Though films and TV series about the Middle Ages do not always attract the same level of love and critical praise as those set in other periods of history, there are still a number of notable films and TV series which take the period as their setting. For some time, many of these looked to the medieval period as a moment of chivalry and knightly quest. More recently, however, popular culture set in the Middle Ages has leaned into the gritty and grimy aesthetic, demonstrating how flexible this particular period remains and the many things it has come to represent.
If there’s one figure from the Middle Ages who looms larger than any other, it would have to be King Arthur. His saga has been reimagined countless times, but one of the more noteworthy efforts was the short-lived Camelot from Starz. Though it only lasted one season, the series was nevertheless noteworthy for the extent to which it straddled the line between historical authenticity and the core elements of this well-established legend. In addition, it features a strong cast, and Eva Green is particularly exceptional as the cunning and ruthless Morgan Pendragon, who wants to bring down both Arthur and Camelot.
Of all the films released by the Monty Python comedy troupe, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is arguably the best and funniest. A riotous and joyful send-up of everything having to do with the King Arthur legend, from King Arthur himself to Lancelot and the Lady in the Lake. It has all of the surrealism and absurdity of the troupe’s usual humor, but what makes it really special is how it seems to understand what makes the original legends so enduringly popular. Perhaps nothing highlights its premier status more than the fact that it ended up being the basis for its musical, Spamalot.
Based on the bestselling novel by Ken Follett, the Starz miniseries The Pillars of the Earth focuses on the residents of the fictional town of Kingsbridge as they struggle to build a cathedral and contend with the political strife known as the Anarchy. Though there are a host of characters, much of the action revolves around Eddie Redmayne’s Jack Jackson and Hayley Atwell’s Lady Aliena, with Ian McShane and Matthew Macfadyen turning in performances as the cunning and ruthless Waleran Bigod and Prior Philip, respectively. Though it can be a bit melodramatic and predictable in its plot, the series is nevertheless a good adaptation of Follett’s novel and a rich depiction of life and struggle in the medieval period.
In classic Hollywood, few actors were as dashing and handsome as Errol Flynn, so it makes sense that he would have been cast as Robin Hood in Michael Curtiz’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, released in 1938. It’s a Technicolor swashbuckler as only old Hollywood could have made it, and Flynn is joined by a great supporting cast that includes Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian, Claude Rains as Prince John, and Basil Rathbone as Guy of Gisbourne. What it lacks in historical authenticity, it more than makes up for in simple joy and exhilaration, as it sweeps the viewer up in the efforts of Robin and his Merry Men to topple the cruel and corrupt rule of Prince John.
If there was one actor in classic Hollywood who represented the epic film, it was Charlton Heston. Whether as Moses or Ben-Hur, something about his chiseled physique and simple physical presence made him seem ideal for epic heroes. In El Cid, he plays the titular character, one of the most celebrated heroes in Spanish history, a man who fought against the Moors of Spain during the Middle Ages. It has everything one expects of such a drama, with moments of powerful passion and others of deep introspection about the nature of religious faith, the bounds of duty, and the ultimate price of heroism.
Ridley Scott is one of today’s most versatile directors, and there are few genres he hasn’t worked in. He has proved particularly adept at the epic, however, and The Last Duel, while not an enormous success, is nevertheless a thoughtful exploration of the nature of patriarchy in the medieval world. It’s a grim and somber film featuring the superb acting talents of Matt Damon, Jodie Comer, and Adam Driver. It shows a grittier side of the Middle Ages than some might expect, and this is its great strength and the thing that can sometimes make it difficult to watch.
Following the success of The Witch and The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers returned to the big screen with The Northman. A retelling of the legends that inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it revolves around Alexander Skarsgård’s Amleth, a young man who swears vengeance against his uncle after his father is traitorously murdered. Though it has moments of camp excess, there is still a profound beating heart to this film that helps to elevate above its excesses. Skarsgård makes for the perfect epic hero, at once strikingly handsome and spiritually tortured. The film also excels at bringing out the cruelty and beauty of the Middle Ages.
Braveheart might not be known for being the most historically accurate of films — it jettisons historical fact altogether — but there’s no denying its power. Mel Gibson is in extraordinary form as William Wallace, the Scottish rebel who led his people to fight back against the English, led by their hard-edged and avaricious king, Edward I. The film is filled with rousing battlefield scenes and speeches, but it also doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of medieval life. This is entirely fitting, as this was an often-brutal age, and the film allows for a surprisingly rich understanding of one of the era’s most important historical figures.
