A Few Period Films
By Lord Sir Paul De Marseilles
Film is an incredibly powerful medium of communication. It can convey a broad spectrum of emotion. It can be entertaining and occasionally thought provoking. I have attempted to bring to you almost fifty (50) of what I believe are the best period films commercially available and set within the time period of 1000 to 1820. Many of these films examine universal themes that transcend their time period. It is my hope that you use these films for inspiration and visual resources to research the mind set, language, garb, and weaponry of this time period. It is also my hope that you will find a few of these films to be worth your time for the simple sake of enjoyment. Here are some period films, in no particular order, to entertain and, occasionally, to take your breath away.
1000 AD to 1520 AD
1. Henry V (1989)
In the Hundred Year War between England and France, Henry V emerged as one of the greatest of the Medieval Warrior-Kings. His deeds were immortalized by William Shakespeare. While there are multiple versions of this tale, this tale by Kenneth Branagh is simply stunning, particularly its rendition of the battle of Agincourt. For an alternative view, try Sir Laurence Olivier’s 1946 production of Henry V, which reflected the Director’s belief in England’s participation in World War II.
2. Joan of Arc (1999)
She was Joan D’Arc, a young peasant girl whose voices led her to become the Maid of Loraine, a champion for French freedom against the English occupation during the Hundred Year War. Her unlikely triumph and ultimate betrayal is both thrilling and heartbreaking. This film was shot in the Czech Republic and stars Leelee Sobieski as Joan and Peter O’Toole as Bishop Cauchon. Other versions of this tale include The Messenger (1999) starring Milla Jovovich, Joan of Arc (1948) starring Ingrid Berman, or the powerful and deeply disturbing The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), a silent film staring Maria Falconetti. For a more generalized and historically accurate portrayal, try Joan of Arc: Child of War, Soldier of God (2006).
3. Hamlet (1991)
Did the Prince of Denmark (Mel Gibson) see a real conspiracy behind the death of his royal father and the marriage of his mother (Glenn Close) to his uncle or has he simply lost his grief stricken mind? There are many versions of this tale of obsession, treachery, madness and revenge. This version deservedly won academy awards nominations for art direction and costume design. Other notable versions of this dark tale include Sir Laurence Olivier’s Academy Award winning 1946 version, which is now available on a Criterion Collection DVD.
4. Beckett (1964)
Set in 12th Century England, this is the tale of Henry II (Peter O’Toole), the great grandson of William the Conqueror, and Thomas Becket (Richard Burton), two men whose friendship and differing moral convictions set the stage for one of the largest conflicts between Church and State during the Medieval Ages. This conflict ultimately ended in the murder of Becket on the alter of the Canterbury Cathedral. This film was nominated for twelve Academy Awards and has incredible performances by its two principal actors.
5. A Lion in Winter (1968)
This is one of the best period pieces films ever made. Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn star as Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, two brilliant and ambitious individuals who created one of the most dysfunctional royal families in the history of Europe and produced two of the most famous Kings of England, Richard the Lion Heart and King John. Their family feuds led to multiple civil wars in both England and France. For a lesson in family in fighting, just listen to the sizzling taunts and insults flung between Henry and Eleanor.
6. Robin Hood (1991)
This story has been told in so many ways that it is hard to select just one. My personal favorite is this darker 1991 production with Patrick Bergin and Ulma Thurman. Their “on screen” chemistry actually sparks and Jurgen Prochnow is excellent as a Norman Knight hell bent on revenge for the taking of his “prize” wife. For sheer swashbuckling, try the Adventures of Robin Hood (1939) with Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and Basil Rathbone. For a more mystical version of the tale, please see Robin of Sherwood (1983) with Michael Praed and Judi Trott or the more recent and updated BBC miniseries of Robin Hood (2006).
7. Kingdom of Heaven (2005)(Director’s Cut)
Set in 1184, this film charts the journey of Balian, a French Knight, who inherits his father’s estates and titles in Medieval Palestine. Although heavily fictionalized, the film fairly accurately depicts the Battle of the Horns of Hatten, the siege and fall of the City of Jerusalem, and the aftermath that led to the Third Crusade. Director Ridley Scott delivers one of the most visually stunning and powerful films regarding Crusaders ever made. If you are going to watch this film, please view the Director’s cut, which stands head and shoulders above the film released in the theaters. For those interested in the politics, warfare, garb and the mindset of the Crusades, this is one of the best commercially available films to watch.
