The Headsman (Shadow of the Sword) (2005)




Director:     Simon Aeby. 

Starring:     Steven Berkoff (Inquisitor),  Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Martin),  Julie Cox (Margaretha),  Lili Geszler (Librarian's daughter),  Patrick Godfrey (Bertram),  Anastasia Griffith (Anna),  Lee Ingleby (Bernhard),  Eddie Marsan (Fabio),  Joe Mason (Jakob),  Peter McDonald (Georg),  John Shrapnel (Archbishop).

16th century Europe; of two childhood friends one becomes an executioner and the other a friar, but both are involved with witch hunting


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

1520.  Tyrol, Austria.  The era of Martin Luther.  His 95 theses are circulating among the people all over the province.  Unfortunately only very few people could read at this time.  Education was the preserve of the elite.  After the invention of the printing press the thirst for knowledge slowly began to spread among broader sections of the population. 

The Catholic Church acted swiftly to repress this movement.  The executioners carried out the administration of justice.  They were untouchables and had to live outside the town walls. 

Two small boys, Martin and Georg, run away from a priest.  They run under some bleachers.  They see the executioner climb the steps and wonder how many people he has executed.  The condemned is driven up the steps and his head is cut off.  Some of the blood falls onto the face of one of the boys. 

Then as now a fundamentalist alliance of politics and religion pointed the way to an age of darkness.  His Eminence the Archbishop says he wants the boy with the black hair.  The two boys are separated despite their loud protests.  The priest comes to them to say:  "It's time to go." 

15 years later.  Martin has become a soldier, while Georg is a friar.  Martin is a captain in the army.  Friar Georg shows Martin around.  Martin see a pretty young lady that catches his eye.  Friar says she is untouchable as she is the daughter of the executioner.  Little children call her a witch and tell her to go away.  A female vendor won't tell her how much a scarf sells for.  Martin throws some money on the table and takes the scarf.  He gives it to the young lady.  He then grabs her hand and pulls her along.  She tells him that he mustn't touch her.  He doesn't know who she is.  Martin tells her he does know who she is and he doesn't care.  The girl leaves him.  Martin goes back to his encampment.   

Martin goes to see the young lady.  He has been wounded and wants her to bandage it.  As she works on him she kisses him.  She tells him he has to leave, but kisses him again.  They have sex.  Afterwards she tells him that she does not want him to go out to fight again.  He promises her he will return. 

When he awakens he calls out for "Ana".  He goes looking for her, but can't find her.  She is hiding from him.  He leaves. 

Georg blesses the troops.  He wishes Martin good luck. 

Ana's father works as a blacksmith.  His employee Fabio comes late to work.  He tells the executioner that his daughter has been hanging around with a soldier.  The fellow says that the executioner promised her to him as his rightful successor.  The executioner says that he will not have Ana as long as he lives.  Ana arrives and her father hugs her.  She pays not attention to Fabio.  Later Ana pays a visit to Sir Wardoff.  She has brought him somebody's arm.  He is a medical scientist.  She takes a look at his leg and tells him she will bring him the right herbs to cure his problem. 

The priest tells the friar that the Emperor's troops have been annihilated.  And what of Martin?  The priest doesn't know.  Martin survives.  He wanders around the battlefield.  A badly wounded man asks Martin to kill him.  Martin kills him with a knife. 

Ana gives birth to a baby boy.  She finds her father dead with his head laying on a table.  She buries him.  Fabio comes to her and gives her a gift "for my bride."  Ana smashes it out of his hands.  He comes into her home and starts to rape her.  Martin arrives and hits him in the face three times.  The fellow crawls out the door.  Ana shows Martin his baby son, Jakob.    

Martin returns to see the friar.  Georg is very happy to see that Martin is still alive.  Martin wants Georg to marry him and Ana.  Georg explains that if he marries the executioner's daughter, he will be excluded from society forever.  And he says his position will not allow him to marry them.  They are married by another man, an Anabaptist.  Martin will become the next executioner and to do that he must prove his skill as an executioner.  Later Martin has to chase the would-be rapist away from his house. 

