Top 10 17th Century Films

By James Oliver

The 17th century was when the old world died and the modern world began to take shape; in Britain, they called a halt to the middle ages by killing a king, while in Europe they fought wars that still define our epoch.

An eventful time, then; no wonder it's inspired so many movies. The platform-wide release of Ben Wheatley's British civil war psyche-out A Field in England seems a great reason to cast an eye over the best examples.

NB. We've limited ourselves to choosing from titles currently available in the UK

10. Cyrano de Bergerac

The list that follows is largely concerned with British history but how could we ignore this? Although written in the Nineteenth century, Edmond Rostand's play is set firmly in the Seventeenth. It's been an inspiration to many filmmakers but this is surely the definitive take, directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau and starring Gιrard Depardieu in arguably his greatest performance. It's splendid, handsome entertainment: no wonder it was such a sensation upon original release.

Buy the DVD for £6.99


9. A Field in England

No one's going to accuse Ben Wheatley of making cosy heritage pictures; here, the director of Kill List dives into the past for what might be the world's very first psychedelic costume drama; set during the civil war, it concerns a band of deserters captured by an Alchemist and forced to dig for buried treasure in the titular field. A field that's covered in most peculiar mushrooms. That everyone has consumed. This is history with dirt under its fingernails and a mad glint in its eye.

Buy the DVD for £9.99 / Buy the Blu-ray for £15.99


8. La Kermesse Heroique

Although certain historical allowances have to be made – had they known what World War Two might bring, no doubt the creators of this 1935 movie wouldn't have shown a Belgium town (even one in 1616) happily collaborating with an invading force – this is a lovely little film. The invaders are Spanish and they're dissuaded from rape and pillage by the charm and the guile of the women of the town, while the men-folk waste their time with foolish strategies. A little treat from the Golden Age of French filmmaking.

Buy the DVD for £8.99


7. The Moonraker

The most purely entertaining film on our list and one of the best swashbucklers this country ever produced. It's a quasi-Scarlet Pimpernel yarn, with charming cavalier George Baker trying to spirit the future Charles II out of the country from under the beady eye of Marius Goring. Director David MacDonald evidently prepared by studying the great Errol Flynn adventure films and while this isn't quite in their class, there's enough flashing blades, unexpected peril and last-minute escapes to make for superb thigh-slapping fun.

Buy the DVD for £11.49


6. The Draughtsman's Contract

Peter Greenaway's first feature and still (probably) his best, an art-house enigma set in 1694, featuring murder, blackmail, adultery and the most extravagant wigs this side of Elton John. It looks gorgeous and it's topped off with Michael Nyman's Henry Purcell-influenced score. If it ain't baroque, don't fix it...

Buy the DVD for £8.99


 

And we can't move on without having at least a little bit Michael Nyman's music from the film:

5. Blood on Satan's Claw

Overlooked for many years, most likely because of the catchpenny title that the producers foisted upon it, this is now recognised as one of the best – if strangest – of British horror films. It's set in rural England; after a farmer ploughs up some unholy remains, the village children are apparently possessed by the devil. It's a film with a potent, unsettling atmosphere, contrasting the bucolic beauty of the countryside with the horror churning within.

Buy the DVD for £13.49 / Buy the Blu-ray for £19.99


4. Winstanley

Most films about the British Civil Wars of the 1640's concentrate on what happened; Winstanley is one of the few – maybe the only – to examine the ideologies that were such crucial catalysts for those events. It's the story of Gerrard Winstanley, the instigator of the Digger movement (essentially proto-communists), whose bold experiment was deemed a challenge to the new Roundhead establishment. It's also one of only two films directed by Andrew Mollo and Kevin Brownlow; both established great things in their subsequent careers but it's a tragedy for British film they didn't get to make more features.

Buy the DVD+Blu-ray for £10.99


3. Witchfinder General

The real Matthew Hopkins was an Essex lawyer who exploited the tumult of the civil war years to tour East Anglia and murder any woman he said was a witch. Michael Reeves' film depicts this despicable man as driven more by sexual sadism than any concern about black magic, which sounds about right. Vincent Price (imposed by producers) makes no attempt to mask his American accent but it's still the best performance he ever gave, in one of the very best films in which he appeared.

Buy the DVD for £13.49 / Buy the Blu-ray for £18.99


2. Day of Wrath

So far, this list has cast religion in a very poor light and now we come to the ultimate expression of that; it's set in a stern Danish Protestant community, one which has no tolerance for those who deviate from its rules – so woe-betide those accused of witchcraft. When the (much younger) wife of the local priest falls in love with her step-son, we can be in no doubt where it will end. Director Carl Dreyer finds compassion – or at least empathy – for all involved; that somehow makes the human cost all the worse.

Buy the DVD for £7.99


1. The New World

May I make so bold as to suggest that this is Terrence Malick's masterpiece? Not to mention one of the best films of recent years, as well. It's the story of everyone's favourite indigenous American princess, Pochahontas (although she's never named as such); she saves Cap'n John Smith, just like the Disney film tells us, but slowly becomes estranged from her culture. It's about America, how the foundation of the country would define what it would become and it's beautiful, in every sense. Here's the opening...

Buy the DVD for £16.99 / Buy the Blu-ray for £6.99


 

...and the ending.

Film Listing

Peter Greenaway, 1982

£8.99

The Draughtsman's Contract

A 17th Century draughtsman undertakes a series of paintings in return for sexual ...

DVD

Piers Haggard, 1970

£13.49

Blood on Satan's Claw

Classic British horror set in a superstitious 17th century England. The discovery of furry remain...

DVD

Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1943

£7.99

Recommended Star

Day of Wrath

Set in 17th century Denmark, this is a dark and powerful tale of love and betrayal within a commu...

DVD

Kevin Brownlow, Andrew Mollo, 1975

£10.99

Winstanley

Brownlow & Mollo's second film, after It Happened Here, Winstanley sees them recreating the story...

DVD+Blu-ray

Terrence Malick, 2005

£16.99

Recommended Star

The New World

Epic adventure set amidst the first encounter of European and Native American cultures during the...

DVD

Michael Reeves, 1968

£13.49

Witchfinder General

Michael Reeves' classic British horror drama is et In England during the time of Cromwell and see...

DVD

Jacques Feyder, 1935

£8.99

La Kermesse Heroique

A joyfully immoral satire set in the early 1600s in a Flemish town facing invasion from the Spani...

DVD

Ben Wheatley, 2013

£9.99

Recommended Star

A Field in England

A monochrome psychedelic trip into magic and madness set during the English Civil War and directe...

DVD

Piers Haggard, 1970

£19.99

Blood on Satan's Claw

Classic British horror set in a superstitious 17th century England. The discovery of furry remain...

Blu-ray

Jean-Paul Rappeneau, 1990

£6.99

Recommended Star

Cyrano de Bergerac (1990)

Rappeneau excels at action-packed, scenically beautiful costume dramas (The Scoun...

DVD

David MacDonald, 1958

£11.49

The Moonraker

Swashbuckling action adventure set in the mid 17th century. George Baker stars as Earl Anthony, a...

DVD

Ben Wheatley, 2013

£15.99

Recommended Star

A Field in England

A monochrome psychedelic trip into magic and madness set during the English Civil War and directe...

Blu-ray

Michael Reeves, 1968

£18.99

Witchfinder General

Michael Reeves' classic British horror drama is et In England during the time of Cromwell and see...

Blu-ray

Terrence Malick, 2005

£6.99

The New World

Epic adventure set amidst the first encounter of European and Native American cultures during the...

Blu-ray