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The best movies set before 1500

When you think of a period piece, that typically means a movie that takes place in roughly the last 250 years. There are plenty of movies set in the 19th or 20th centuries, but there are far fewer set in the 15th century. In that time, societies were organized differently, and technology was roughly the same for hundreds of years.

With the recent release of Robert Eggers’ critically acclaimed Viking film The Northman, it’s worth considering other movies that are set in the more distant past. These movies can often shine a light on the ways that people have changed over the years, and equally important, how they haven’t. These movies reflect the vast array of human experience, even as they are all set before 1500.

The Last Duel (2021)

The Last Duel
67 %
7.4/10
r 153m
Genre Action, Drama, History
Stars Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer
Directed by Ridley Scott
One of the more recent entries on this list, The Last Duel is the kind of medieval epic that we rarely get to see anymore. Telling the story of the rape of a French noblewoman from three different perspectives, the film is ultimately about the ways men twist the stories they tell about themselves. While many stories told from three perspectives focus on the immutability of memory, The Last Duel is more about willful ignorance. The titular duel, which provides the film’s climax, is genuinely riveting, and Ben Affleck gives an incredible supporting turn as a lord who is bored by everything in his life. The Last Duel is an immense achievement, and proof that director Ridley Scott has still got plenty of juice.

Braveheart (1995)

Braveheart
68 %
8.4/10
r 178m
Genre Action, Drama, History, War
Stars Mel Gibson, Catherine McCormack, Sophie Marceau
Directed by Mel Gibson
Mel Gibson’s bloody tale of legendary Scottish warrior William Wallace features plenty of thrills, even as it made every effort to transform Gibson into the coolest man on the planet at the time. Braveheart certainly plays fast and loose with actual history, and it isn’t the most subtle movie ever made, but it certainly won plenty of hearts and minds in spite of its pretty overt sentimentality. This three-hour epic may get a little long-winded for its own good, but it’s hard to deny that Braveheart is effective, even if its main effect feels a bit strange in retrospect.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

Monty Python and the Holy Grail
91 %
8.2/10
pg 91m
Genre Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy
Stars Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle
Directed by Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones
What if King Arthur and the knights of the round table were idiots? That’s the simple question posed by Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and movie so committed to its low-budget aesthetic that they didn’t even bother to get horses for the production. While most of the films on this list take history seriously, Monty Python takes the opposite approach, making fun of virtually everything that it depicts. Some of the jokes have not aged perfectly, but for the most part, Holy Grail remains as delightfully absurd as it was when it was released almost 50 years ago.

Rashomon (1950)

Rashomon
98 %
8.2/10
88m
Genre Crime, Drama, Mystery
Stars Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyō, Takashi Shimura
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Another film that tells a single story from a number of different perspectives, Rashomon is Akira Kurosawa’s definitive statement on the impossibility of ever knowing the truth. The film tells the story of the murder of a man and the rape of his wife from four different perspective, and Kurosawa’s camera makes it impossible to ever feel certain about who is actually responsible. The grand revelation at the heart of Rashomon, which is that each person only tells the story a certain way because of their own desires, strikes deep at the heart of why we tell stories to begin with. The movie is a massive feat, and one of the best movies in Kurosawa’s outstanding body of work.

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Shakespeare in Love
87 %
7.1/10
r 123m
Genre Romance, History, Comedy
Stars Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Geoffrey Rush
Directed by John Madden
Most of the movies on this list are bloody tales of murder and political intrigue, but it’s important to remember that people also fell in love before the dawn of electricity. In Shakespeare in Love, we see the titular author struggle with writer’s block until he meets an upper -lass woman who is determined to act in his plays. The romance the two enter into ultimately isn’t meant to be, but Shakespeare in Love makes their undying love feel deeply moving. It also happens to feature one of the best screenplays ever written, filled with references to Shakespeare’s text and clever dialogue that are entirely its own.

The Seventh Seal (1957)

The Seventh Seal
88 %
8.1/10
96m
Genre Fantasy, Drama
Stars Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Bengt Ekerot
Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Ingmar Bergman’s films aren’t known for being accessible, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t a wonder to behold. The Seventh Seal follows a knight who returns from the Crusades to discover that his country has been destroyed by the black plague and ultimately challenges death to a chess match. We return to that match throughout the course of the film, and in doing so we get Bergman’s exploration of death and what it means to embrace it. The Seventh Seal is not a literal movie, but its use of imagery and individual scenes makes it a rewarding watch nonetheless.

The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

The Tragedy of Macbeth
87 %
7.1/10
r 105m
Genre Drama, War
Stars Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Alex Hassell
Directed by Joel Coen
William Shakespeare could really write, and it turns out that Joel Coen can really direct. That combination of elements makes The Tragedy of Macbeth one of the best adaptations of the bard’s work, in part because it’s so visually striking. Denzel Washington takes on the lead role in this adaptation, and manages to make one of the most famous plays in history feel new with every word that comes out of his mouth. He’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast, including Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth. The Tragedy of Macbeth is sumptuous, stunning, and one of the best Shakespeare adaptations ever.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

The Passion of Joan of Arc
8.2/10
82m
Genre Drama, History
Stars Maria Falconetti, Eugène Silvain, André Berley
Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer
A silent film that’s almost 100 years old, The Passion of Joan of Arc is nonetheless a quintessential telling of Joan of Arc’s story, so much so that it remains the most notable telling. The film follows the teenage martyr, who was publicly executed for claiming that she had spoken to God. Even though it’s by far the oldest film on the list, The Passion of Joan of Arc remains remarkably timely, in part for the way it recognizes how Joan of Arc’s punishment is not one that could have fallen on man. It’s a dark, sad story, but one that’s vividly rendered.

Ran (1985)

Ran
96 %
8.2/10
r 160m
Genre Action, Drama, History
Stars Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Kurosawa is one of the great directors in cinema history, so it’s only fitting that Ran should make an appearance on this list. An adaptation of King Lear a that’s been transported to feudal Japan, Ran tells the story of an aging emperor who has decided to split his domain among his three sons. This choice ultimately leads to plenty of backstabbing and betrayal, and ultimately to violence as well. Ran is a true epic, featuring lengthy battle sequences and a sprawling ensemble. It’s Kurosawa at the end of his career and the height of his powers.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

The Last Temptation of Christ
80 %
7.5/10
r 164m
Genre Drama
Stars Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese’s deeply controversial depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ has only become more popular in recent years, in part because it grapples with the idea of who Christ actually was. While this version of the Christ story may not have made Christians happy, it highlighted the burden he undoubtedly felt as the man who believed himself destined to save all of humankind. Few movies attempt to be nearly this ambitious, and even fewer succeed to the degree that this one does. You may not like what it says about God, but it’s pretty hard to resist on its merits.

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