8. Ivanhoe (1997)
Ivanhoe, a Saxon knight, whose name was besmirched with the allegations of treason against King Richard, his Liege Lord, attempts to redeem his honor upon his return to England. In doing so, he must fight evil Norman lords and their minions, battle against the cultural and religious prejudices of his time, and eventually fights a duel with Brian de Bois-Guilbert, a world weary and corrupt Knight Templar. This Arts and Entertainment production is a wonderful depiction of Sir Walter Scott’s novel. For a more swashbuckling version, try the 1952 version of Ivanhoe with Robert Taylor and Elizabeth Taylor.
9. Alexander Nevsky (1939)
This film by Russian director Sergei Eisenstein is the idolized story of Alexander Nevsky, a Russian Prince who lead his people in their war against the invading Teutonic Knights and whose leadership ultimately led to their victory over the Teutons at the Battle of Lake Peipus. The film reflected the tensions between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany and foreshadowed the coming Eastern Winter Campaign of World War II. It is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made in Russian cinema.
10. The Seventh Seal (1957)
A Swedish Knight returns home from a Crusade to 14th Century Sweden, a country devastated by the Black Plague. While he mediates upon his life, he also plays a high stakes game of chess with Death. Directed by Ingmar Bergman, this film is widely regarded as a powerful film regarding the medieval psyche.
11. Seven Samurai (1954)
Set in 16th Century Japan, residents of a small farming village seek the aid from a group of Ronin to protect them against a band of bandits. This is Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece regarding feudal Japan. It has been copied on several occasions (e.g. The Magnificent Seven) but has never been surpassed. For other films regarding medieval Japan, please see Ran (1985) with its incredible and graphic battle sequences, the Throne of Blood (1961), a Japanese version of Macbeth, or Rashomon (1951), a compelling examination of the multifaceted nature of truth and justice in 12th century Japan.
12. The Warlord (1965)
A Norman Knight (Charlton Heston in one of the more unusual roles of his career) is granted a small fief along with the duty to defend a Keep in 11th Century England. After falling in love with a local peasant, events increasingly careen out of his control resulting in choices between duty and love, family and sacrifice. With the exception of the plot convention of “Ius primae noctis”, this is interesting and accurate portrayal of the aftermath of the Norman invasion and the social conventions and attitudes of the time period.
13. El Cid (1961)
During the Reconquesta, Christians and Moors fought with savage fury to determine the fate of the Iberian Peninsula. One of the best-known warriors during this 500-year conflict was Don Rodrigo Diaz de Biver, also known as “El Cid”. Charlton Heston stars as El Cid and Sophia Loren stars as Dona Jimena, the love of his life, in this production. This film was recently released in DVD as part of the Miriam Collection and boasts lavish garb and locations. It is a “must see” for those who wish to get the “feel” and “look” of medieval Spain during this time period.
14. Stealing Heaven (1988)
This is a heartbreaking and sensual recounting of the tragic love affair between Peter Abelard, a noted theologian, and Heloise, his brilliant student, in 12th Century France. It is also the story of two lovers caught in the social and religious web of conformity that denied personal lives to those who served God. Lovers to this day still lay flowers at their graves at the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, France.
15. The Reckoning (2003)
In the year 1380, a disgraced priest (Paul Bettany) joins a group of traveling medieval actors headed by Martin (William DeFoe). The troupe enters a small English village only to discover a mute woman accused of witchcraft and the murder of a small child. The priest believes her innocence and the troupe begin to unravel a complex web of deceit to uncover the true story behind the murder. It is a compelling and seldom seen drama about the interplay between morality and religion.
16. Tristan & Isolde (2006)
This epic tale is the likely source of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Set in 12th century England, the warlord Marke seeks to unite the squabbling English tribes to form a single nation to defeat Donnchadh, the Irish King, and his invading forces. Tristan, one of Marke’s greatest and most loyal knights falls in love with Isolde, the Irish King’s beautiful daughter and the future wife of his overlord. The love affair threatens to destroy the fragile alliance between the English tribes and ignite an internal war. It is a visually stunning film with incredible garb and beautiful locations.
17. Soldier of God (2005)
Despite the fact that this small and independent film has a distinctive political viewpoint, it is worth seeing at least once if only to make one think. Set immediately after the Battle of Hatten, a Knight Templar is mistaken for a local nobleman and taken for ransom. He escapes (or does he?) and thus begins a study of conflict between religion and faith, humanity and brutality as a Templar and an Assassin must overcome their hatred of each other long enough to survive in a world which is hunting them both down.
18. The Message (1976)
This Egyptian film is the story of the formation of Islam as told by Mohammad’s uncle (Anthony Quinn). The Al Azhar Mosque and University, one of the oldest Universities in the world and one of the most respected for its Koran scholarship, approved it. Anyone interested in portraying a medieval Muslim should watch this film.
