With Game of Thrones returning for its sixth season, viewers may be chomping at the bit for more medieval mayhem, political maneuvering, and brutal, sexual intrigue. Game of Thrones was far from the first example of filmmakers and storytellers using fabled, ancient worlds as mirror images of ours, laced with gore, sex and corruption. Fans of such things had to find their kicks in movies long before Ned Stark lost his head.
Though it’s easy and tempting to point to big fantasy epics like Lord of the Rings, Camelot, King Arthur or Star Wars as obvious forebears of Game of Thrones’ legacy, those films feel less dark and less hopeless, less specifically attuned to the dubious ethics of the rulers of Westeros.
And so, we’ve compiled 15 Great Movies Every Game of Thrones Fan Should Watch.
15. Flesh + Blood (1985)
Paul Verhoeven may be best known as the king of erotic and sci-fi sleaze in America, but before he gave us Starship Troopers, Showgirls, Total Recall and Basic Instinct, he directed the mother of all sword and sorcery films. Like Game of Thrones, Flesh + Blood concerns people with conflicting, dangerously committed beliefs in different schools of religion.
A murderous knight with no master (Rutger Hauer) thinks he’s been gifted with divine purpose and therefore should take everything he thinks he’s owed, and he brings a passel of violent followers with him. He kidnaps a princess (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and seizes a castle, his belief keeping him strong in the face of all obstacles. Flesh + Blood is as messy, violent and beautiful as Game of Thrones at its finest, and equally fascinated by the difference between real and fake religious conviction.
14. Black Death (2010)
Game of Thrones stars Sean Bean and Carice Van Houten appeared in Chris Smith’s 2010 medieval horror thriller Black Death, just a year before the behemoth fantasy series would appear on HBO. The film concerns a group of knights sent to see if a village’s reports of immunity to black plague are true or if they’ve sold themselves to Satan for the privilege of outliving the rest of the world.
Bean leads the bloodthirsty troop to the cursed village where Van Houten’s priestess holds sway. The casting isn’t the only thing that Black Death has in common with Game of Thrones. The crazed religious conviction of the characters on both sides of the conflict should ring a few bells, as should the wonderfully intense violence and gore.
13. Excalibur (1981)
Game of Thrones is unceasingly bleak, but there are moments of genuine wonder buried under the incest and torture, and no film quite understood the mythic grandeur of fulfilling one’s destiny quite like John Boorman’s Excalibur, a counterintuitively epic, stoic and personal take on the King Arthur stories.
The magic and wonder of King Arthur and Merlin’s adventures are obviously in the background of many a medieval-set tale of legends, but the influence of Boorman’s genuine awe at the events of the stories is occasionally seen on the show, as when Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) emerges from fire with her newly born dragons on her shoulders. The show could stand a little more of Boorman’s hard-earned excitement these days.
12. Dragonslayer (1981)
And speaking of Dragons. Matthew Robbins’ Dragonslayer, one of the greatest special effects movies ever made, can be found all over Game of Thrones’ DNA. They both feature conflicting religious camps, pitting pagans and new Christians alike against a force they can’t fully comprehend.
A sorcerer’s apprentice (Peter MacNicol) heads to a village gripped by an uneasy bargain with a dragon. They feed it one virgin a year in exchange for the rest of the populace not getting burnt alive. Game of Thrones‘ frequently focuses on rulers meddling with powers they don’t understand, and, of course, the film has a few impressive dragon effects of its own. Vermithrax Pejorative, the film’s firebreathing menace, remains the greatest and most memorable cinematic rendering of a dragon, though Dany’s pets Viserion, Rhaegal and Drogon aren’t too shabby, either.
11. The Devils (1971)
Ken Russell, the mad king of cinema, put himself permanently on the map when he directed this unhinged 1971 adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun. In 17th century France, a lone priest (Oliver Reed, in the best role of an amazing career) tries to keep the wolves at bay after he chastises Cardinal Richelieu and the Church. As a result, witch-hunters are sent to his hometown, looking for an excuse to end the relative prosperity. The mother superior at the local convent (Vanessa Redgrave) lets herself and her nuns become pawns in the bogus witch trials that followed, prompted by her unrequited lust for Reed’s hyper masculine man of god.
