The early days of a Czech hero and one of history’s greatest military strategists are recounted in Medieval, which opened in cinemas across the world this weekend to decidedly mixed results. Titled Jan Žižka for local release, the film is now playing in Prague cinemas in both English and Czech-dubbed versions.
Medieval tells the story of the early outlaw years of Jan Žižka, a legendary Czech general who famously defended Prague from about ten thousand invading crusaders with a force of 80 soldiers atop Vítkov Hill during the Hussite Wars. Despite having only one eye for much of his military career, and being completely blind by the end of it, it is said that he never lost a battle.
The film was directed by Petr Jákl, a former judoka who represented the Czech Republic at the 2000 Olympic games and later became a stuntman and actor (he worked on Bad Company and xXx in Prague) and ultimately director, making the true crime drama Kajínek and found footage horror movie Ghoul. At an estimated budget of 500 million crowns (about $21 million), Medieval is the most expensive Czech movie ever made, and a passion project for its director.
The money can be seen on the screen: in an age of CGI-infused action movies, it’s refreshing to see one where the battle scenes are genuinely performed by dozens or even hundreds of extras, and involve the use of carefully-orchestrated stunt work and practical effects.
Drone footage beautifully captures Žižka’s travels across Bohemia from Prague to the rock formations at Czech Switzerland; locations as captured by cinematographer Jesper Tøffner look gorgeous throughout the movie, and include tourist hotspots like Křivoklát Castle, Zvíkov Castle, and the Church of St. Bartholomew in Kolín.
Jákl doesn’t hold back on the bloodshed: bones are broken, limbs severed and torsos impaled during brutal fights as Medieval lives up to its title. The film’s big action scenes are vividly choreographed and showcase Žižka’s DIY military skill, though the editing can be choppy and camerawork disorienting.
Medieval features an embarrassment of acting talent, starting with an unexpectedly subdued Ben Foster in the leading role. His Žižka is a stoic, unwavering leader whose struggles not with his own morality, but rather the effects of acting or not acting on what he knows to be the right thing to do.
Michael Caine lends the film some genuine gravitas as Žižka’s current employer, while Karel Roden, Til Schwieger, and Matthew Goode are appropriately slimy as the royals behind Medieval’s plot machinations, and Roland Møller menacing as Žižka’s chief rival.
Unfortunately, Medieval’s screenplay, credited to the director with an awkward “based on an earlier screenplay” (by Marek Dobeš and Michal Petruš) credit, is even murkier than its mud-and-blood-soaked battlefields.
The plot of the film revolves around a power struggle in the wake of the death of Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. Bohemian King Wenceslaus IV (Roden) has the claim to the throne, but needs to raise funds for the trip to the Vatican to be coronated.
Henry III of Rosenberg (Schweiger) has pledged to deliver those funds, but balks when Wenceslaus invites half-brother Sigismund I, King of Hungary (Goode) and his army to Bohemia. The fictional Lord Boresh (Caine) secures safe passage for Wenceslas to Rome, but Rosenberg attempts to kill him before he can deliver the good news.
To get Rosenberg to honor his pledge, Boresh and Wenceslas hire Žižka and his motley crew to kidnap and ransom his fiancee, Lady Katherine (Sophie Lowe). Sigismund, meanwhile, tells Rosenberg that he’ll re-kidnap Katherine and deliver her back in exchange for his support in Rome (in real life, Sigismund did eventually become the Emperor).
Do we even care if Wenceslas makes it to Rome? No, and it’s doubtful this guy would have united an empire anyway. Not to be confused with the Good King, Wenceslaus IV was nicknamed “the Idle”, and Roden portrays him with an almost frightening apathy. “We can always go to Rome next year,” he tells Caine’s Boresh as warring forces tear his country apart.
What does all this have to do with Jan Žižka? Well, nothing, really. Promotional material touts Medieval as a “Czech Braveheart”, but where William Wallace fought for freedom, Jan Žižka fights for… reasons unclear, even (it seems) to him. He spends much of the film fighting Sigismund’s army led by Møller’s Torak at what feels like the whim of the royals. As their plot isn’t even sensible, it’s more like the whim of the filmmakers.
The most expensive Czech film ever made should have told the story of one of the country’s greatest heroes, a slice of Czech history that is still impactful some 600 years later. Instead, it’s an inexplicably Hollywoodized mishmash that tells a wholly invented story and leaves the interesting stuff to a two-sentence footnote at the very end.
For the real dish on Jan Žižka, check out Otakar Vávra’s Hussite Revolutionary Trilogy of Jan Hus, Jan Žižka, and Against All, itself the most expensive Czech movie ever made when released in 1956. While lacking the brutal impact of Jákl’s film, they tell a coherent story that holds up almost 70 years later.