Producers: Petr Jákl and Cassian Elwes Director: Petr Jákl Screenplay: Petr Jákl Cast: Ben Foster, Sophie Lowe, Michael Caine, Til Schweiger, Matthew Goode, William Moseley, Roland Møller, Karel Roden, Werner Daehn, Vinzenz Kiefer, Alistair Brammer, Magnus Samuelsson, Christopher Rygh, Guy Roberts, David Bowles, William Lizr and Jennifer Armour Distributor: The Avenue
Though Jan Žižka was an extraordinarily successful general during the Hussite Wars in the early 1420s, never defeated in battle, and is revered as a great Czech national hero, virtually nothing is known about his earlier life. That allows Petr Jákl to construct a highly speculative drama about those formative years. Unfortunately in addition to being thoroughly conjectural, “Medieval” a dour, lumbering and often quite unpleasant take on Žižka’s transformation from stone-cold mercenary soldier to popular hero.
Relegating Žižka’s storied later career in the field to a brief coda, Jákl fashions a tale of the young Žižka’s involvement in the brutal political machinations between King Wenceslas of Bohemia and King Sigismund of Hungary, the two sons (half-brothers) of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, who divided his realm between them when he died in 1378; the series of back-stabbings and betrayals also involved the powerful nobleman Henry of Rosenberg, who played both sides to his own advantage. All of this occurred against the backdrop of the Great Schism, which began in 1378 and persisted until 1417, during which there were two (in the late stages three) popes—or more properly one pope and one or more antipopes. For good measure Jákl adds a contrived romantic subplot to the mix–and for good measure, even a ravenous lion.
Žižka (Ben Foster) is introduced here leading a group of mercenaries protecting Lord Boresh (Michael Caine), a nobleman returning from Italy with a safe conduct enabling Wenceslas (Karel Roden) to travel to Rome to be crowned emperor by the Roman pope, a revelation that silkily smooth Sigismund (Matthew Goode), who’s coolly trying to arrange matters to his benefit, responds to with moves of his own which ever-cautious, even indolent Wenceslas, who’s deeply in debt, responds to ineffectually. Shortly afterward Jan is tasked with abducting Henry of Rosenberg’s (Till Schweiger) fiancée Katherine (Sophie Lowe), niece of the French king who supports the false pope at Avignon, for use as a pawn in the political finagling. (She’s also a devotee of Jan Hus, the pre-Luther critic of the church, who is preaching in Prague and would be executed as a heretic by a church council in 1415.)
Henry retaliates by hiring Torak (Roland Møller), an erstwhile comrade of Jan’s, to kidnap Jaroslav (William Moseley), Žižka’s brother, and threaten to hang him unless Katherine is returned to him. In the process Torak cruelly kills Jan’s young nephew (William Lizr).
That leads to a series of very graphic encounters in which Jan’s band do battle with Torak’s. The battle sequences are intense, with lots of mud splatter as well as deaths by sword strokes, including one particularly nasty decapitation, though cinematographer Jesper Tøffner mitigates the blood and gore by shooting virtually the whole film in dank grays. Things go back and forth, with Katherine changing hands multiple times and Jan exhibiting his leadership skills as he responds to Torak’s numerical superiority with cunningly innovative tactics. Matters do not always go his way, however, and at one point he loses his left eye (cf. Kirk Douglas in “The Vikings”), which Katherine attends to with a medical procedure involving maggots that some viewers will find more upsetting than the depictions of battlefield slaughter; it’s part of her increasingly admiring and protective attitude toward Jan.
Unfortunately, Lowe is one of the weakest elements in “Medieval”—a sad-faced, willowy presence. Foster brings his customary intensity to Žižka, though he’s more impressive physically than emotionally—Jan is presented as an impassive, stone-faced sort of fellow, and Žižka’s transformation from a man who assumes that following the directives of a divinely-chosen monarch is always right to a man of the people (which is, after all, the overall theme of the film) never registers as powerfully as it should. On the other hand, Schweiger and Goode have fun with the villainous stuff, and Møller is as rough-and-tough as they come; the rest of the folks in armor or peasants’ garb are pretty much interchangeable, with few of the actors making any real impression. Caine is as authoritative as ever, his gravity always welcome; but be aware he appears only occasionally, though he has a fairly good death scene.
At a bit over two hours, “Medieval” strives for an epic feel, but it’s notable more for grit and grime than grandiosity; Jirí Sternwald’s production design and Katerína Mírová’s costumes emphasize dankness on the one hand and raggedness on the other, and the editing by Steven Rosenblum and Dirk Westervel is sluggish in the numerous expository scenes, though it naturally peps up in the battle sequences, some of them conducted underwater. (You might snicker over the times when, at a crucial point in a melee, someone shouts “He’s mine!” to signal a shift to one-on-one combat.) Philip Klein’s score adds oomph without propulsion.
Czech audiences, who will be familiar with Jan Žižka’s life within the broader context of the era, will undoubtedly have a much easier time following the twists and turns of the plot Jákl has invented than outsiders will. Big and imposing but visually grubby, narratively often indecipherable and ultra-violent, “Medieval” is more likely to bewilder and bore non-Czech viewers than to inspire them with the greatness of this national hero.