Watching this fundamentally good man fall prey to a violent conspiracy ought to give fans of Ned Stark deja vu. The fact that The Devils is one of the greatest works of British cinema ought to count for something, too.
10. Richard III (1955)
Laurence Olivier’s Shakespeare films have the verve and immediacy of someone who knew he’d hit upon a great idea, boldly presenting the works of the bard and himself as their erudite mouthpiece. Olivier’s theatrical staging of the plays helped viewers understand the majesty of the text, never more deliciously than when he took on Richard III, whose backstabbing and infanticidal tantrums seem to have influenced the fatuously sadistic kings and queens of Westeros.
Game of Thrones always attempted to feel Shakespearian, and the theatrical staging of much of the action suggests an influence from Olivier’s take on the more violent plays, at least in their blocking and cinematography. Furthermore, King Richard III in Olivier’s hands resembles Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson) grown to adulthood.
9. Marketa Lazarová (1967)
When it was re-released in a beautiful remastered print a few years ago, critics couldn’t help remark on Marketa Lazarová‘s similarities to Game of Thrones. Both feature sprawling families in constant embittered struggle across a medieval landscape, over power but also the love of a woman.
The huge cast and era of feudal violence and region-specific politics (a Czech kingdom in the 13th century) sent pangs of familiarity through new viewers. František Vláčil’s beautiful portrait of a kingdom falling to pieces over the grievances of one of its subjects may be more grounded in its details and beautiful in its storytelling, but squint and it looks like George R.R. Martin’s world.
8. Die Nibelungen (1924)
On top of giving us modern sci-fi with his 1927 masterpiece Metropolis, Fritz Lang was one of the earliest directors to gift us some of the films that would define how fantasy is meant to behave in cinema. Though the epic can be traced back to the Italian biblical silents of the early 1910s, it was Lang’s two-part Die Nibelungen that looks like the stylistic and formal grandsire to everything from Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones.
In Part 1, we follow a hero named Siegfried (Paul Richter) as he slays a dragon and attempts to finds favor in a kingdom so that he might win the hand of a princess (Margarete Schön). Part 2 concerns the princesses efforts to secretly bring ruin to that same kingdom. This was the first film to include the majestic scope and fantastical elements that appear week after week on Game of Thrones.
7. Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
Ridley Scott’s Gladiator may have the requisite bloodlust and hugeness of Game of Thrones, but it’s his film of the pre-Crusades period in Jerusalem, Kingdom of Heaven, that shares the most thematically with the HBO mainstay. A blacksmith (Orlando Bloom) flees his village after killing a priest and joins up with a gang of mercenaries headed for Jerusalem. Soon he’s pressed into service for the leper king of Jerusalem (Edward Norton) and looks to be the only thing standing between war and peace.
The intractable beliefs of the Muslims and Christians fighting over the territory feels an awful lot like the mad, religious Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) and his thirst for battle, as when he and his forces attempt to seize King’s Landing from cruel, cowardly Joffrey.
6. Lancelot Du Lac (1974)
Robert Bresson brought a stillness and a fascination with the processes and minutia of life in the 5th century to his version of the tale of court of King Arthur. Bloody, tedious, hot and unforgiving, you feel everything his knights feel. Dispossessed of hope after failing to find the holy grail, Arthur and his knights busy themselves with whatever they can, which includes Lancelot’s (Luc Simon) wooing of the queen (Laura Duke Condominas) right under the King’s (Vladimir Antolek-Oresek) nose.
Bloody, sweaty and deeply sad, this is the perhaps the medieval film that most resembles the tone of your average Game of Thrones episode, where each sword stroke sends frissons of exhaustion and excitement down the viewer’s spine.