19. The Name of The Rose (1986)
Franciscan monk William of Baskerville (Sean Connery) and his young assistant Adso (Christian Slater) must investigate a series of deaths in a 14th Century Italian monastery. In order to do so, they must use nothing but their wits against the murderer, the Grand Inquisitor Bernado Gui, and the religious hysteria and prejudices of their time. Based upon a novel by Umberto Eco, this film is a visual evocation of medieval life within the cloistered church environment.
20. Brother Cadfael (1995)
Based upon a series of books by Ellis Peters, Brother Cadfael is a former crusader turned monk living in 12th Century Shrewsbury, England. He attempts to bring order to a world torn by the power struggles of English nobility. These films were part of the PBS Mystery series and are an excellent introduction into world of Medieval Ages in England.
21. Braveheart (1995)
This winner of five Academy Awards is the story of William Wallace, a Scotsman who defied Edward I, the English King known as the Hammer of the Scots. While it plays fast and loose with historical facts, it remains a compelling drama of one man’s quest for freedom. Forget the face paint. Concentrate on the garb, arms, combat, and period look of the film.
1520 AD to 1740 AD
22. Elizabeth (1988)
This drama charts the great Queen Elizabeth I journey as she ascends the throne of England and encounters murderous politics, religious dissention, and the realization that her heart is no longer her own. Cate Blanchett does a magnificent job as Queen Elizabeth with a sterling-supporting cast of Geoffrey Rush, Sir Richard Attenborough and Sir John Gielgud. For two outstanding films about life of the Virgin Queen, try the BBC miniseries with Glenda Jackson in Elizabeth R (1971) or the more recent HBO production staring Helen Mirren in Elizabeth I (2006).
23. Lady Jane (1985)
The tragic story of the nine day Queen of England who was used as a Pawn between the religious forces of Catholics and Protestants following the death of Edward VI, the son of Henry VIII. Helene Bonham Carter does a magnificent job as the 15-year-old Lady Jane Gray. Aside from the love story, the film accurately captures much of the power politics of the time period.
24. Anne of the Thousand Days (1969)/Mary, Queen of Scots (1972)
Deeply intertwined with the history of the Elizabethan Age are the threads of religious rivalry and the love affairs of its monarchs. Anne is the story of Anne Boleyn and her courtship, marriage, and eventual death at the hands of Henry VIII. Mary is the story of Mary, Queen of Scots, one of Elizabeth’s rival monarchs on the British Isle. Both films embrace these threads and weave a tapestry of lust, love, power and loss. Both have been released as a twin DVD. For other films regarding Henry VIII’s romantic pursuits and their associated costs, try the Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970), a BBC mini-series, or The Tudors (2007), one of Showtime’s most recent productions.
25. A Man for All Seasons (1966)
This winner of multiple Academy Awards is the story of Sir Thomas Moore, a man who was forced to choose between his principles and his duty to his King, Henry VIII, who wanted official sanction for his pursuit of Ann Boleyn. It is a little dry but sports excellent costuming and dialog.
26. The Last Valley (1971)
Set against the bloody background of Europe’s Thirty Year War (1618-1648), the Captain (Michael Caine) leads a multinational and mixed religious band of brutal mercenaries into a small valley in Germany which is untouched by the insanity of the war which rages around it. Vogel, a medieval doctor who has lost his wife, his children, and his most of his sanity also stumbles into the Valley and so begins a duel of wits and reluctant friendship between the two as they attempt to preserve the Valley and its inhabitants from the forces of religious zealotry, lust, hatred, and greed both within and without.
27. Cyrano de Bergerac (1990)
This is probably one of the most brilliant stories of unrequited love ever told on film. Gerard Depardieu is Cyrano de Bergerac, a bold and brash master swordsman and poet, who loves Roxanne, his beautiful cousin, but cannot tell her of his passion. Instead, he provides the words of his love to Christian, a handsome cadet of his sword fighting company who then woos Roxanne in his stead. It is a lavishly beautiful film of passion, love, and tragedy. For a different perspective of this actual historical character, please see Jose Ferrer in the 1950 version of Cyrano.
28. Ridicule (1996)
What price is one willing to bear to save that which one loves? When do words of wit become weapons of ridicule? A young noble doctor, attempting to secure funding to save his lands and its people, discovers that wit and word play in the Court of Louis XVI can be the entrance to the power and monies or lead to the destruction of careers and social standing. This is an outstanding period film with excellent dialog and garb.
