Top 10 Movies and TV Shows Inspired by Ancient Legends

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Top 10 Movies and TV Shows Inspired by Ancient Legends

VOICE OVER: Peter DeGiglio WRITTEN BY: Jeff Kronenfeld
These legends were destined for the Hollywood treatment. For this list, we'll be looking at premodern sagas that influenced some of our favorite adventures on the big and small screens. Our countdown includes Romulus & Remus, Robin Hood, Perseus, and more!
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Top 10 Ancient Legends That Inspired Movies and TV Shows


Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Ancient Legends That Inspired Movies and TV Shows.

For this list, we’ll be looking at premodern sagas that influenced some of our favorite adventures on the big and small screens. Recently invented characters retroactively inserted into the past are excluded. Dashing feats of daring are described, so consider this your spoiler alert.

Which of these myths stirs your twenty-first-century heart? Acclaim your pick in the comments below.

#10: Robin Hood

“Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” (1991)

Kevin Costner's run as the proto-Marxist archer still lands a bullseye nearly three decades after heroically swinging into theaters. Partly, it's the star-studded cast, including a scene-stealing Alan Rickman, Morgan Freeman, and even an uncredited appearance by the late great Sean Connery. The gory battles, stirring score and stylish costumes also help. The grittier take on this English fable didn’t sit well with all critics, but its charm won the love of the people, just like the old hood himself. Plus, there’s a horde of anachronistic screaming Celts, bawdy highwaymen and one very creepy witch. Even if this swashbuckler wasn’t your absolute favorite, remember, without it, we might never have gotten the delightful Mel Brooks parody, “Robin Hood: Men In Tights.”

#9: Alexander the Great

“Alexander” (2004)

Like the eternally famous Macedonian king himself, this film divided audiences, critics and historians. Despite this, its engrossing costumes, mesmerizing sets and massive battle scenes — including real elephants — succeeded in capturing the era’s grandeur. We witness not a single campaign or episode from the conqueror’s short life, but rather follow him as he grows up, conquers Persia, invades India and finally shuffles off this mortal coil. Some of the performances were uneven and historians may quibble about its historical veracity. Yet, if director Oliver Stone’s reach did indeed exceed his grasp, at least you can appreciate that his ambition matched that of his film’s protagonist. I mean, they do call them epics for a reason.

#8: Hercules

“Hercules” (1997)

Back in the day, this demigod was the biggest and baddest of them all. Disney’s take on the tale is definitely more kid-friendly than the original. Considering how messed up the classic rendition was, we think this is a big plus. For instance, instead of battling his traditional nemesis Hera, this time our hunky hero faces off against the Lord of the Underworld. What this flick lacks in mythological fidelity, it more than makes up for with catchy song numbers, beautiful animation and a star-studded crew of voice actors. While the live-action 2014 version perfectly cast Dwayne Johnson as the totally toned toga-wearer, Danny DeVito as Phil and James Woods as the hot-headed Hades crack us up every time.

#7: Jason & the Golden Fleece

“Jason and the Argonauts” (1963)

Billed as a “colossus of adventure” on the original theatrical poster, this feature definitely lives up to the hype. The story follows Jason, the rightful king of Thessaly, as he quests for the Golden Fleece long before you could just stroll into an Old Navy. On the way, our hero battles sneaky usurpers, angry seas and hordes of monsters. To help out, our lead recruits a literal boatload of heroes, including Hercules himself. Good thing too, as the rogues’ gallery includes skeleton soldiers, harpies, and even a hydra, all memorably brought to life by the king of clay, Ray Harryhausen. Sure, the movie is a little dated, but its undeniable charm still warms our hearts better than any wooly jacket ever could.


#6: Romulus & Remus

“The First King: Birth of an Empire” (2019)

After being swept away by a flash flood, two brothers face off against sadistic slavers, a murderous band of runaways and, finally, each other. You’ve never seen the story of Romulus, the founder of Rome, and his brother, Remus, quite so vividly rendered. This recent Italian historical drama is an underappreciated gem featuring well-developed characters, visceral fights, and a smart but spare script. The use of an archaic form of Latin for the dialogue further adds to the sense of realness. These siblings pull no punches, and the filmmakers don’t either. We’re very excited to see what director Matteo Rovere does with other tales from the past in the future.


