In his latter years, Jan Žižka will become a Bohemian military commander of legend. But that journey to glory necessarily starts more modestly years before. When we meet him here, Jan is the leader of a rough-around-the-edges group of mercenaries.
Jan and his men know how to kill. And they get a pretty penny for doing so. Their current mission is simple: protect the deep-pursed Lord Boresh, an elderly statesman who’s ever in someone’s crosshairs.
You see, with the death of the last Roman Emperor, the 15th-century political stage is a mess. Assassinations and backstabbing intrigue are everyday occurrences as people grasp at power. And on top of that, there’s also a battle for control of the Catholic Church.
Lord Boresh, however, has a plan. A lovely young woman, Lady Katherine, must be kidnapped. She is the fiancée of a wealthy Lord named Rosenberg and the niece of the King of France. And if she becomes a pawn held securely, other major chess pieces can be forced to move.
Now, kidnapping women in this era generally wasn’t a well-received political strategy. But when Jan Žižka nevertheless gets tapped for the dirty job, he grudgingly agrees. After all, there are important things happening well above his station. And when God’s will is at stake—which Boresh definitively makes clear is the case—then unpleasant choices must be made.
Of course, kidnapping a Lady of Katherine’s importance can also spark unexpected bloody reprisals, such as the capture of Jan’s brother and the gruesome murder of his nephew. And so Jan soon finds himself caught between two monarchs, surrounded by bloodthirsty forces, and facing off with his own brutal mentor, Torak. War and battle are horribly grisly and bloody. And Jan Žižka is afraid that God’s will may be every bit as bad.
Even in the muck of constant bloodletting, we get the sense that Jan wants to do the honorable thing. He kills and hacks at foes, to be sure. But he also faces danger to protect Katherine and local villagers who are oppressed by lords and royals at every turn. Jan also takes time to often sprinkle seeds near a victim or at a gravesite while repeating the phrase: “Death brings life.”
As Katherine witnesses some of these horrific misdeeds—many perpetrated by her own Lord Rosenberg—she balks at the life and the station she used to occupy. Feeling led by God, Katherine does whatever she can to help the wounded villagers. She risks her life to protect them, and she reaches out to save Jan’s life on several occasions. In the end she’s willing to sacrifice herself for another individual.
Local villagers gather with their tools as weapons to support what they see as Jan’s battle for “justice” as he begins to fight against the royal’s forces.
Characters discuss the concept of God’s will from several different points of view. Most often, that concept gets used as a prop or a justification for the atrocities men perform. On the other hand, some question whether God desires those terrible things. Several people say that even the church “twists the words of the Bible.” And Jan notes that though kings are “chosen by God, they still make the mistakes of men.”
One rather evil and deceptive lord prays regularly that God would bless his rise to power. Jan is a praying man, too. Though he generally prays that God would forgive the death-dealing and bloody hacking he’s about to do.
Katherine, however, is a much more earnest believer in God’s good hand in life. She goes to a church service and sings with the congregates—singing a song about praying to God and having faith in him (this song is lifted several times in the film by local villagers). And at two key moments, Katherine appears to be prompted by the hand of God to make specific self-sacrificial choices.
Katherine also talks with Jan about someone he once loved and who was killed mercilessly. She wonders if love is the “one true thing given to us by God.” In a flashback, Jan’s father expresses a different belief, saying, “God’s blessings are not in what He gives, they’re in what He takes.”
A scene in a church includes a painting showing Jesus on the cross.
Lord Rosenberg goes to be with a prostitute while Katherine goes to church. The naked woman sits in bed (who is seen topless) and laments that Rosenberg will soon marry and not see her anymore. But Rosenberg assures her he’ll keep visiting. “The things you do for me, my little princess wouldn’t dream of,” he chortles.
Jan and Katherine kiss.
This is very much a film about the atrocities of men. In fact, those bloody elements brutally override everything else here.
To that end, men are constantly being pounded to mush by maces and stabbed and hacked repeatedly with knives and swords in the midst of battle. A man’s head is savagely sawn off and impaled on a spike. A young boy is impaled on a large post and left to suffer and slowly bleed out. He only dies when a loved one mercifully kills him with a knife to the heart. Scores of men and horses are hit with arrows and falling stones. One guy, for instance, has a crossbow arrow purposely shot into his mouth.
People are hung by the neck and left strung up and impaled for birds to pick at their eyes and soft tissue. Someone is dragged like a bloody sack behind a horse. A man is stoned and then has his skull crushed. Buildings are burned. We see charred bodies of the dead. The camera also gazes at bones being crushed and snapped by large rocks. And swords severing joints and limbs.
One particularly gruesome wound involves a man being slashed across the face by a blade and losing an eye. The gory socket is then “treated” by filling it with maggots to eat out the dead flesh.
Oh, and women don’t escape the torment either. Women are thumped in the head with clubs and have their throats slashed. One woman falls from a great height into a lake. But after being rescued, she still dies from the fall (bleeding from her ears and nose).
A lion attacks and mauls several men. The camera watches as the beast claws at a guy and then chews savagely on his head. Innocents are tortured and manhandled for information. We hear of someone who died from plague. We see flashes of a young girl being dragged around by men. Someone’s nose is bitten off. A man is betrayed and beaten by his own men. Another character escapes soldiers by lying under dead bodies in a corpse cart.
A single s-word and a use of “d–n.”
Men drink what appears to be wine or mead from glasses and a wineskin.
Though it’s really just a garnish to the bloodiness here, lies and deception abound between the story’s men of power.
Director Petr Jákl is trying to translate and transport his Czech filmmaking skills to a larger international stage with Medieval—the most expensive Czech film in history. But quite frankly—when the cinematic ingredients of this flick are laid out side-by-side—those isolated parts promise far more than the film as a whole ever delivers.
That ingredient list includes the story of a famous Czech warrior hero who, in real life, did some remarkable things. There are recognizable stars and battlefield adventures in the mix. You’ve got twisting and backstabbing political intrigue. And there’s even the promise of two comely leads falling into an unlikely love story.
For all of that, however, and all the blue-gray filtering and well-designed cinematography that a modern film crew can whip up, the resulting flick is just kinda meandering and disjointed. Oh, and it’s very, very, very bone-breaking and flesh-flayingly brutal—horror movie kind of stuff.
Now, I’m not suggesting that war in the 15th century was a pretty thing. For that matter, it probably wasn’t much more than a gory and painful slog. But gory, tiresome, slogs don’t mix well with popcorn and date nights for most.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.