29. Dangerous Beauty (1998)
This guilty pleasure is the tale of a young woman in 16th Century Venice, a city where the fairer sex are decidedly second class citizens who are denied the virtues of education and relegated to specific social roles. Veronica Franco is denied a life with the man that she loves because of her lack of social standing and her failure to conform to the role that society has for her. With the aid of her mother, she gains wealth and power in a rival but interconnected world of Courtesans to the dismay of proper “society” and ultimately attracts the attention of the Inquisition. While the subject matter may not be suited to everyone’s taste, it is nevertheless a great love story with incredible garb and dialog. It is also based upon a true story.
30. Lorna Doone (2001)
John Ridd is dedicated to vengeance against the brutal and power hungry Doone Clan whose members have killed his father only to discover that he has fallen in love with Lorna Doone. So begins a battle to the death between John Ridd and Carver Doone for the woman who is the love of their lives. This BBC/A&E production sports great sword/gun play as well as several melodramatic twists.
31. Shakespeare in Love (1999)
William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) finds a passionate cure to writers’ block as he attempts to pen Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter, when Lady Viola stumbles into his life and a series of comedic errors soon follow upon her heels. This romantic comedy won 7 Academy Awards. In terms of its look and feel, this film is extremely accurate although its story line is wildly implausible. The last fifteen minutes of the film with Dame Judi Dench as an aging Queen Elizabeth will blow you away. The garb and witty dialog alone are worth the price of admission.
32. Much Ado about Nothing (1993), Merchant of Venice (2004), Romeo & Juliet (1968)
Enjoy a trio of Shakespeare’s better plays. Kenneth Branagh’s production of Much Ado is a enjoyable romp and a war of wits in the grand game of love and passion set against the background of Tuscany. Al Pacino is brilliant as Shylock in Merchant. While Romeo is the most overdone of all Shakespeare’s play, this production still stands heads above all other film versions. Just listen to the dialog in any of these films to train your ear before going to a Renn Faire.
33. Flesh and Blood (1985)
War Captain Martin (Rutger Hauer), leads his band of rough and ready mercenaries to reclaim a castle only to be betrayed by the Noblemen who has retained them. In revenge, they kidnap the woman betrothed to his son and thus begin a bloody battle to their ultimate demise. This film is a fairly accurate and brutal depiction of mercenary life and medieval warfare during the late medieval ages.
34. Captain Blood (1935)
This film started a generation of swashbuckler films in Hollywood and launched Errol Flynn into stardom. Is it realistic? No. Is it historical? Not really. But it is a lot of fun to watch as Errol Flynn portrays Peter Blood, an English doctor convicted of high treason against James I and subsequently sold into slavery in Jamaica. He escapes and starts a life of piracy on the high seas of the Caribbean. For other great swashbuckler films, try the Sea Hawk (1940) with Errol Flynn as Captain Thorpe, a privateer for Queen Elizabeth, or Tyrone Power in The Captain from Castile (1948) in one of his most famous film roles.
1740 AD to 1820 AD
35. Scarmouche (1952)
This film is set against the backdrop of the French Revolution. Stewart Granger stars as Andre Moreau, a man obsessed with revenge for the killing of his best friend. He secretly learns the art of rapier while hiding his true identity behind the mask of Scarmouche, a stage clown. While a product of the Studio system, this film has some of the greatest rapier fighting in the history of film. For some great swordplay in the twilight of his career, see Errol Flynn in Don Giovani (1954).
36. On Guard (2002)
Legardere, a French swordsman, swears vengeance upon Count Gonzague for the murder of his best friend, the Duke of Nevers. He raises the Duke’s only child for 16 years until it is time to reclaim her inheritance and to take revenge. This film boasts intelligent dialog, great quips, fantastic costuming, romance, and great swordplay. The only drawback is that it is entirely in French with English subtitles. Do not let that deter you. I would highly recommend it.
37. Brotherhood of the Wolf (2002)
This highly schizophrenic film cannot make up its mind whether it is a period romance/drama, a mystery, a horror film, a combat/kung fu action picture or a mixture of all of the above. In the end, it is simply entertainment. A mysterious beast ravages the countryside of France and threatens the governing French monarchy. Gregoire de Fronsac, a French naturalist, and Mani, his Iroquois companion, attempts to solve the mystery of the beast and, in turn, sacrifice themselves to Fate.
38. Rob Roy (1995)
A film about loyalty and honor set against the background of the Scottish Highlands. Rob Roy MacGregor is forced to borrow money from the Marquis of Montrose to provide for his clan. Unfortunately, the Marquis’s illegitimate son (Tim Roth) has other plans and thus begins a duel of wits, cunning, and sheer sacrifice as the MacGregor clan fights to survive against increasing incredible odds. The climatic battle between a rapier and a claymore is not to be missed nor is the deep and passionate love affair between Liam Neeson and Jessica Lange.
