Going in blind to Medieval, your expectations may be set for a bland swordfighting movie where peasants and nobles clash for indecipherable reasons. Land, maybe, or something to do with heirs. A maiden probably gets saved but, because it’s 2022, she probably also to kill somebody as a form of shorthand feminism. Medieval is truly as generic as its name, but just below the surface are tantalizingly specific details so worn down, disregarded or covered by fashionable subgenre hokum that it makes the whole affair twice as disappointing. The third movie from Czech stuntman-turned-filmmaker Petr Jákl, whose first films became box office record-setters in his home country, Medieval isn’t just any piece of throwaway direct-to-video schlock: It’s the life of Jan Žižka, Czech national hero, and (some claim) the most expensive Czech film ever made. That pedigree makes it even less than your average Game of Thrones bandwagoner in that it could’ve actually stood for something. But absent any legible mythmaking, coherent context or memorable imagery, Medieval will make the history books for all the wrong reasons.
Jákl, turning ideas from a handful of people including his Ghoul co-writer Petr Bok into a script, fabricates an origin story for Žižka (Ben Foster). It’s a confounding choice. A cinematic reintroduction of the military underdog—the last major Žižka biopic was spread across a 1950s trilogy from filmmaker Otakar Vávra—focused on everything but the events that made him famous? We’d all rather see Žižka’s groundbreaking military inventions, his hardline nationalist defense in the face of religious persecution and his legendary leadership in large (expensive to shoot) battles than his days as a mercenary. But that seems hard. Not only objectively, but to fit into the current paradigm of medieval action. Still, it’s like filming a movie about George Washington, but only about his time screwing around with the Virginia militia in his 20s. And also you just made some stuff up to make it feel more like a movie.
We don’t see why Žižka creates his game-changing instruments of war, nor how he does so in any detail. Armored wagons and weaponized flails—the tools that helped his poor, outmatched Hussites overcome Pope-pushed crusaders—simply appear, under his command but without connection. We don’t see Žižka as a particularly skilled, daring, populist or benevolent commander, but as someone in charge of troops who’re already versed in his signature defensive tactics. He is both unestablished and fully fleshed, a symptom of an arcless character desiring unearned familiarity. For all of Foster’s compassionate grimacing, the standard Hollywood face of a sympathetic action hero, his Žižka is 1400s-era clipart.
This confused construction leaves Medieval lost in time and place: It’s too specific to be a true piece of plug-and-play genre fluff, where structure alone dictates content, and too bland to be the historical epic its filmmaker sometimes seems to think it is.
Whispers of the past—the coming Hussite Wars, noble corruption, the Christian schism—pass us by, drowned out by cheesy love interests and brother-avenging silliness. That’s only partially because of the dialogue, mixed so low you can barely discern what accent the Czech-cashing Hollywood cast members are speaking with. The aural disinterest in anything but clanging steel and squelching flesh reflects Medieval’s ideological emptiness. More memorable is Michael Caine’s expository voiceover, because it’s accompanied by on-screen text that matches just one of the sentences, chosen seemingly at random, that he says during any given burst of narration. It’s frustrating to be so close to learning something, to understanding that Žižka was and continues to represent something greater than the movie’s characterization, which feels like it was written to fill the back of an eyepatched action figure’s cardboard packaging.
And with that necessary copywriting accomplished, Jákl can focus on his battles. The former judo star has an eye for the gruesome, sending us back in time with a pleasantly icky aesthetic. Ankles and wrists snap, complimenting maggoty eye injuries and caved-in heads. Everything’s coated in a crusty layer of muck. Žižka and his ragtag group of sellswords navigate campfire-lit cave skirmishes, underwater brawls, smoky shootouts, cliffside ambushes—the sheer variety of locales in which people get sliced, bashed or pincushioned is enough to fill a rookie D&D campaign. Jákl applies a blanket competence to his choreography, putting his past professional knowledge to work framing feats of physical prowess—like a burly merc pushing a cavalryman off a cliff, horse and all—in order to maintain visual logic.
Yet he’s inept with the more thrilling, narrative-focused work—like a misdirection-filled kidnapping—that ties all the random clashes together. It’s just as easy to get lost in the half-hearted politicking as it is in the torch-lit underground, where an unsightly natural approach has us squinting through the labyrinth. To sustain its two slogging hours, the wannabe epic needs far higher and clearer stakes—not to mention narrative efficiency. While a brisk, 80-minute brawler would’ve solved that problem, it would’ve been an even bigger disservice to its subject. Thus we get the Middle Ages middle-ground that Jákl treads, neither satisfying its campfire legend ambitions nor delivering no-strings-attached adrenaline.
Medieval’s problems aren’t uncommon, but its production and topic is. It’s the difference between seeing a chipped, unloved piece of mass-produced pottery at an antique shop and seeing the same dilapidation affect a cherished heirloom. There was the possibility for something personal, to Jákl and to the Czech film industry, in Medieval that gives its mediocrity a bitterness that other bad movies—bad movies that were always going to be bad—are too simple to even access. Medieval’s best quality is that it might make you do your reading, but as a film about Jan Žižka and his exciting, catalytic moment in history, it’s less interesting than the dozen Wikipedia tabs it might cause you to open.
Director: Petr Jákl
Writer: Petr Jákl, Petr Jakl Sr., Kevin Bernhardt, Petr Bok
Starring: Ben Foster, Karel Roden, Matthew Goode, Michael Caine, Roland Møller, Sophie Lowe, Til Schweiger, Vinzenz Kiefer, Werner Daehn, William Moseley
Release Date: September 9, 2022
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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