Between Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, fantasy epics have become the most popular source for tales of swords and kings. However, there is plenty of story telling fodder in history to be mined for entertainment value, and Kurt Sutter’s The Bastard Executioner is the latest to capitalize on historical events for their cinematic value. Telling the tale of an emotionally tortured (this is a Sutter show after all) knight in the service of King Edward I of England, The Bastard Executioner shows promise, and is set to join a long line of other historical shows and films. Fantasy realms are all well and good, but sometimes truth is greater than fiction (especially when you throw in a fictional dragon for the hell of it). While these stories all vary greatly in terms of historical accuracy and span a fairly wide range of time, check out these other medieval films and television series to prepare for Kurt Sutter’s latest war.
The Lion in Winter
The Plantagenets were known as “The Devil’s Brood,” scratching and fighting their way to power in Europe through any means necessary, and the classic film The Lion in Winter shows them at their most conniving. Their dynasty began with Henry II, masterfully portrayed by Peter O’Toole, who had three sons with his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, played here by a steely Katharine Hepburn (who won an Oscar for the role). As he is reaching his twilight years, Henry II must pick a successor from amongst his three sons, but the task proves more difficult than he anticipated. Featuring a young Anthony Hopkins as Richard the Lionhearted and Timothy Dalton as the French King Philip, this masterclass in deception and treachery is not to be missed.
Back when Mel Gibson kept his crazy in check, Braveheart was a massive hit, bringing the (heavily fictitious… but not dragon fictitious) story of William Wallace and Scotland’s fight for independence to many. Set in 13th century Scotland, Wallace is struggling to free his countrymen from the tyranny of Edward I of England, also known as Longshanks. While the film takes extreme liberties with the actual historical events, Gibson still manages to make a compelling movie with scenes known to make grown men weep. Additionally, this film perhaps has the greatest link to The Bastard Executioner in terms of historical similarity, as Edward I is king in both.
The White Queen
Rebecca Ferguson is blowing up these days, winning the summer with a great performance in Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation and being at the top of the short list to play Captain Marvel (allegedly). Her roles as Elizabeth Woodville in The White Queen was her first major American role, and she is absolutely magnetic in it. Telling the story of The War of the Roses and the women who were behind it, The White Queen is violent and sexy fun. While Ferguson’s performance is better than the production as a whole, even a middling version of this fascinating bit of history is worth a look.
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
Hear me out! Is this movie terribly dated? Yes. Is it historically inaccurate? Absolutely. Does Kevin Costner have the worst British accent (or lack thereof) of all-time? Oh, most definitely. However, I will choose this film over the dull Russell Crowe retelling every time. It does a serviceable job of portraying the struggles that the peasantry had when abandoned by their king who preferred fighting in the Holy Land to actually ruling, Morgan Freeman is predictably great, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is an excellent Marian. However, the true gem of this film is Alan Rickman’s campy Sheriff of Nottingham. Between threatening to cut out hearts with spoons and one of the greatest death scenes in the history of film, Rickman proves that he always plays a legendary baddie.
Kenneth Branagh’s name is practically synonymous with Shakespeare adaptations, and Henry V might be his greatest work (except for, perhaps, Much Ado About Nothing). Henry V is one of Shakespeare’s noblest creations and one of England’s greatest warrior kings. While Prince Hal spends most of his youth fighting and whoring his way through Europe, he eventually becomes a man and assumes the leadership of England. As the Hundred Years War rages on, Henry finds his courage and leads his men to a historic victory at the Battle of Agincourt, leading to peace between England and France. It is impossible not to be affected by Branagh’s rendition of the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech, so definitely take a few moments now to be deeply moved.
The Pillars of the Earth
There was no power greater in the Middle Ages than the church, and The Pillars of the Earth show exactly how extensive that power was. Set against the backdrop of England’s 12th century civil war between Queen Maud and Stephen the Usurper, The Pillars of the Earth documents the arduous construction of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge. Starring pre-fame Hayley Atwell and Eddie Redmayne, this well-written and ambitious adaptation of the Ken Follett novel is worth your time to watch (and read).
While this series takes place centuries prior to The Bastard Executioner, it is its main competition these days for violent period epics that isn’t Game of Thrones. Vikings chronicles the rise of Ragnar Lothbrok as he plunders his way across Scandinavia and into Britain. While the History Channel isn’t exactly known for its dramatic content, many were surprised by how good this series is. Well-done action sequences and complex family dynamics make this one a show to watch. Katheryn Winnick’s shieldmaiden and power player Lagertha shines especially bright as one of the most badass women currently on television.
Okay, so this film does have some trace fantasy elements, but to leave it off this list would be a crime. Set in 12th century France, Ladyhawke is the tale of a cursed knight, the woman he loves, and the thief that helps them reunite. Directed by Richard Donner (between Superman and Lethal Weapon), Rutger Hauer and Michelle Pfeiffer play the star-crossed lovers, and a pre-Bueller Matthew Broderick is the wisecracking thief who aides them in their quest. Plus, Alan Parsons produced the score, so if you ever wanted to see sword fight set to a sweet electro-synth score, here’s your chance.
A Knight’s Tale
This is an unorthodox entry to say the least. However, it features The Black Prince, son of Edward III and great-grandson of Edward I, so it is the hipper contemporary of The Bastard Executioner, give or take a few years. While wholly absurd, few can resist the charms of A Knight’s Tale. Featuring Heath Ledger at his most beautiful and hilarious performances from Paul Bettany, Mark Addy, and Alan Tudyk, this story of a peasant who “changed his stars” to become a knight and woo a princess is an undeniably fun romp. Historical accuracy of any kind is thrown out the window completely, but any banquet that plays David Bowie on the dance floor is one I’d like to attend.