An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

September 17, 2022

Medieval, dir. Petr Jákl (2022)



Petr Jákl’s 2022 film Medieval


Reviewed by Kevin J. Harty

La Salle University


The first word that we hear on the screen is “violence” in a voice over by Michael Caine (yes, that Michael Caine, no less), here cast as Lord Boreš, ambassador extraordinaire for a Holy Roman Empire in political and religious turmoil.  That one word sets the tone for the two hours which follow.  Medieval (released in Europe under the title Jan Žižka) bears no relation to previous examples of cinematic medievalism that were costume dramas, or even bigger-budgeted costume epics.  Its closest cinematic antecedent is Mel Gibson’s 1995 film Braveheart, not PG-violent films such as Jerry Zucker’s 1995 film First Knight, or even Guy Ritchie’s 2017 King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Like the patriotic roots of the Scots supposedly on display in Mel Gibson’s film, Medieval wants us to know that those of the Czechs are just as mired in blood and mud.

Director Petr Jákl’s Medieval is an English-language Czech production that recounts the early years of the life of the storied Czech national hero, Jan Žižka (c. 1360-1424—here played by Ben Foster), before he achieved even greater fame in the Hussite Wars (1419-1434) that pitted Catholic Europe in a series of crusades against the followers of Jan Hus. Hus was burned at the stake in 1415, despite a guarantee of safe passage from the Emperor Sigismund if he would appear before the Council of Constance to answer charges of heresy brought against him. Hus had been a noted preacher in Prague who called out the Catholic Church for a litany of abuses later echoed by Martin Luther and exacerbated in Hus’s time by the schism in the Church involving the Avignon Papacy and contending claims to papal legitimacy.  The death of the Holy Roman Emperor (in 1402 according to the film) only further fanned the flames of religious and political turmoil, since whoever was to be his successor, presumably King Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia (Karel Rodin), needed to be crowned by the pope—the one in Rome, not the one in France.

As is often true in medieval history and in historical film medievalism as well, who gets to succeed whom is never without complications.  In Jákl’s film, the complications are several. Wenceslaus is already deeply in debt to, but needs further funding from, the overly ambitious and wealthy Henry III of Rosenberg (Til Schweiger) to pave (bribe?) his way to his coronation. Wenceslaus’s half-brother, Sigismund, so far just King of Hungary (Matthew Goode), has the proverbial lean and hungry look and an overly sanctimonious attachment to orthodox Catholicism. Wenceslaus’s daughter, Katherine (Sophie Lowe), is a much sought-after pawn in all the political and religious chaos that surrounds her because she is marriageable (Rosenberg fancies himself her ideal spouse), because she is sympathetic to Hus, and because she is a niece of the King of France, who supports the other (in this case, wrong) pope. And, for good measure, oppressive taxation, political tyranny, and ecclesiastical abuses have so enraged the populace that revolution is already in the air.

The film opens with Rosenberg’s men’s failed attempt to assassinate Lord Boreš on route from Rome to Prague from a diplomatic mission to secure the imperial crown for Wenceslaus. Boreš’s rescue is effected at the last minute by Žižka and his ragtag troop of mercenaries, whose allegiances are about as clear as the film’s politics at this point. Once hoping to become a knight himself, Žižka’s knightly ambitions quickly soured when friends and family members were murdered by the very knights whose company he sought to join. With Boreš safe in Prague Castle, Žižka declines an offer (more command) to join the army led by Torak (Roland Møller), the film’s true, almost snarling, villain, who is variously employed by Wenceslaus, Sigismund, and Rosenberg, all to the detriment of anyone who stands in his way, as the burned, impaled, crucified, hanged, decapitated, and otherwise mutilated corpses strewn in his wake across the at-times breathtaking landscape attest. Torak’s cruelty and pursuit of Žižka (who loses his right eye to Torak in battle), once he kidnaps Katherine in a scheme to force Rosenberg to fund Wenceslaus’s claim to the imperial crown, know no limits.

Like any good Hollywood film hero (even though Medieval is a Czech production), Žižka comes close to death more times than one can count.  And, to rally his loyal, seemingly outnumbered, troops, he also has a short version of the St. Crispin’s Day speech originally found in Shakespeare’s Henry V that has become de rigueur in examples of cinematic medievalism. Along the way, Katherine begins to question where her loyalties should lie—unhappy with the treatment of the people by those who rule them and of herself by those who would make her their pawn.  She eventually decides that she will be the mistress of her own destiny, a decision which backfires when she falls to her death in a suicidal attempt to end the squabbling over her.  Just for good measure, before her death, she gets rescued when a lion (conveniently kept by her father) is loosed upon Torak and his men, and seemingly falls in love with Žižka, with whom she shares a passionate kiss just before she dies, in a set up faintly echoing a more extended one in Braveheart between Queen and rebel. Grief stricken but emboldened, Žižka rallies all Bohemia’s disaffected to the cause of the Hussites and further ensures his place in the Czech national consciousness—he was a true military genius The film ends with Žižka and his followers marching off to the Hussite battle hymn, "Ktož jsú Boží bojovníci (Ye Who Are Warriors for God).”

       The film’s plot can be a bit difficult to follow if audience members aren’t quite up to speed on medieval Czech history, but all the principal actors—along with the vast supporting cast—turn in good performances. Matthew Goode’s less than convincing, and even less flattering, blonde hair may, however, evidence an unfortunate trend in recent cinematic medievalism.  Ben Affleck sported a similar blonde “hirsute misadventure” as the villainous Pierre d’Alençon in Ridley Scott’s 2021 film The Last Duel. But the locations shots, the already noted breathtaking scenery, and the props and interior sets are all what an audience will think is authentically medieval—although we medievalists might quibble about their accuracy, as we are wont to do. 

Rarely do directors give us an example of cinematic medievalism without at least a nod to pressing political or social issues in their times. Žižka’s life previously inspired a well-received cinematic trilogy (known collectively as The Hussite Revolutionary Trilogy) directed by Otakar Vávra in the 1950s. Žižka also appeared as a central or minor character in several later Czech films and in Aleksander Ford’s 1960 Polish film Knights of the Teutonic Order, and his deeds have been celebrated in works of fiction, poetry, and drama. But, clearly, the story of Jan Žižka is also not without relevance for our own times. The last on-screen title dedicates the film to freedom fighters everywhere, so one cannot help but think of the Russian aggression into Ukraine, an aggression sanctioned by the Russian Orthodox Church, and of a world at large where, as Michael Caine’s Lord Boreš notes in a moment of despair in Medieval, government has repeatedly sunk to such new lows.

 Medieval, an English-language Czech production directed by Petr Jákl; screenplay by Petr Jákl from a story by Petr Jákl, Sr.; produced by Cassian Elwes; starring Ben Foster, Michael Caine, Til Schweiger, Matthew Goode, Karel Rodin, Sophie Lowe, and Roland Møller produced by WOB FILM; released 8 September 2022; running time 125 minutes.