If you’re going to make a film and call it Medieval, it has to be good. The word conjures images of daring knights, oppressed peasants and high politics that causes that oppression as lords and kings try to improve their already superior lot. Medieval had a lot to live up to. As the story begins, at the scene of an ambush, it immediately delivers. And it doesn’t stop delivering until the final credits.
Good King Wenceslaus?
The movie is set against the complex backdrop of political turmoil in Europe in 1402, and focuses on the Kingdom of Bohemia. Wenceslaus IV is King of Bohemia. He is ineffectual, and the historical Wenceslaus was nicknamed ‘the Idle’. His half-brother Sigismund, King of Hungary has come to help Wenceslaus make his way to Italy to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor, as their father had been. But is he really there to help?
Alongside this, the papal schism that saw one pope in Rome and another at Avignon in France complicates politics. The coronation of a new Holy Roman Emperor is viewed as a way to heal the rift in the church. There are some in Prague who have other ideas, though, not least the radical preacher Jan Hus, who plays a significant role in the film. His presence is felt throughout, even though his time on screen is fleeting.
These are the dangerous power plays amidst which Jan Žižka and his small band of mercenaries ply their trade. It is also the world into which they are dragged, with dire consequences. Žižka is a Czech national hero, and this film is something of a Czech Braveheart, but without the wild inaccuracies.
That’s because director Petr Jákl, who also wrote the screenplay alongside his father Petr Jákl Sr and Petr Bok, cleverly placed the story in 1402. Jan Žižka rose to prominence in the late 1410s, and elements of his earlier life are not well-known. There is little room to question the historical accuracy of this part of Žižka life because it isn’t well documented. Smart move. More about the incredible story of Jan Žižka later.
The film follows Žižka and the mercenaries he leads as they take on a dangerous mission that Jan doesn’t want to do. He finds himself compelled by the king’s orders to go against his personal rules. The king’s rules, Michael Caine’s Lord Boresh reminds him, are superior to Jan’s own. Ben Foster masterfully takes on the role of Žižka as he fights all enemies, but all that he knows as well. Sophie Lowe is Katherine, Karel Roden plays Wenceslas, Matthew Goode his half-brother King Sigismund, and Til Schweiger is Lord Rosenberg, who schemes but finds himself out of his depth.
The film looks beautiful, and moves at breakneck speed. It is gory and brutal, filled with the twists and turns of high politics with a rare authenticity that keeps the viewer firmly rooted in the 15th century.
Medieval is an attempt to paint a picture of how the famous Jan Žižka might have become the legend history records. In his later years, Jan was known to have had just one eye and would in fact be blind before the end of his military career. He was famous for his novel, unexpected tactics that took enemies by surprise – turning carts into early versions of tanks that protected his men and could be devastating on the battlefield. Jan is reputed to have never lost a battle in his life.
The Czech Braveheart
By 1406, Jan was beginning to appear in Acta Negra Maleficorum, the Black Book of the Rosenberg estates, controlled by Henry III of Rosenberg. He was entered as a bandit, though precisely what he might have done is not recorded. He seems to have been in dispute with towns and with Henry of Rosenberg, suggesting his property might have been seized or threatened.
On 27 June 1409, King Wenceslas issued a full pardon to Jan Žižka, describing him as ‘faithful and beloved’. Quite why Žižka was singled out in this way is unclear. It may hint at the justice of his cause, or at his success, or at a closer relationship with the crown than the records demonstrate.
Jan Hus was a prominent preacher in Prague. He spoke out against the Catholic church and the schism that afflicted it. His teachings were similar to those of John Wycliffe (d. 1384) in England and helped sow the seeds of Protestantism in the next century. Hus was eventually excommunicated and lived in exile for two years before being invited to the Council of Constance.
Hus was issued a safe conduct and asked to give his views on church reform. On arrival, he was arrested. Ordered to recant, Hus told the council ‘I would not for a chapel of gold retreat from the truth!’ On 6 July 1415, Jan Hus was burned at the stake as a heretic. He was heard singing Psalms amidst the flames.
The Hussite Wars
Hus’s followers did not disband. Known as Hussites, Žižka was amongst them on 30 July 1419 when they stormed Prague demanding the release of several of their number from prison. When the city officials refused, the Hussites burst into the town hall and threw the officials out of the window in what is known as the First Defenestration of Prague. This moment is often viewed as the beginning of the Hussite Wars.
Jan Žižka’s military skills were put to good use as he took a leading role in the Hussite forces. He is credited with using the first pistols on the battlefield and for other innovative uses of gunpowder, as well as expanding on his previous novel tactics. He developed his vozová hradba – wagon forts – for use by the Hussites. These would be lined up on the battlefield, each one packed with a selection of soldiers, crossbowmen, handgunners, pikemen, shield carriers, and drivers.
Žižka later tried to invade Hungary, under the control of his old enemy King Sigismund, but it proved a step too far for the Hussite forces. He died of the plague at Přibyslav on the Moravian border on 11 October 1424. One chronicle records that his dying wish was for his skin to be used to make drums so that he could continue to lead his men into battle. Those who had followed him described themselves as orphans after his death.
Jan Žižka is today remembered as a national hero by the Czech people. The movie Medieval is a full throttle, blood soaked, mace-wielding adventure that looks stunning and tells a convincing story of how a gifted mercenary might have become a beloved leader of a rebellion that foreshadowed the Protestant Reformation.
Medieval is a stunning film that will hopefully bring this fascinating figure to a much wider audience.