After success in The Lord of the Rings and Troy, Orlando Bloom kept up with the epic filmmaking by appearing in Kingdom of Heaven. He portrays the character Balian of Ibelin, a blacksmith who goes to the Holy Land and becomes ensnared in the fraught politics of the Crusades. The film shows all of Scott’s keen eye for action and epic storytelling, and it was timely, as its examination of the relationship between Christians and Muslims dovetailed with the then-new War on Terror. Though it takes some notable liberties with known historical facts, there’s still an emotional truth to it, allowing it to become a surprisingly thoughtful piece of epic filmmaking.
The legend of the Green Knight is one of the lesser-known stories from Arthurian legends, which gives director David Lowery quite a bit of license. The result is The Green Knight, one of the most unique and innovative films about the Middle Ages. Dev Patel gives a masterful performance as Sir Gawain, who yearns to be the type of hero he thinks he deserves to be. It is a unique mix of magic and desire and dark magic, and it is also fiercely deconstructive, diving deep into the haunted spirit of folklore, forcing a reckoning with what storytelling means and entails.
As its title suggests, Vikings is set during the Viking Age and focuses in particular on Ragnar Lodbrok, one of the most famous heroes of the era (played by Travis Fimmel). As with so many other series, it takes some significant liberties with the known history of the period, but this doesn’t lessen its appeal. The series is remarkable for the extent to which it captures the grittiness and grime of the early Middle Ages. There is, nevertheless, a savage beauty about its presentation of this era and its most terrifying inhabitants, and Fimmel has a suitably fierce and intense charisma that makes him ideally cast as a Viking warlord.
Vikings: Valhalla is a spinoff of the hugely successful Vikings and takes place about a century after its parent series. In this case, it focuses, in particular, on the conflicts between the English and the Vikings. As with its predecessor, there’s a gritty and realistic feel to the show that is key to its appeal. At the same time, however, it gives viewers an understanding of the complicated politics that were very much at work in the period when the dominance of the Vikings was beginning to come to an end. It also features some of the most famous names of the Middle Ages, including Leif Erikson, Harald Sigurdsson, King Canute, and Queen Emma.
The legend of King Arthur has inspired generations of filmmakers, but few have approached the material in quite as unique a way as John Boorman. His Excalibur has many of the elements of the traditional Arthur story — with the boy raised in ignorance of his true heritage, his dalliance with his own half-sister, Morgana, and the doomed romance of Guinevere and Lancelot — but he glosses it all with his unique visual sensibilities. The film exists in the fraught territory between history and fantasy, with scenes of such brutality and beauty that they seem to sear themselves into the viewer’s mind.
Thomas Becket was one of the most formidable and noteworthy personalities of the Middle Ages. His friendship-turned-rivalry with King Henry II was significant for the men and England's history. Richard Burton (who plays Becket) and Peter O’Toole (who plays Henry) give stirring, soulful performances. They both excel at taking these larger-than-life figures and turning them into fully fleshed-out individuals, two men driven to collide with one another due to their own deeply-held beliefs. This is the kind of literate costume drama viewers can really sink their teeth into, and the well-written screenplay and the tremendous performances help to elevate it to the best the genre has to offer.
Based on the play of the same name, The Lion in Winter depicts a Christmas gathering of King Henry II of England and his fractious family, including his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and his three surviving sons, Richard, Geoffrey, and John. It’s a film filled with memorable performances, particularly from Peter O’Toole, Katherine Hepburn, and Anthony Hopkins. It’s a literate drama about a family damaged almost beyond repair. Moreover, it ably captures the toxic politics which were always such a key part of the Angevin family, a dynasty in which fathers frequently fought against sons and in which sons turned against one another.
Though it wasn’t an enormous success at the time of its release, The Sword in the Stone has subsequently come to be seen as one of the most beloved Disney films. Loosely adapting the first book of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, it follows a very young King Arthur as he becomes the student of the eccentric wizard Merlin. Filled with memorable songs, vibrant animation (including a wizard’s duel, in which Merlin and his nemesis Madam Mim transform into various animals), and some valuable life lessons, it’s a film that shows the extent to which, even in the post-Walt era, Disney still knew how to produce a great animated feature.
Disney’s Robin Hood is another of those Disney films that emerged from the 1970s to lackluster reviews but has subsequently become beloved. With its memorable cast of anthropomorphic animals in the traditional Robin Hood roles and catchy songs, it’s a treat to watch. Of course, no Disney film is complete without a good villain, and the nefarious Prince John ranks up there with the best of them, though he is far sillier than he is competently evil. It’s a lighthearted take on one of the most beloved legends from the Middle Ages.