#5: The Quest for the Holy Grail

“Mothy Python and the Holy Grail” (1975)

Few fables are retold as often as those of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Of these many adaptations, none is more memorable or funnier than this version by Britain's favorite comedy troupe. Ostensibly following the mythic monarch and his retainers on a quest for the world’s most famous cup, this film is about the journey and not the destination - much like life. There are loads of memorable bits, from a knight who doesn’t know when to quit to a very scary rabbit. Despite a limited budget, these comedic giants succeed in crafting something both amusing and absurd. Their timeless wit continues to crack up audiences almost a half-century after they first pretended to ride horses onto the silver screen.

#4: “Journey to the West”

“Dragon Ball” (1986-89)

This beloved Japanese franchise was actually inspired by a Chinese novel from the 1500s called “Journey to the West,” which was in turn based on the adventures of a wandering monk. One of the book’s characters, Sun Wukong, the monkey king, was the model for Son Goku, which is the Japanese version of the name. From his unmatched strength to his kryptonite tail, Goku owes much to his simian forbearer. Even our favorite fighter’s supernatural origin bears some resemblance to the prime primate’s birth, albeit with a pinch of Superman added for good measure. From archaic text to comic book to cartoon to global phenomenon, the original series not only has the epic fights of later installments, but also solid character development, worldbuilding and humor.

#3: Perseus

“The Clash of the Titans” (1981)

This sword-and-sandal classic incorporates a number of Greek myths, most notably those surrounding the half-man, half-god Perseus. We follow the hero’s journey from birth to triumph as he battles claymation monsters like Medusa, Calibos and the non-Greek but nonetheless unforgettable Kraken. Equally indelible are the mechanical owl Bubo and winged horse Pegasus, who both provide crucial assists. This film’s energetic cast, creative script and magical special effects brought all these ancient wonders to life in a time before CGI. The 2010 version reimagines the story on a grander cinematic scale. Yet it doesn’t quite worm its way into our hearts like the original did, though Liam Neeson crying, “release the Kraken,” still gives us chills.

#2: Spartacus's Uprising

“Spartacus” (1960)

A disobedient gladiator revolts against an all-powerful empire. It’s such narrative perfection you might assume it’s fantasy, but this freedom fighter was far more than a myth. Blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo’s script is masterful, being entertaining yet subversive. Kurt Douglas and the rest of the cast deliver iconic performances. Combine all that with massive set-pieces and the brooding brilliance of Stanley Kubrick and you get pure cinema gold. The recent TV series on the same subject tells the tale with greater gore and sex. Plus, it has a whole lot of Xena herself, Lucy Lawless, which is always a good thing. Still, nothing quite tops the rousing display of solidarity closing out this 1960 classic.


Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

“Kingdom of Heaven” (2005)
Balian of Ibelin, a Real Crusader, Was the Model for Orlando Bloom’s Character

“The Sword in the Stone” (1963)
Before Becoming King Arthur, He Was Just an Orphan Called Wart

“The Trojan Women” (1971)
A Tragedy by Greek Playwright Euripides Is Adapted Into This Powerful Film


“Mulan” (1998)
Way Back in the 6th Century, Bards Already Sang of This Heroine’s Courage

“The Ten Commandments” (1956)
From a Basket Baby to Splitting the Sea, Charlton Heston Vividly Brings Moses to Life


#1: The Fall of the Roman Republic & Rise of the Roman Empire

“Rome” (2005-07)

Many know the names Caesar and Augustus. Far fewer have heard of Vorenus and Pullo, two soldiers briefly mentioned in Caesar’s account of his wars in Gaul. However, this unlikely duo becomes the eyes through which we see the Roman republic’s fall and the empire’s birth. In terms of production values, writing and acting, this series is harder to beat than the 13th legion. Whether realistic battles, soap opera style intrigue or situation comedy is your bag, there’s something in this epic show for plebs and patricians alike. Though filled with fascinating factoids, the writers make sure it never feels like a history lesson. Our only complaint is that it ended too soon.
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