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12 Pretty Accurate Movies Set In Medieval Times

Updated September 4, 2020 7.0k votes 1.7k voters 281.7k views12 items

List RulesVote up the movies that do the best job of sending viewers back to the Middle Ages.

Medieval movies have been popular since Hollywood's early days, and they're still going strong. Everyone has films in this genre that resonate with them, but most stretch the truth in how they portray the period, dispensing with real medieval facts for the sake of cinematic spectacle. For those who are sticklers for accuracy, that may be frustrating; for others, such flaws can't get in the way of a good story.

Movies set in the Middle Ages tend to include knights jousting and sword-fighting, ladies in waiting, armies marching into conflict, elaborate costumes of chain mail and leather, and royals locked in power struggles, but there are some films that stand out among the rest for their dedication to telling the tale - or at least certain aspects of the tale - as it really happened. Check out this list of the most accurate medieval movies to learn what they get right and what they don't.

  • The Name of the Rose tells the story of a Franciscan friar, William of Baskerville (Sean Connery), who investigates a series of slayings in a 14th-century Benedictine monastery.

    What It Gets Right: Based on the book by Umberto Eco, this somber film takes the viewer on a journey through one of Catholicism's darkest eras. During this time, the Inquisition, an institution of the Catholic Church created to combat heresy and punish those it believed committed it, was at its peak, and monasteries hid books that didn't follow the doctrine of the day. The movie reflects this period accurately, as the slayings are based around a scriptorium in the abbey that William of Baskerville is visiting, and where books believed to be pagan in nature are hidden.

    Where It Falls Short: The book of the same name, while well-researched, is considered historical fiction. William of Baskerville is based on friar William of Ockham, who discovered the "Ockham's Razor" principle, in which the simplest explanation is the most likely. He is not a Sherlock Holmes-type investigator, but William of Baskerville's name is a nod to the Arthur Conan Doyle novel The Hound of the Baskervilles.

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  • After the passing of their eldest son, King Henry II (O'Toole) and Queen Eleanor (Hepburn) must decide who will be the successor to the throne. Each parent has their favorite child for the job. The sibling that gets left out attempts to manipulate the situation to his own liking - as does the French king who sees the rift as his opportunity to gain political power.

    What It Gets Right: This 1968 film has a stellar cast in Katherine Hepburn, Peter O'Toole, and a young Anthony Hopkins, and is regarded by many as one of the best medieval movies ever made. When it comes to accuracy, The Lion in Winter does take some liberties, but is generally rooted in fact. The king and queen really were faced with this decision. Also, unlike other medieval movies, The Lion in Winter doesn't show politics as being about weightier, broader issues. In most instances, it was really about marriage, title, and what those in power had to bring to the table in terms of land and wealth.

    Where It Falls Short: Richard the Lionheart (Anthony Hopkins) is portrayed is having had a brief fling with Philip II (Timothy Dalton). While some people believe Richard may have been homosexual or bisexual, there is no real evidence that he was either.

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  • In Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe's take on the mythic eponymous figure, Robin and his band of men rise up to represent the impoverished citizenry of England against corruption.

    What It Gets Right: The production went to great lengths to get the visuals right. The 12th century as depicted here has all the proper weaponry of the day, including swords, arrows, boiling oil, and fire. Life at this time was also difficult for commoners, a fact Robin Hood accurately demonstrates. Most people lived in dirty shacks under persistent threat of disease and extreme hunger, with vermin virtually everywhere.

    Where It Falls Short: While Robin Hood himself is more steeped in legend, he coexists in a world of real-life historical figures like Richard the Lionheart, King John, and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and takes part in entanglements during the Crusades. However, as with many films about the Middle Ages, events and locations in Robin Hood are compressed, moved, and sometimes ignored outright. As an example, Richard the Lionheart was not slain in conflict as depicted here, but was punctured by an arrow while walking the perimeter of Chalus-Chabrol castle. He passed two weeks later from his injuries.

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  • Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal has a plot rooted in fantasy, in which a knight, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), coming back from the Crusades plays chess with Death for his soul.

    What It Gets Right: Bergman's story appears to have been inspired by a real-life painting from the 15th centuryAlbertus Pictor's Death Playing Chess. The movie also takes place against the backdrop of the Black Plague, which swept across Europe quickly in the Middle Ages, taking millions of lives. While Bergman wasn't trying to make a historical film, he did capture the pessimism and religious reverence of the period, which was informed by rampant disease, famine, and armed conflict. The Seventh Seal was made in 1957, but there's no hint of modernity. Its bleak, high-contrast cinematography is enough to make viewers believe they are looking through a window in time. 

    Where It Falls Short: In the chess game itself, the players do not play according to the rules that would have been the norm at the time.


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