Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
Ridley Scott's Crusades epic delivered exactly as you would expect in terms of epic visuals and large scale battles, despite a misfiring lead in the form of Orlando Bloom as a blacksmith-turned-knight. The disappointment of Bloom's casting is repaired by the impressive quality of support stars. Eva Green is beguiling as the love-interest princess, Brendan Gleeson and Liam Neeson bring gravitas and Ed Norton is as compelling as ever, even beneath a mask. Those disappointed in the cinema should check out the extended cut on DVD.
The Seventh Seal (1957)
Don't let the academic-adoration and high-brow reverence of Ingmar Bergman's black-and-white epic put you off watching it. Describing The Seventh Seal as a lofty meditation on life, death and religion is probably equally likely to scare away any newcomers, but the film is anything but pretentious or exclusive. The journey of Max von Sydow's knight across Sweden, as he plays a game of chess with Death to postpone his fate, is powerful (and accessible) on a number of levels.
The Sword in the Stone (1963)
Wolfgang Reitherman may not be a household name, but he directed some enduring Disney classics in the ‘60s and ‘70s, including One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Jungle Book and Robin Hood. The Sword in a Stone was another boy-friendly adventure from the Disney canon, telling the story of the young King Arthur before he claimed his rightful throne. Bonus points are earned for one of the greatest screen Merlins, and the terrifying Madame Mim (why don't more movies have Wizard's Duels?).
An alternative take on the King Arthur legend. This version from director John Boorman plays up the magical aspects of the story that were left out of the revisionist Clive Owen-starrer. Unlike some other adaptations of the story, Excalibur covers Arthur's whole life, from his birth and guardianship by Merlin, to his withdrawal of the sword from the stone, right through to his marital problems with Guinevere and his eventually death. Campy for sure, but Boorman's ambition is rewarded in the best live-action movie of the legend.
Akira Kurosawa’s take on Shakespeare’s King Lear is potentially the film maker’s last great movie. While not as inventive and angry as Seven Samurai, it tells a great story nonetheless. Japanese warlord Ichimonji wants to step down and divide his kingdom among his three sons. While the elder two are fine with the idea, Saburo - the youngest - doesn’t think the brothers can ever share power. He’s right. What follows is large-scale medieval war and plenty of stern, weighty actors shouting at each other. It’s classic medieval fare, and one of the best (yet least lauded) of all the Shakespeare adaptations.
The perfect example of an ‘80s fantasy movie, Ladyhawke has a perfectly daft premise, and an era-defining cast. Matthew Broderick is Phillipe Gaston, a thief on the run who bumps into Etienne of Navarre (Rutger Hauer) and his mysterious hawk. Turns out that Navarre and his hawk are lovers who have been cursed, so that she's a hawk during the day, while he becomes a wolf at night when she turns into Michelle Pfeiffer. The trio team up in an attempt to beat the curse of the evil Bishop. Superman director Richard Donner has experience turning a silly-sounding idea into ludicrously good fun.
How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
Set in an indistinct (geographically and temporally) Viking village, this Dreamworks animation became something of a sleeper hit last year. It earned some extremely glowing reviews, and has been widely praised for shrinking the quality gap between the studio and rival Pixar. The story of how weedy Viking Hiccup learns to tame the dragons (believed to be Viking enemies) is surprisingly touching, and thankfully there's also plenty of aerial action to keep things exciting. Unsurprisingly, Dreamworks have hurried a sequel into production.
Henry V (1989)
Kenneth Branagh proved what an assured filmmaker he was (as well as being a talented thespian) with this gritty Shakespeare adaptation, which is, astonishingly, his directorial debut. Favouring a harsh, realistic depiction of battle, in contrast with Laurence Olivier's stylised take on the same material, Branagh also does well by surrounding himself with a bunch of convincingly medieval character actors: Brian Blessed, Ian Holm, and Cadfael himself Derek Jacobi.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
The French saint who lead a decent battle or two in her time is another medieval figure who has been subjected to an overwhelming number of adaptations, with varying degrees of quality. Carl Theodor Dreyer's silent, black-and-white movie is the undisputed champ though, as it focuses on her trial for heresy. Overwhelmingly affecting, it is a magnificent achievement in silent film that deserves to be enjoyed by a wider audience than film historians.
Season of the Witch (2010)
If you're hungry for more medieval action, Nicolas Cage is back in Season of the Witch. The star reunites with Gone in 60 Seconds director Dominic Sena for the movie, which has a remarkably similar synopsis to Black Death. Cage plays Behmen, a knight who returns from the Crusades to find his homeland in the grip of the plague. He is tasked with transporting a girl accused of witchcraft to a monastery, where she'll be dealt with. It’s not the best, but it’s grimy fun nonetheless.