His Eminence comes to visit Georg.  He tells Georg to be careful:  "There are rumors of heretics in this town engaged in evil practices."  He has come for the execution.  Martin cuts the condemned man's head off with one blow.  The audience claps for him.  His Eminence is very impressed by Martin's skill. 

Martin meets Wardoff, who tells Martin that what he sees must be kept absolutely confidential. 

The town madam Margareta tells Martin that his performance was wonderful.  She touches his thigh.  He takes her hand off him and rides away.  She is a bit offended and reminds Martin that he is an untouchable.  Martin stops at a tavern.  The men there are upset that he is there.  He takes his drink outside to consume it. 

Five or six years later.  Jakob, the son, is a small boy now catching fish on his own. 

The man who married Martin and Ana tells Georg that people should not have to kneel before the clergy as if they were kneeling before God himself.  Another friar tells Georg that the heretic should burn.  His Eminence also wants the man punished and he doesn't like Georg having asked for mercy for the man.  Heretics like this man are inciting the people to revolt against the Emperor and the Holy Church.  "The church cannot and will not support such dissent." 

A peasant woman steals a prized church relic.  She takes it to Fabio.  He calls her a stupid bitch, but she says with it he will be able to become the executioner. 

Georg is told that something terrible has happened.  He sees that the relic has been taken.  Another friar, Brother Bernard, says that he saw a monk in a gray habit steal the relic.  His Eminence says it was the work of the Anabaptists and he will see those heretics burn. 

The executioner's assistant Fabio tells Georg that the thief was the heretic who married the executioner and Ana.  He asks if now Georg might help him become the executioner.  The friar who falsely accused someone of thievery pays the executioner's assistant for having incriminated the Anabaptist.     

Georg travels out to see Martin.  Martin tells him that Fabio is lying.  Georg tells him that the "heretic" who married him and Ana is an Anabaptist and, therefore, outside the belief systems of the one and only true church:  Catholicism.   Martin says that when they find the real culprit, he will gladly discharge his duty as executioner.  He leaves. 

The Anabaptist is brought in and Brother Bernard says it was he who stole the relic.  Georg asks him if he is absolutely sure?  Yes, absolutely.  The Anabaptist is taken to Martin, who as the executioner must force him to admit by torture if necessary he stole the relic.  Georg tells the Anabaptist that it is the devil who speaks from him.  The Anabaptist says Georg is the devil's man.  Georg says:  "This man is possessed!"  Not only must the man confess to something he didn't do, but he will have to name others like him.  Martin now has to torture the man.  The Anabaptist tells Martin the when the time comes he must kill him or the Catholics will kill Martin and his family. 

Martin talks with his wife.  He says he doesn't know Georg any more.  Martin goes to see Georg.  He tells him to look him straight in the eye and tell him that he thinks the Anabaptist stole the relic.  Georg says that he was seen committing the crime by one of his monks.  He says that the Anabaptists have gone too far with this robbery.  It must be punished.  Martin asks if all the others will have to be punished too?

The heretic will be burned at the stake.  Many of the townspeople are upset over this and shout at the judge.  But since it cannot be proved that the man is in league with the devil, the court will be merciful and have him put to death by the sword.  The executioner arrives to do his duty.  He stops Fabio from whipping the condemned man.  He asks the Anabaptist for his forgiveness.  The Anabaptist says the Lord God will forgive you.  The head is removed with one stroke.  Many of the townspeople are upset over the execution.  His Eminence asks Georg why does it feel like the heretics have succeeded here rather than Georg?  He says that Georg has brought him (His Eminence) only disgrace. 

Georg is given one last chance to prove himself or he's out.  So Georg becomes super diligent at chasing down heretics.  Books are banned.  Books are burned.  It is declared that anyone sheltering an Anabaptist will be put to death.  The prince of the realm, Ferdinand I, will reward anyone pointing out an Anabaptist or pointing out anyone who has sheltered an Anabaptist.  The Catholic church and the town squabble over who will get the money of the condemned heretics.  And the town officials suggest certain people to be grabbed as heretics or witches.  One of the suggestions, however, is the illegitimate daughter of the prince himself, Margareta Von Frye.  The prince might not approve of the selection of this woman.  Is Georg defending witches now?  Georg just can't win.  He flagellates himself to do penance. 

