Many films have been set in various Historical periods, or specific events in History. Since the silent days, and up to many of the latest films of the past few years, History has provided rich ground for the inspiration of film makers everywhere. In my usual five film selection, I have tried my best to recommend lesser known films, and to avoid the obvious epics.
The War Lord. This film is getting on a bit, and it shows sometimes. Nevertheless, this 1965 production, starring Charlton Heston and Richard Boone, still has a lot to offer. Set at the beginning of the 11th Century, in Normandy, it tells the story of a Knight, rewarded for loyal service, with a bequest of lands, and a run-down small castle. The land is poor, and the local villagers resentful. Still, the Knight, and his accompanying soldiers, rebuild the old fortress, and begin to impose the will of their master on the people. This work is complicated by the arrival of invading Frisian warriors, from the lands to the North. In addition, there is the love interest, provided by Rosemary Forsyth, as Bronwyn, a reluctant village girl. This film is better than you might expect. The life of those hard times is well portrayed, as are the ancient weapons, the siege engines, and the pagan beliefs still prevalent then. No expense is spared, with a huge cast of attacking barbarians, and excellent battle scenes. A glimpse into an unusual time, when life was hard, and considered cheap. Here is the original trailer, from 1965.
The Last Valley. The events of the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648, are rarely portrayed on film, and for good reason. This Europe-wide war of religion and conquest laid waste to much of Central Europe during this time, and brought death and disease to tens of thousands. It is complex to describe, and the reasons why it started, and its incredible duration, are the subject of worthy books, the size of telephone directories. This 1970 film takes a snapshot of an imaginary event, set during this conflict. A mercenary band, willing to fight for either side for pay, arrive exhausted, looking for a safe haven in which to spend the winter. By chance, they find an isolated valley, almost unknown to the world outside, and after first planning to sack the place, and kill everyone as usual, they eventually decide to stay there. They tell the villagers that they will protect this valley, in return for shelter and food, and enough women to supply the needs of the men. To minimise the difficulties, they appoint a displaced intellectual (played by Omar Sharif), to adjudicate in any disagreements between the soldiers and the captive villagers. Despite one epic, though short battle scene at the end, this is not a war film. It is a film about compromise, religious intolerance, and how men and women cope, in a world gone mad. Although it has the feel of a ‘Hammer’ film, it is superior in every way imaginable. The excellent cast boasts Michael Caine, as the leader of the mercenaries, and Nigel Davenport as the village elder. Supporting parts from Brian Blessed, Jack Shepherd, the marvellous Vladek Sheybal, and the menacing Michael Gothard, all make this a complete work. There is the Black Death, the sacking of villages, small and large battles, religious divides, witchcraft, and executions; something for everyone in there somewhere. Despite Caine’s unnecessary and irritating German accent, it is a rarity, and well worth seeking out. This clip shows the first ten minutes, and the whole film is available to watch here, albeit in sections.
La Reine Margot. This French film from 1995 has a complex storyline, concerning true events in the year 1572. Once again, the intricate politics of the time, with the background of religious intolerance between Catholics and Protestants, provide the viewer with a lot of work. Based on the Dumas novel, it is not for the casual viewer, so be warned. With a stellar cast of Europe’s finest, including Daniel Auteuil, and Isabelle Adjani, in the title role, it is one of the best films that no-one has ever heard of. The cinematography is second to none, and the authentic portrayal of life in the 16th Century, is simply breathtaking. There is murder, betrayal, forbidden love, and political double-dealing a plenty. It is also unflinching in its depiction of violence, and this is particularly true of the famous St Bartholemew’s Day massacre, with the brutal killing of thousands of Protestants. This is an engrossing film, brilliantly staged and executed, and you will see why it won not only an Oscar, but also the Jury Prize at the Cannes Festival. This trailer has subtitles in English.
The Horseman on the Roof. This is also a French film, and also released in 1995. Set during the 1830’s, in a France after Napoleon, this is not a war film either. It is a film about a cholera epidemic, a terrified populace, and two lovers, spanning a period of time. This is a big-budget, epic film, that was the most expensive film ever made in France at that time. The excellent cast is fronted by Juliette Binoche, and Vincent Perez, as the Horseman of the title, with cameos from Gerard Depardieu, and Jean Yanne. This film feels old fashioned, but in a very good way; there are spies, assassins, Austrian revolutionaries, and soldiers to watch out for, as the lovers make their perilous journey across the fever-stricken land. Beautifully shot, in the dream landscape of Provence, if you like a troubled romance, palpable villains, and plenty of action, then this is one for you to look out for. Here is a trailer, with subtitles in English.
The Duellists. This was the first feature film directed by Ridley Scott, the English film-maker who later brought us ‘Alien’, ‘Blade Runner’, and ‘Gladiator’, so the pedigree is assured. Back in 1977, he made this superb film, in my view one of his best, based on a short story, about actual events. Using two American actors in the leading roles, Harvey Keitel, and Keith Carradine, as well as a cast of British character acting stalwarts, Scott brings this amazing saga to the screen, with an artistic flair almost unknown then. The events take place during the French conquests in Europe, at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Two cavalry officers meet, and one considers himself insulted, demanding a duel to redeem his honour. This is not resolved to his satisfaction, and so begins a series of chance encounters, always resulting in a further duel, with Keitel’s character relentless in his pursuit of the gentler opponent. The cinematography in this film was out on its own at the time, and still as good as many of today’s CGI enhanced efforts: and brilliant staging and sets immerse the viewer in the life of Europe, in the early 19th Century. The action continues for almost twenty years, following the highs and lows of French military success. As times change, so do the fashions and styles of the officers, and this is meticulously reflected. I must not forget the duels themselves; sword-fights at a level rarely seen in European cinema, completely authentic, and exhausting to watch. With terrific performances by the whole cast, and the talent of Scott displayed for all to see, this is recommended as one of my all-time favourites. Here is a clip of one of the many duels fought in the film. Relish the authenticity.
That is my Historical selection, and only two with subtitles! I hope you get a chance to try some, or all of them, if you are really keen. They are all available on DVD, at reasonable prices, and some may well be accessed from the ‘streaming’ services, though I am far too old to know much about them.