I’m a sucker for medieval history, so when I heard that Ben Foster and Michael Caine were starring in a film about the Czech national hero Jan Žižka, set in the immediate aftermath of the Bubonic Plague and covering some of the Hussite revolts, I thought I’d been defenestrated and gone to heaven.
This is a complex period in history, mostly without the tidy little nation-states we’re used to being the players in geopolitical conflicts — complete with rival popes, a burgeoning proto-reformation, peasant revolts, and multiple small-time kings all vying for the title of “Holy Roman Emperor” (whatever that would even mean). It’s an interesting period that’s nice to see on film, even if Medieval proves early on that it’s not especially capable of doing it well.
Writer/director Peter Jákl (who among other things once played Gunter in Eurotrip) tries to cover it all, and even worse, does so with a directorial style that prizes “production values” in the most generic sense over conveying the basics of story like characters, motivation, who is doing what to whom, and so forth. When the players in the drama are numerous and their motives murky, the last thing we need is to have to wonder who’s in the scene, what are they doing, and where it’s taking place. As Bill Murray’s character in The French Dispatch tells his writers, “whatever you do, just try to make it seem like you did it on purpose.”
Jákl, by contrast, depicts chaotic times in a chaotic style, leaving you constantly to wonder, “Wait, am I supposed to know what’s going on here?”
Medieval opens with some scene setting, set to a voiceover by Michael Caine (who oddly sounds like he’s doing a Ray Winstone impression here) — explaining something about how we’re in a period of upheaval. There are two feuding Popes and a continent in general turmoil, all desperate for some leader to unite them; a leader in the form of King Wenceslas of Bohemia (pictured here with a bra on his head, which was the style at the time). Wenceslas needs to travel to Rome to get the Rome Pope’s blessing in order to become the Holy Roman Emperor. Meanwhile, supporters of the rival France Pope are trying to stop him. Obviously.
While Caine’s voiceover sets the scene, Peter Jákl seems to get distracted filming a hawk. As the hawk screeches, with obvious yet vague symbolic value, we’re left trying to work out the allusion before we’ve even begun to comprehend the grounding action. So there are rival popes, an aspirant king, and some kind of dormant empire… and who is this guy talking again?
Caine’s character turns out to be a guy called Lord Boresh, and immediately after his voiceover we meet our star and protagonist, Ben Foster as Jan Žižka, who in the first act leads a band of mercenaries protecting Lord Boresh’s procession from a gang of assassins. Žižka watches the action from up on a ridge, counting down the knights protecting Lord Boresh, and not intervening until they’re almost all dead. Finally, Žižka and his boys spring into action, killing all the assassins except for the last, who they give the choice to join their mercenary gang or die (which, according to the movie, was sort of Žižka’s “thing”). Lord Boresh gasps, “Why did you wait until the last knight to intervene?”
Žižka just sort of smiles and the scene ends. Answer the question, Žižka!
We go the entire movie without really ever learning who Lord Boresh is or why, exactly, he’s important. He’s meant to facilitate King Wenceslas getting to Rome, somehow. The assassins, we do learn, were apparently sent by Lord Rosenberg (Til Schweiger), whose function, again, is fairly opaque. Rosenberg seems to be a sometime rival, sometime ally of King Wenceslas’s half-brother and rival, King Sigisimund Of Hungary (Matthew Goode). Medieval clearly positions Sigismund, through tone and affect, as the villain, though what exactly he wants and why often isn’t clear (something sinister, I’m sure!). Mostly what we learn in the fight scenes is that Peter Jákl wants this to be a manly action movie and that he really likes the image of people bleeding underwater (a motif he will repeat over and over, often without conveying who is doing the bleeding or what side of the battle they were on).
At some point, Žižka’s band of mercenaries kidnaps Rosenberg’s wife, Katherine (Sophie Lowe). She also happens to be the niece of the king of France. This is important, somehow. Team Žižka plans to ransom her, but they fight over to whom. Jákl constantly elides key story details in order to get to the broad movie stuff, like “this guy is heroic!” “These characters are in love!” And “this is the redemptive arc!” The movie shouts things that should be subtext so loudly that what’s actually happening tends to get drowned out.
The most compelling thing about Medieval, other than the setting of a post-pandemic power vacuum (the timeliness wasn’t intentional, most of it was shot in 2018) is wondering whether it’s actually going to make any sense by the time it’s over. Not only does the ending not explain all the plots and intrigue it covers, we come to realize that none of these interludes were really why Žižka is considered a Czech national hero in the first place. Nope, this was all largely prologue, just like in Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur movie that ends on a shot of the Round Table just being built.
Medieval is a bit like if an American filmmaker made a movie about Tom Brady for foreign audiences, and it was about all the things that led up to his decision to play quarterback. Then at the end some text told us how he won six Super Bowls. I don’t know, man, I think maybe you should’ve led with the six Super Bowls?