|Synopsis||A iconoclastic mercenary is called to save a young noblewoman and accidentally steps into a conspiracy between the King of Bohemia's family.|
|Length||2 Hours, 6 Minutes|
|Release Date||September 8 (Theatrical), October 25 (Digital), December 6 (Home Media)|
|Distribution||Paramount Pictures, The Avenue Entertainment|
|Starring||Ben Foster, Michael Caine, Til Schweiger, William Moseley, Matthew Goode, Sophie Lowe|
Last year was a big year for medievalism on film with major films like The Green Knight, The Last Duel, and Benedetta hitting theaters in short order. That was followed in early 2022 with the release of The Northman being one of the year’s highlights. As my dear colleague Ethan McQuire argues, this proliferation speaks to a fascination with medievalism in modernity, that modernity is seeking out something in the old to fulfill itself.
I was more critical of these films though, noting these movies have a deep anti-medievalism streak and hold up organized religion as a force of ignorance and oppression. It was with that skepticism that I was interested in a new Czech film called Medieval that quietly hit theaters in September.
Violence/Scary Images: R-rated violence; brutal battle scenes with characters receiving bloody and gory wounds all across their faces and body.
Language/Crude Humor: Limited to none.
Drug/Alcohol References: Limited to none.
Sexual Content: Two instances of topless female nudity.
Spiritual Content: The film superficially explores themes of faith, schism, and duty.
Other Negative Content: Lots of lite-Game of Thrones style vice but never as intense as an average episode of that show.
Positive Content: Themes of duty and living up to them.
Disclosure: Geeks Under Grace received a screener copy of the film from Paramount Pictures
I feel inclined to be more charitable to Medieval than I probably should. That film has a really interesting premise and backstory and its status as a relatively small production makes it a less tempting target for ire. Ambition though tends to be the enemy of modest success and this appears to be a case where that has fallen through. Medieval is the most expensive movie ever produced in the Czech Republic and is also a major work of nationalist hero worship. It clearly wants to be more than it is.
There isn’t a great track record for nationalist filmmaking of this sort. For every national masterpiece like The Passion of Joan of Arc or RRR, there are a dozen Stalingrads or Dragon Wars: D-Wars. Plenty of directors can convince producers to pour millions of dollars into a movie so it can be sold as “the most expensive film in X history.” Without a clearer vision though, such efforts turn into expensive flounders.
That very much appears to be the case with Medieval, which promises so much in its opening minutes before falling into a slog of middling melodrama and tedious action scenes.
The story follows the real-life escapades of Jan Žižka, a Bohemian soldier and a member of the Hussite sect that, in 1420, lead a series of proto-Protestant peasant revolts against the Roman Empire, following the execution of the reformer Jan Huss in 1419 (who would later go on to partially inspire Martin Luther’s reformation). Much of what follows will likely feel familiar if you’re a fan of Kingdom Come: Deliverance.
The film’s opening credits tell us a large swath of European history in 14th century Europe—the empire is in tatters, the French monarchy is attempting to usurp the Pope, and the only hope to unite the empire is for the King of Bohemia to be successfully crowned in Rome. In order to do that, the nobles of Bohemia seek out a young mercenary, who claims he has never lost a battle, to help ensure the king does what he needs to succeed. What follows is an incredibly convoluted story of betrayal and rival parties who are trying to seize power over Bohemia.
The film’s premise is really solid—a Gladiator or Braveheart-style action-adventure story with drama founded on an escort mission between a Hussite iconoclast and a Catholic monarch. That’s almost a buddy cop setup or a romance film!
Alas, that isn’t what the story totally ends up being. Maybe the film’s $23 million budget prohibited this idea from fully blossoming but the final product ends up far more mundane than the setup could deliver. That shouldn’t be an excuse though. Plenty of great movies are made with budgets lower than that. The Green Knight only had a $15 million budget.
Instead of telling the larger and grander story of the Hussite Rebellions, Medieval chooses to tell a smaller character story about the young Žižka being radicalized against the monarchy and Rome. This could work but it requires a lot of narrative legwork to make this story compelling and it just doesn’t accomplish that task. It just feels like the prologue to a more interesting epic story. The narrative of Žižka and the kidnapped heroine Katherine bonding as they’re pursued by adversaries has potential and could’ve been a uniquely fascinating character study, but the film just can’t mine the introspection and pathos it needs to make that story work.
Much effort was clearly made to try and elevate the product. Michael Caine is on hand as Lord Boresh, a major figure in the story’s conspiracy, to lend some gravitas to the narrative and offer some legitimacy as a big name for the cover art. Sadly, his character is presented minimally and he can’t fix what’s broken.
Again, I don’t want to hate Medieval and I don’t. But I also can’t admit the things I wanted to like about it work or are in any way presentable or redeemable. If I hadn’t received a screener and paid to see it I would’ve been disappointed by the film. It could’ve been so much more.
+ Great premise and prologue
+ Interesting potential story ideas and character dynamics
- Weak performances
- Terrible script
- Poor editing and cinematography
The Bottom Line
Medieval is a disappointing watch for all of its ambition and desire to stand out as a major work of Czech filmmaking and national mythmaking.