It seems the Spanish Inquisition has now become involved in Tyrol.  And now they really want to go after the Anabaptists.  The night raids looking for Anabaptists begin.  The executioner sees night raiders and goes to warn the Anabaptists.  Very shortly afterwards the night riders arrive.  Many of the Anabaptists in the small settlement are burned alive.  The woman who started the whole mess by stealing the relic may have been among those burned alive.  A woman flees to the house of the madam Margareta for shelter.  The night riders come after her.  The madam pushes the Anabaptist woman out to them, but the night riders also grab the madam as well. 

The madam is urged to confess.  She is called a whore.  The inquisitor slaps her across the face and demands that she pray.  He starts to torture her and she cries out in pain.  Margareta Von Frye is brought to trial.  Her maid servant has been accused of heresy.  Since they can no longer ask the maid servant (since they probably tortured her to death), they ask Margareta what she knows of the Anabaptists?  She asks them how dare they ask her this?  She is the daughter of Ferdinand.  But she must answer the questions, so she says the mayor, the judge and Georg are all heretics.  Margareta says that Georg has the same mark on his left breast as the Archbishop has.  (Martin also has the same mark.) 

The Inquisitor has the madam's tongue ripped out.  He gives the tongue to Georg who has Brother Bernard take it away. 

Fabio retrieves the church relic from the compost pile at the executioner's place.  He then goes to the Inquisitor and tells him that Martin and Ana had their child baptized by the Anabaptists.  And Ana the witch has hidden the relic in her witch's chamber.  He also says that Georg and Martin have been friends for many years.  The Inquisitor gives Fabio some money and he goes away.  He wants to investigate Ana for being a witch who has tainted both Georg and Martin.   

Ana and her boys pack their things to stay somewhere else.  The night riders arrive and grab Ana and the executioner.  The little boy runs away.  They search the house for the relic and they find it.  The inquisitor says that Georg's honor has been half-restored.  A search for the boy is made.  Wardoff's place is busted up.  Many people are roughed-up in the searches. 

The Archbishop has the executioner brought to him.  Martin begs for his wife's life.  The Archbishop wonders how it would have been if he had taken Martin instead of the cowardly Georg into the church.  Martin asks is that why you brought me here, father?  At night the Archbishop gives Martin a key. 

Martin escapes.  He comes to see Georg and demands to know where his wife is.  She has been condemned to burn at the stake as a witch.  Martin says Georg put her there.  He also asks Georg why didn't he tell him that the Archbishop was the father of both of them?  Georg says it was because their father was a great man and he admired him.  He then tells Martin that he can at least help save Jakob.  Martin asks his brother if he was safe with the Archbishop?  Georg says he would never do that to a child.  He never would.  Martin pushes him to the floor. 

Last minute preparations are made to burn Ana at the stake.  Some people shout:  "Damn the Inquisitor!"  Jakob comes to see his mom.  Martin comes in, grabs the Inquisitor and threatens to kill him if the woman is not set free.  They release her.  Ana and Jakob ride off.  Martin cuts the throat of the Inquisitor.  Martin is then killed by the soldiers. 

Ana and her boy continue to ride.  She stops to look back and Jakob tells her that father told her that she mustn't look back.  She rides on.


Good movie.  It's another of those witchcraft movies that has you rooting for the "witches" and "heretics" and cursing the officers of the church.  This movie seems to be saying that the Catholic Church, threatened by the appearance of Protestantism, declares the followers of all such faiths as "heretics" and/or "witches".  In other words, it wasn't so much religion itself that cause the problem, but the perception by the Catholic Church that its power was being broken.   So they use religion to justify their actions that are really the result of the plain old human desire to have as much power, wealth and status as one can get and to defend their privileged position by force if necessary under the justification of fighting on the side of God.  In other words, it's not God that's bad but man, as usual and as always.   

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:


Anabaptists believed in the baptism of a person professing his or her faith and is often done by immersion done in water.   These believers originated in 16th century European, mainly in Germany.  Some of German Baptist variants include the Amish, Hutterites, Mennonites, Church of the Brethren and Brethren in Christ. 



Return To Main Page

Return to Home Page (Vernon Johns Society)