox and Kate Mara.
- Historical Accuracy: 6 - The Siege of Rochester Castle was an important event during the First Baron's war, but the film takes quite a few liberties with the historical record. There were considerably more defenders, and John did actually take the castle. The French only arrived six months later to oppose king John, and then more for political advantage than any allegiance to the rights of English freemen.
- Martial Accuracy: 8 - The combat scenes in this film are well staged and choreographed, and are some of the more brutal I've seen on screen. Overall the film does a good job of depicting medieval siege warfare, though again, there seems to have been a distressing shortage of helmets in England at the time. (Gonna have to let that one go at some point I guess.)
- Overall: 7 - While not the most historically accurate or opulent of epics, Ironclad is a thoroughly enjoyable medieval epic that fictionalises an important moment in the development of the idea that all human beings have an inherent worth, and are therefore entitled minimum set of guaranteed and respected rights.
The Physician (2013)
This German English film tells the story of Robert Cole, who upon witnessing the death of his mother to appendicitis, ends up apprenticed to a travelling barber-surgeon. Blessed (or cursed) with an ability to sense the moment of another person's death, he becomes obsessed with healing, eventually embarking on a journey to find and study with Ibn Sina, the most famous physician in all the Muslim world.
The Physician is beautiful and thought-provoking, depicting aspects of medieval society one doesn't often see on film. It provides a window on medicine in the middle ages, and an all too rare look at Islamic Persia and huge mistrust and misunderstanding that existed between the great cultures of the Christian West and the Muslim East. It takes place about 20 years before the start of the Crusades, and straddles the Dark Ages and Crusader Era, but in depicting Islamic society at the beginning of the High Medieval period, it is really useful to any Crescent and Cross player.
- Historical Accuracy: 7 - The Physician gets the broad strokes right, but plays loose with the specific details around Ibn Sina's life. Where it excells though is in depicting the time and place, capturing the glory of Muslim Persia before its fall to the Seljuks.
- Martial Accuracy: 7 - The film doesn't include a lot of combat except towards the end, where it mostly focusses on conflict between poorly-armed and trained combatants. What combat there is though is well-choreographed and gets the details mostly right
- Overall: 8 - The Physician is a fantastic film that gives an all too rare look at the Islamic Golden Age and the strides made in science, medicine and philosophy. While it isn't the best source for depictions of combat and epic battles, it is great as a source of inspiration for fleshing out one's knowledge of Muslim society during the Crusader era.
The Pillars of the Earth (2010)
Ostensibly a story about building a cathedral, The Pillars of the Earth takes place against the backdrop of 12th century England, during a period known as The Anarchy, when a succession crisis in England and Normandy led to civil war and an overall breakdown of law and order. The Anarchy took place just after the Second Crusade, and was a time of great upheaval in England that would see Henry II ascend the throne, and eventually launch the Third Crusade with Phillip II of France. The intrigue caused by these events caused immense hardship and frustration, and the building of a cathedral in such an environment makes for a riveting story.
The Pillars of the Earth is an 8-episode miniseries that spans about 50 years, and is adapted from Ken Follet's epic novel. It follows the generations of monks, builders and common people as they struggle not only against the monumental task itself, but also to survive in a period of time the Anglo Saxon Chronicle describes with "men said openly that Christ and his saints were asleep". The production itself is fantastic, with great performances by Eddie Redmayne, Rufus Sewell, Ian McShane, Hayley Atwell, Matthew Macfadyen and a host of others.
- Historical Accuracy: 7 - The town of Kingsbridge and the building of the cathedral are fictional, as are the main characters. The events of the Anarchy form an ever-present backdrop to the tale though, and the place and period are depicted with care and attention to detail.
- Martial Accuracy: 7 - Combat is incidental in this series, though there are a handful of important duels and battles that are generally depicted well.
- Overall: 8 - The Pillars of the Earth does a fantastic job at capturing the place and time of Medieval England, depicting the lives of both commoner and noble alike in their daily struggles. The story is epic, well produced and well worth a watch.
Robin Hood (2010)
Ridley Scott's other great medieval epic, Robin Hood tells the familiar tale of Robin of Locksley, newly returned to England from the Third Crusade, struggling to reclaim his birthright against the evil king John (Yep, the same one from Ironclad). Scott freshens the tale though by introducing a number of twists, and tying it more directly to the events of the First Baron's War.
