By Stefanie Weisman
1. Gladiator. (2000, dir. Ridley Scott)
Russell Crowe gives a searing performance as Maximus, a general-turned-gladiator who single-handedly takes on the Roman Empire. This movie makes you realize (in case you didn’t already) that gladiators weren’t just big fat oafs wearing funny costumes lumbering around an arena. They were human beings who suffered, died terrible deaths, and in some cases, found glory. Joaquin Phoenix is delicious as the twisted but pitiful Emperor Commodus.
2. Braveheart. (1995, dir. Mel Gibson)
Okay, I know this movie is fraught with historical inaccuracies (aren’t they all?), but Mel Gibson’s performance as Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace more than makes up for it. The execution scene at the end is a chilling look at what it meant to be “hanged, drawn, and quartered.”
3. Monty Python’s Life of Brian. (1979, dir. Terry Jones)
One of the funniest movies of all time in my opinion, and surprisingly realistic in parts. Take the scene where an anti-Roman Israelite played by John Cleese asks, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” Well, his cohorts answer, how about the aqueduct, sanitation, the roads (well obviously the roads, I mean the roads go without saying, don’t they?), irrigation, education, public baths, and it is safe to walk in the streets now…
4. Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (1975, dir. Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam)
A zany look at England in the Middle Ages, this is one of the movies that sparked my love of history. It also provides a foolproof way to identify a king in medieval Europe: he’s the only one who hasn’t got shit all over him.
5. The Return of Martin Guerre (Le Retour de Martin Guerre. 1982, dir. Daniel Vigne)
Perhaps one of the most realistic movies set in medieval times, this French film is based on actual sixteenth-century court records, and is a heartbreaking love story starring the ubiquitous Gérard Depardieu, who seems to have been in every French film in the 80s and 90s. It’s unique in that it depicts the life of peasants, not nobility.
Watch the trailer here. (There is a version with English subtitles, in case you were wondering.)
6. The Lion in Winter. (1968, dir. Anthony Harvey)
Starring one of my favorite actors, Peter O’Toole, as English king Henry II (did you know he also played Henry II in the movie Becket?), this movie provides an intimate look at a very dysfunctional family — which just happens to be the nascent British royal family. It also stars Katharine Hepburn as the conniving Eleanor of Aquitaine, and a very young, almost unrecognizable Anthony Hopkins as Richard the Lionheart.
7. The Decameron (1971, dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini).
This Italian movie is bawdy and somewhat pornographic, just as Boccaccio would have wanted it. You can’t do the Decameron justice without showing a little — okay, a lot — of skin. The medieval festival scenes make you feel like you’re in the middle of a Bruegel painting.
You can watch the whole film here!
8. Alexander Nevsky. (1938, dir. Sergei Eisenstein and Dmitri Vasilyev, with a score by Sergei Prokofiev)
I was lucky enough to see this movie at Lincoln Center a few years ago: the New York Philharmonic performed the uplifting score by Prokofiev while the film played on the big screen. This movie, directed by the legendary Sergei Eisenstein, tells the story of Russian hero Alexander Nevsky’s victory over the very scarily dressed Teutonic Knights in the thirteenth century. The Battle on the Ice is one of the most gripping battle scenes you’ll ever see in the history of cinema.
Runners-up: Spartacus, Henry V (the Kenneth Branagh version), The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, The Seventh Seal.
What are some of your favorite ancient or medieval films?