39. The Duelists (1978)
This film is based upon a novel by Joseph Conrad who, in turn, based his tale upon a true story involving two French Napoleonic Officers whose murky disagreement turns into a 30-year duel that ultimately consumes both of them. It is a compelling story of honor, violence and obsession. This was Ridley Scott’s first film and won awards at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival. It is quite probably one of the most visually beautiful films I have ever seen and is one of my all time favorites.
40. The Three Musketeers and the Four Musketeers (1974/1975)
The Three Musketeers (1993)
The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)
The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)
These films almost single-handedly made being a Musketeer cool again for a new generation. The first three films chart the adventures of D’Artagnan, Athos, Aramis, Porthos as they battle against the forces of Cardinal Richelieu. The 1974/1975 version stars Michael York, Richard Chamberlain, and Oliver Reed and is a wonderful romp. A not so close runner-up is the Disney version (1993) with Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland and Tim Curry, whose scenery chewing alone make the film worth watching. For a follow up, try The Iron Mask, which shows the Musketeers as they face life some 20 years later after their heyday. For an entertaining tale about revenge and the wages of obsession, try The Count of Monte Cristo staring Guy Pearce and Richard Harris or the rarer 1975 version with Richard Chamberlain.
41. Horatio Hornblower (1999)
This A & E Series charts the path of Horatio Hornblower as he encounters sea battles, storms, duels, plague, love and the “witch’s brew that is Command” in his continuing service in His Royal Majesty’s Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. The series stars Ioan Gruffudd who does a magnificent job as Horatio. It is simply high entertainment of the very best sort.
42. Sharpe’s Rifles (1993-2006)
Richard Sharpe is a bastard by trade, choice, and birth. This BBC series charts the adventures of Sharpe (Sean Bean), Sgt. Harper, and their band of chosen riflemen as they fight through Portugal, Spain, France, and beyond in the British army. This series illustrates the wars against the French as well as class warfare within the British Army and is set during the Napoleonic Wars. The series is highly addictive although the plot lines of some of the episodes are better than others.
43. St. Ives (1998)
Captain Jacques St. Ives, a French Hussar, is captured and sent to a Scottish prison. He meets, in his continuing adventures, the lovely Fora Gilcrest, her well traveled aunt, a lovesick British major, his long lost family, and more duels than any man could desire. It is a delightful romp, which does not take itself seriously.
44. Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Set against the background of the French and Indian Wars, Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) aids the British forces in their fight against the French in upstate New York and ultimately falls in love with the fiercely independent daughter of Col. Monroe (Madeleine Stowe). If the rugged Mountains of Colonial America and the climatic battle at the end of the film don’t take your breath away, you need to check your pulse.
45. Pride and Prejudice (1996)
Sense and Sensibility (1995)
Please have no doubt about it. These are what, in modern terms, are called “chick flicks”. They are also some of the most lavish productions of the Jane Austen novels ever made. For a afternoon of entertainment, try the A & E production of Pride as it charts the complicated courtship of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Emma Thompson’s production of Sense won her an Academy Award and also stars Kate Winslet. For a beautiful fictionalized film about the young Jane Austen, try Becoming Jane with Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy.
46. The Scarlet Pimpernel Series (1999)(1992)
Percy Blakeney, a foppish British aristocrat, leads a double life as the infamous Scarlet Pimpernel who risks his life to continually save the lives of French nobility from the thirsty vengeance of the French guillotine. There are multiple versions of this tale. The two that I would recommend are the A&E version (1999) staring Richard E. Grant and Elizabeth McGovern and the 1982 version with Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour.
47. Les Miserables (1998)
This is Victor Hugo’s great tale of revenge, love, loss and redemption. Inspector Javert relentlessly pursues Jean Valjean against the backdrop of the second French revolution. The performances of Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush are incredible.
48. Amadeus (1984)
This film will introduce you to some of the most glorious music known to humanity. This winner of 8 Academy Awards is the story of greed, envy, insecurity, and ultimately the madness of Antonio Salieri and his nemeses, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
49. The Russian Ark (2002)
Shot in a single take, Alexander Sokurov takes the viewer on a tour through Russian Art and history at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. This is one of the most visually stunning films ever made.
Please note that the opinions expressly in this Article are purely mine own and are not meant to reflect the opinions of the ECS Inc or any subsidiary of the ECS, Inc.