Robin Hood wasn't as well received by critics as some of Scott's other films, with many feeling that Scott was perhaps a bit too on the nose with his themes of unjust war and vengeance, and that it detracted from the more mythic tale of Robin Hood. My own feeling is that, while some of the writing was maybe a bit dry, viewing this as a purely historical film it is well worth watching. As with all of Scott's productions, it is a well crafted film with good performances, evocative set pieces and a strong underlying theme. Russel Crowes accent notwithstanding.
- Historical Accuracy: 6 - Scott weaves the heavily fictionalised legend of Robin Hood into the real events leading up to the First Baron's War with some skill, though it will perhaps be a bit too heavy-handed for some.
- Martial Accuracy: 8 - If there's one thing Scott can be relied on in his historical epics, it is to pay special attention to the accuracy of the bloodshed. I particularly enjoyed the different perspective this film gives on medieval warfare - that of a lowly infantryman as opposed to that of a knight.
- Overall: 7 - As historical films go this isn't the greatest, but it is a good film once one gets past preconceptions of what a Robin Hood tale should look like. Good production values, acting and set pieces ensure that, even if the story fails to grab you, there is something of value here to any history nut.
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)
The other Robin Hood movie, Kevin Costner's so 90's version of the tale sticks a lot more closely to legend, with Robin the disposessed nobleman, and the real villain of the story, the Sheriff of Nottingham, played with gleeful abandon by Alan Rickman. It sets the story earlier, during the closing years of the Third Crusade and before King John's reign, telling a much more local story of petty corruption and intrigue.
The historical accuracy of this film is questionable. Despite being a big-budget 90's film, it sometimes feels more like the swashbuckling historical epics of the 60's. And of course that Brian Adams theme song... The film is great fun though, with both Rickman and Morgan Freeman as the Moore Azeem being a lot of fun to watch.
- Historical Accuracy: 5 - It has the trappings of a medieval film but its age is starting to show, with more modern historical films taking a lot more care to get the details right. Everything's just a bit ... clean. Viewed as a semi-historical take on the legend of Robin Hood though, it's decent.
- Martial Accuracy: 7 - It gets nothing glaringly wrong, with the costumes and weapons being fairly period-accurate. Again though, the finer details, of worn out leather and dirty linen, notched swords and dented helmets are all conspicuous by their absence. It all feels just a little bit fake.
- Overall: 7 - Despite my less than glowing comments on the film's production and accuracy, I'm still a huge fan. I partularly enjoy the positive portrayal of Azeem coupled with great acting by Freeman, and Alan Rickman chews so much scenery that you can't not enjoy it just a bit. If you're looking for something with a bit more value in getting the details of your SAGA: The Crescent and the Cross Warband right though, watch the other Robin Hood.
El Cid (1961)
Western, English-language films dealing with anything other than Western European history are on the rare side, and the history of Spain under the Moors and the Reconquista are no exception. One has to go back all the way to 1961 to find a huge epic portraying the events around the Reconquista's most famous hero, Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, commonly known as El Cid. Charleton Heston played the title role, opposite Sophia Loren as his wife Jimena Diaz.
Luckily El Cid is one of the better big historical epics from the 60's, and still holds up despite the sometimes wooden acting and unfortunate use of western actors in Moorish roles. It was a different time in film-making though, and if you can look past its shortcomings, El Cid has some great battles. It touches on the main events of El Cid's life, and while considerable liberties are taken, there is enough there to serve as a starting point for anybody who is interested to go digging a bit deeper.
- Historical Accuracy: 5 - El Cid touches on the main events in the protagonist's life, but plays fast and loose with the details. Characters are aged up or down, events are shifted around or omitted altogether, but it does serve as a starting point to El Cid's life and accomplishments.
- Martial Accuracy: 5 - As with so many earlier historical films, El Cid really suffers from a lack of an additional 50-odd years of historical research. Everything is clean and glossy, a bit too produced, but the film does manage to capture the feel of Medieval and Moorish Spain
- Overall: 6 - It shows its age, but as the only film to deal with Spain during the Crusader Era, it still has value in providing a viewer with a borad overview of the various factions, people and places of importance during the Reconquista.
Honourable Mentions, AKA the 'To Watch' pile.
- Arn: The Knight Templar (2007) - This film and its 2008 sequel, The Kingdom at Road's End, tell the tale of Arn Magnusson, a Swedish Knight Templar banished to penance in the Holy Land. Based on a trilogy of novels by Jan Guillou, the film adaptation is well-reviewed and considered to be quite accurate in its portrayal of Crusader Era warfare and politics. Being a Swedish film, it's a bit harder to get a hold of, but it is available online via Netflix, Amazon and other avenues. I'm definitely looking forward to this one.