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The Headsman
IMDB Rating: 6.2/10 from 827 votes
Release: 20 January 2006 (Austria) /

The Headsman

Genre: Drama
Director: Simon Aeby,
Stars: , , , , , , , , , ,
Synopsis: Director Simon Aeby's epic film chronicles the time-tested loyalty of two friends during Europe's 16th-century Inquisition. Orphans Martin (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Georg (Peter McDonald) bond as children, but walk very different paths as adults. Georg follows his calling to join the church, while Martin becomes an army captain. When fate places Martin in the role of executioner, he must choose between friendship and fundamentalist doctrine. Written by Anonymous

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Critic Reviews

I like history. Sometimes I read it. Sometimes I watch documentaries. And occasionally, a movie with enough realism to keep my addiction satisfied at the same time I'm entertained will surface. From the descriptions I read of Shadow of the Sword, I had some small hope it might be one of those movies. You can't imagine how delighted I was when that turned out to be the case.

In the Europe of the 1500's, the Catholic Church was almost literally all powerful. It was involved in every facet of every life, from the ceremonial to the governmental to the day-by-day. It's only natural that the church — for both reasons of charity as well as the replenishment of the priesthood — would take charge of orphaned boys. Martin and Georg are two such children. Raised together and raising hell together, the two are close friends until they day they're old enough to be separated into training for their adult responsibilities.

Georg (Peter McDonald) is taken by the Archbishop (John Shrapnel) where he is groomed to return to his home town as the prior of the local monastery. Meanwhile, Martin (Nikolaj Coaster-Waldau) becomes a soldier for the empires and achieves the rank of captain. After some fifteen years apart, Martin finds himself camped near his former home and he takes the opportunity to visit his old friend. The two men are delighted to see each other and spend a few hours catching up.

Martin, however, has one more errand he to run. He's been wounded in the fighting and needs medical care. After a brief chance meeting in the village, Martin discovers a pretty local girl named Anna (Anastasia Griffith) who, among other things, is reputed to be a witch and a healer. When Martin visits her in her remote home, he discovers two things: he loves her, and her father is the local executioner. The former is difficult at best since he's got to leave with his troops in the morning. The latter is almost as much of a problem since executioners are considered untouchable by the rest of the citizens.

Eventually, Martin is released from his duties and he returns to Anna only to find that her father has died. With little else for which he's qualified, Martin reluctantly takes over as executioner and soon finds himself a very busy man. The Catholic Church has virtually no tolerance for dissent, and punishments are harsh at best. Things only get worse when the Archbishop demands that Georg tighten up his control of the local populace and leaves an Inquisitor (Steven Berkhoff) behind to ensure that that's what happens.

Soon enough, the old friends are caught up in a battle of conscience, fear, and power that can only partly be solved by getting to the bottom of their own secret past. But time is short, betrayal looms, and failure means banishment or death for them and those they love.

The casting in Shadow of the Sword is excellent. You believe in Martin's strength and courage even as you entirely buy into Georg's innate piety. While that has something to do with the look of the men chosen to fill these roles, it's primarily due to the fact that Nikolaj Coaster-Waldau and Peter McDonald are very capable actors, the former in particular. Anastasia Griffith holds her own and John Shrapnel is terrific every time he's on screen, but my pick for most impressive performance comes from Julie Cox in a relatively small but pivotal role as the prostitute Margaretha.

The script was quite good, and the sets, costumes, and make-up effects were even better. The only real complaint I have about Shadow of the Sword involves a number of terribly jarring edits. I suspect these were made in an effort to lower the running time (almost two hours), but too many were too careless. I would have much preferred to have a longer movie. Besides, since what I saw was pretty good, I can only imagine that much of what I didn't see was pretty good, too.

The bottom line: Shadow of the Sword isn't perfect. But it's interesting and entertaining, and that's plenty. I liked this movie, and those with an interest in drama, history, or both will find something there for them, too.

POLITICAL NOTES: Even Catholics will likely confess that the church isn't always right. But it's rarely been more wrong than it was during the course of the Crusades and the later Inquisition. The Catholic Church has obviously mellowed and learned from some of its mistakes. But it's apparent that not everybody has. It seems that the word "crusade" and all of its inherent evils can be crudely translated as being synonymous with "jihad."

The fundamentalist Islam war on everybody who isn't a Muslim has nothing and everything in common with what the church did so long ago, and certainly Shari'a has an appalling amount in common with the techniques of the Inquisition we now so roundly condemn. Shadow of the Sword shows both the politics and the lust for control behind such campaigns all too clearly, and the graphic results offer up some lessons we'd do well to continue to remember today.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Shadow of the Sword is rated R for "violence and a scene of sexuality." This is not a movie I'd recommend your children see. Some scenes of torture, while not gratuitous, are quite graphic and more than a little difficult to watch. The subject matter is also likely beyond the understanding of younger kids. I'd recommend Shadow of the Sword only for those age 14 or so and up. I'd also recommend that, if you and your family do see the movie, you have a little conversation afterward about just what religious fanaticism means for the fate of freedom, and that you do your best to take those lessons to heart!

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