5 essential British films set in the distant past

From murder in the Middle Ages to 17th-century swashbuckling, journey back through the centuries with these classic British period films – all available for US audiences on BFI Player Classics.

Updated: 3 January 2020

By David Parkinson

Murder in the Cathedral (1951)

Murder in the Cathedral (1951)

Filmed in the Archbishop’s Hall at Canterbury, George Hoellering’s rivetingly austere adaptation of American poet T.S. Eliot’s verse play about the martyrdom of Thomas Becket in the 12the century makes for fascinating contrast with the Oscar-winning The Lion in Winter (1968), whch is also on the BFI Player Classics channel.

The Moonraker (1958)

The Moonraker (1958)

This rousing swashbuckler enjoyably relocates The Scarlet Pimpernel to the English civil war, as the dandyish Earl of Dawlish (George Baker) smuggles Royalists to France under the nose of a Roundhead colonel (Marius Goring). But their mission to rescue Charles Stuart after the Battle of Worcester is complicated by Dawlish’s fiancée (Sylvia Syms).

Henry VIII and His Six Wives (1972)

Henry VIII and His Six Wives (1972)

Having won both an Emmy and a BAFTA for his imposing performance in a lauded 1970 BBC mini-series, Australian actor Keith Michell reprised the role of Henry VIII in this big-screen adaptation. He’s on bullish form once more, as he bestrides several eye-catching locations alongside a fine supporting cast.

The Three Musketeers (1973)

The Three Musketeers (1973)

Originally conceived as a vehicle for The Beatles, Richard Lester’s boisterously enjoyable adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s swashbuckling classic benefits from the knowing performances of the all-star cast and a witty George MacDonald Fraser script. A sequel, The Four Musketeers, followed in 1974.

Salome’s Last Dance (1988)

Salome's Last Dance (1988)

Oscar Wilde (Nickolas Grace) attends a production of his 1891 play in a London bordello in Ken Russell’s typically provocative recreation of the New Testament story of the death of John the Baptist. With Glenda Jackson leading a cast taking dual roles, this is mischievous, excessive, scandalous and amusing.

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Originally published: 30 January 2020