This is my top ten list of Medieval-ish Movies. They may be favorites for how good they are and how they depict the world at that time. They might be favorites because of how bad they are. But these are my pics, one being the best.
10. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949, Bing Crosby) Come on. You know it’s a guilty pleasure. You keep one eye on the screen and another on the door in case someone should come into the room and catch you. Bu-Bu-Bu-Bing crooning those tunes as Sir Boss with his faithful companion Sir Sagramore as played by William Bendix in a bad wig, with the rouge-lipped Rhonda Fleming as the buxom Alisande. Flip Bing gives us one of his best performances with contemporary asides that would have made Mark Twain proud. Technicolor at its best. Not really medieval but slipping it in here anyway.
9. Excalibur (1981) What was John Boorman on, anyway? Seriously. Actually, there are lovely Alice in Wonderland moments and it’s also a pleasure watching Nicol Williamson chew the scenery as Merlin. Why do I like it? You try getting it on in full armor. Everyone had a bad case of dragon breath in this flick.
8. A Knight’s Tale (2001) Here is a situation where the cast really keeps it afloat. The extremely watchable Heath Ledger and the brilliance of Paul Bettany, Alan Tudyk, and Mark Addy save this farce from complete extinction. “Inspired by the Canterbury Tales” insomuch as Geoffrey Chaucer is a character in it. From the anachronistic music to the horrible costumes, I was shaken to my marrow the first time I saw it...but I sort of warmed to it. I also like the jousting. Actually the best thing about this movie is listening to the DVD commentary. I guess when the best thing about the movie is the commentary, it can't be that wonderful. It has been “weighed, measured, and been found wanting.”
7. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) It’s the retelling of the Arthurian legend, Monty Python-style. No horses were used in the making of this film. Only coconut shells. Too many funny lines to recount here but they have at one time or another become the lexicon in the soundtrack of my life. “I’m not dead!”
6. The Name of the Rose (1986) Dark, twisted, and freakish turn at an abbey with a secret. Has two things going for it: Sean Connery and a naked Christian Slater (you were thinking it too). Also has the added benefit of omitting the first hundred pages of the novel, so everybody wins. When I spent some time in a Benedictine monastery interviewing the monks for research for a defunct novel of mine, they detested this book/movie. But they had fond things to say about Brother Cadfael.
5. Richard III (both Laurence Olivier  and Ian McKellen ) The very theatrical version of Laurence Olivier’s Richard gives us the definitive, traditional portrayal. Richard watches us watch him, making us co-conspirators. We are rooting for him all the way. One wonders what audiences in Shakespeare’s time made of it. Ian McKellen’s version is a supurb update to a Nazi nightmare. Watching the machinations slide off of McKellen’s face is a treat that makes you wring your hands and mutter, “E-e-xcellent.”
4. Henry V (1989, Kenneth Branagh) The battle scenes are wonderfully realistic. You are right there in the action. Watch that long, long shot of Branagh striding through the battleground. And, of course, his delivery of the St. Crispin’s Day speech. Makes me want to take up arms against France, too (but what doesn’t?) I listen to the soundtrack over and over while I write.
3. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) Errol Flynn in tights. What could be better? His Technicolor Robin Hood is disarmingly handsome, and with the other repertoire that is the Warner Bros. stable of familiar players (the sturdy Alan Hale as Little John, the gravelly-voiced Eugene Pallette as Friar Tuck, beautiful Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian, Claude Reins as the oily Prince John, and of course, Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy the villain) it is the enjoyable fare it was designed to be. Oh to sit in the theatre in 1938 with an audience and enjoy it for the first time, the stirring music of Eric Wolfgang Korngold sweeping you into the action!
2. The Court Jester (1956) Danny Kaye at his very best. Basil Rathbone is back in a parody of those medieval villains he was so good at, and playing it straight. More great lines to recite in this movie (“the chalice with the palace has the pellet with the poison but the flagon with the dragon has the brew that is true.”) Best scene is Danny Kaye’s knighting. A few years back, the International Congress on Medieval Studies (where all manner of medieval scholars collide to conference about history) had a showing of The Court Jester. How I would have loved sitting in that audience!
1. The Lion in Winter (1968) Really my number one. The setting, the word-for-word adaptation of the James Goldman play, the witty repartee, the acting talents of Peter O’Toole in his prime, Katherine Hepburn still in hers, a young Timothy Dalton, a young Anthony Hopkins, a dark castle, and a family just trying to get along. Great performances, great drama, great comedy, realistic setting and action (except for perhaps the Christmas tree. Oh well.) I had the good fortune of seeing Katherine Hepburn in a play many years ago—A Matter of Gravity. Can’t say much for the play because my eyes were glued to her. A privilege to see one of movie’s legends in the flesh.
Do you have a different set of favorites? Let me know.