5. The Barbarians (1987)
Of all the 80s films about men on quests, no film was as hammy and delightful as Ruggero Deodato’s The Barbarians. The Cannibal Holocaust director brought his all-or-nothing sensibility to this campy romp through every fantasy trope known to man. Twin pitfighters (David and Peter Paul) are set on a quest to help a tribe of gypsies called the Ragniks retrieve their sacred stone, taken by a warlord (Richard Lynch) during a raid on their camp.
The muscular twins (like a pair of Khal Drogos) face everything from witches to dragons on their quest and do so with hilarious pigheaded chemistry. Game of Thrones’ Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) and his sarcastic rapport with both the dull-witted denizens of Westeros, (along with the considerably more shrewd, like Littlefinger) has much of the comic character of The Barbarians.
4. Barbarian Queen (1985)
Possibly the sleaziest “feminist” film ever made, Héctor Olivera’s Barbarian Queen has the violence and nudity quotient that fans have come to expect from their weekly installments of Game of Thrones. After a village is raided and most of the tribe are either killed or sold into slavery, three survivors (Lana Clarkson, Katt Shea and Susana Traverso) organize a hasty rescue mission that leaves many dead.
Its message of female warriors taking power and freedom through whatever means necessary certainly sounds like something out of Game of Thrones, but it’s the parade of naked women that really feels closest to the show. Produced by B-movie maven Roger Corman, Barbarian Queen will satisfy anyone who misses hanging out in Westeros’ brothels and fighting pits.
3. A Field In England (2013)
The beautiful, bewitching A Field In England is like a psychedelic cousin to Game of Thrones. Four defectors from the English Civil War are press-ganged into digging for gold in a field by a charlatan magician (Michael Smiley). The de facto leader of the poor oppressed workers is Whitehead the Alchemist (Reece Shearsmith), who fights hardest against their unholy task.
He and the magician’s combat takes a surreal turn when Whitehead stuffs a bunch of hallucinogenic mushrooms into his mouth. Game of Thrones also believes in the power of showing the audience images of which it can’t easily make sense. A Field in England may be more trippy and scrappy than Game of Thrones, but both are about violently rejecting destiny and trying to create a new one with the little one has at hand.
2. Hard To Be A God (2013)
The final film by Russian genius Aleksei German is a feat of sensory immersion unlike nearly anything that came before it. German throws you into a parallel universe, a medieval kingdom run by the insane, the violent, and the dumb. One man, Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), knows that life could be different for the deranged, dirty, vile citizens of the kingdom of Arkanar, but he’s been forbidden to interfere with the Dark Age development of these people, sloshing around in mud, stumbling towards evolution and change, but getting lost along the way.
Like Game of Thrones, Hard to be a God doesn’t downplay the grotesquery of living before running water and electricity, let alone enlightenment and reason. It’s as dirty as it is frightening, but it’s also, like the show at its best, absolutely gorgeous and inspiring.
1. Valhalla Rising (2009)
The drone-metal Viking dirge Valhalla Rising (a companion piece to Justin Kurzel’s hypnotic Macbeth, which could also fit comfortably on this list) directed by Drive’s Nic Winding Refn, is all menacing masculinity.
A one-eyed warrior (Hannibal’s Mads Mikkelsen) joins a small party of conquerers on a boat bound for the new world. They only find their undoing and an unfriendly welcome from the Native American population near their landing site. Refn’s style is midnight movie friendly in its excesses and the dreamlike wandering through beautiful landscapes can be mesmerizing, but his obsession with men plowing violently towards a paradise they believe they’ve earned is all over Game of Thrones. And, as a bonus, both are exceedingly violent.
Fans of all things extreme and mead-soaked have plenty of avenues they should explore so that when Game of Thrones’ watch finally comes to an end, they won’t experience pangs of withdrawal. What else reminds you of high times on the wall? What are your favorite medieval fantasy kingdoms? Are there any TV shows worth mentioning in the same breath as Game of Thrones?
Game of Thrones season 6 will premiere on Sunday, April 24th, 2016 on HBO.