Based on the thought-provoking novel by the late Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose stars Sean Connery as William of Baskerville and Christian Slater as his novice, Adso of Melk. Together, they undertake an investigation of a series of strange deaths at a remote abbey. Slowly but surely, they uncover the dark secrets hidden behind its walls. Though not quite as elegantly constructed as the book, there is still a great deal to enjoy about this film, not the least of which is Connery’s performance. However, it’s also enjoyable because it grapples with weighty issues, including, most notably, the perilous nature of forbidden knowledge.
In keeping with the gritty aesthetic that seems to characterize so many contemporary depictions of the Middle Ages, The Last Kingdom immerses the viewer in the turbulent period of English history when the native English were starting to fight back against the Vikings. It focuses in particular on the character Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a Saxon raised by Vikings who finds his fate intertwined with that of the man known to history as Alfred the Great. The Last Kingdom doesn’t shy away from the brutality and violence that were often a part of the medieval world, but it also has moments of soaring triumph.
Some of the most notable movies about the Middle Ages have tended to be dramas, but every so often, a comedy comes along. A Knight’s Tale is filled with deliberate anachronisms, but Heath Ledger, who portrays William Thatcher, a peasant who masquerades as a knight, is so charismatic and fun to watch that it’s easy to overlook these inaccuracies. It’s the sort of underdog story that is always guaranteed to thrill a film audience, and though it might not be one of Ledger’s more lauded performances, there’s no denying that he exudes the same charm he does in such other roles as 10 Things I Hate About You.
The works of Shakespeare have been adapted numerous times to film, and one of the more notable efforts in this regard is Henry V. Directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh as the title character, it focuses on Henry’s invasion of France and its consequences. Though it maintains Shakespeare’s dialogue, it still gives a gritty representation of medieval battle. In this film, Branagh pulls off one of the most difficult feats, reimagining the oft-adapted works of the Bard and rendering them into something new, fresh, and exciting. Among the other members of the talented cast are Judi Dench, Ian Holm, and Derek Jacobi.
The Wars of the Roses were some of the most noteworthy and devastating conflicts to have hit England, and they make for fascinating and compelling drama. The British TV series The Hollow Crown is a multi-part adaptation of several of Shakespeare’s notable works, including The Henriad. It is truly an embarrassment of riches when it comes to its cast, which includes such heavy hitters as Ben Whishaw, Tom Hiddleston, and Michael Gambon. This is meticulously crafted television at its best, and it makes Bard’s classic history plays feel fresh, new, and ever more relevant for the 21st century. What sets this series apart, however, is the extent to which each episode manages to work both as an episode of television and as part of a coherent whole.
For the past decade, Starz has made a point of releasing sumptuously produced historical dramas focusing on the experiences of notable historical women. One of the most notable is The White Queen, which tells the story of Elizabeth Woodville, the commoner who married none other than Edward IV. However, their romance is only part of the story. The series masterfully weaves together their love with the broader conflicts of the Wars of the Roses, as Elizabeth’s fate intertwines with many of the other prominent women of the period, including the redoubtable Margaret Beaufort, who would herself give birth to a man fated to become a king.
The works of Sir Walter Scott were enormously popular in his own lifetime, and they have a remarkable afterlife on the big screen. Of the many adaptations of his work, one of the best is 1952’s Ivanhoe. The film focuses on the adventures of its title character, a Saxon who nevertheless wants to see King Richard return to England. It’s a sweeping adventure film of a distinctly old-fashioned sort, and while it makes some changes to Scott’s novel, it keeps true to the spirit of it. It also features some great performances from Robert Taylor, Elizabeth Taylor, George Sanders, and Joan Fontaine.
Chris Pine is one of the most charming and charismatic actors working in Hollywood, and he brings all of that to bear in Outlaw King, in which he plays Robert the Bruce. Though often overshadowed by William Wallace, Bruce was also key to Scotland’s Wars of Independence, this film restores him to his rightful place in history. Though it might like some of the heightened grandeur of the earlier Braveheart, it’s a more historically accurate film. Like many other films about the Middle Ages from the 21st century, it doesn’t shy away from the dirt, blood, and violence of this pivotal period in Scottish history.
Thomas J. West III earned a PhD in film and screen studies from Syracuse University in 2018. His writing on film and TV has appeared at Screen Rant, Screenology, FanFare, Primetimer, Cinemania, and in a number of scholarly journals and edited collections. He co-hosts the Queens of the B's podcast and writes a regular newsletter, Omnivorous, on Substack. He is also an active member of GALECA, the Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics.