Medieval: this blood-soaked Bohemian biopic spares no expense

This atmospheric chronicle of one of the great Czech national heroes reputedly has the biggest price-tag of any film ever made in the Czech Republic, and is worth seeing mainly for its well-staged, gore-drenched battle scenes.

Ben Foster as Jan Žižka in Medieval (2022)

1990s Czech judo champion turned stuntman turned actor Petr Jákl beat an unusual path to the director’s chair, and his three films to date have been notably diverse: the true-crime thriller Kajínek (2010), the 3D found-footage horror film Ghoul (2015) – essentially The Blair Witch Project (1999) but involving the demonic spirit of a real-life Soviet cannibal – and Medieval. The last two were made in English, presumably an international distribution requirement for Medieval, which is reputedly the most expensive film ever made in the Czech Republic.

It’s the second big-screen biopic of one of the great Czech national heroes, the Bohemian general Jan Žižka (c. 1360-1424). However, unlike Otakar Vávra’s Jan Žižka (1955), Jákl concentrates on the commander’s early life and the events that elevated him from roving mercenary to impassioned defender of the realm. Medieval gets off to a terrific start when Žižka (Ben Foster) and a small band of followers rescue Lord Boreš (Michael Caine), the elderly emissary of King Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia (Karl Roden), from an assassination attempt despite being significantly outnumbered – but the film then wades into a murky morass of political squabbling involving Wenceslaus, his half-brother King Sigismund of Hungary (Matthew Goode), and rogue nobleman Henry of Rosenberg (Til Schweiger), variously aligned to two rival Popes vying for supremacy in the Holy Roman Empire.

As the film progresses and Žižka comes more to the foreground, Medieval becomes much more reminiscent (presumably consciously) of the likes of Braveheart (1995) and Gladiator (2000), though it never comes close to matching the poetic intensity of the great medieval films by Jákl’s compatriot František Vláčil (The Devil’s Trap, 1961; Marketa Lazarová, 1967; Valley of the Bees, also 1967). The narrative fulcrum comes with the kidnapping of Rosenberg’s naïve, pampered fiancée Katherine (Sophie Lowe), initially just another of Žižka’s assignments (his not to reason why) but soon having life-changing consequences for both, not least in the way that it sparks their mutual realisation of where they actually stand in the wider scheme of things.

As Žižka, Foster channels much of his character in Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace (2018), a brooding, introspective man who knows when to lie low and live off the land when it’s necessary for survival. Some splendid pre-existing Czech locations (both natural and man-made) and Jesper Tøffner’s atmospheric, desaturated cinematography enhance the battle scenes, which combine gore-drenched hand-to-hand slogging with regular demonstrations of how Žižka’s celebrated tactical nous operated on a larger canvas. These increasingly elaborate scenes are, overwhelmingly, the main reason to see this film.

► Medieval is in UK cinemas now, and is available to stream on a range of digital platforms.