The cover of the DVD says “Before Romeo and Juliet, there was Tristan and Isolde.” I actually find the story more reminiscent of the story of King Arthur, Guinevere and Sir Lancelot. This tale probably was reworked during the time of the courtly love tradition in France, the idea of passion and unrequited love.
It is the end of the Roman Empire. The Irish have stayed strong and independent, never coming under Roman dominion. Present day England is a collection of smaller warlords with their own fiefdoms. They are the Picts, Jutes, Angles, Saxons, and the Cornish.
Young Tristan’s parents are killed during an attack by the Irish. He goes to Cornwall to be fostered by King Marke with his own son. Tristan grows into an able warrior with a strong sense of honor and duty to King Marke.
Meanwhile, the Queen of the Irish dies, leaving young Isolde (or Iseult). Her father betrothes her to his first in command, a brutal warrior who uses a poisoned sword. She is spirited and wants to find her own way in life. She dreams of going across the sea to see the other side.
Her betrothed is killed by Tristan during a battle in Cornwall, but he suffers a cut from the sword and is paralyzed. Thinking him dead, his comrades push him out to sea in a boat and set it alight. He washes ashore in Ireland and is found by Isolde and her maid. She nurses him back to health and falls in love with him. She tells him she is a lady at the court. Finally, the remaining warriors from the Cornish campaign return to Ireland and she finds out that her betrothed was killed.
The Irish King comes up with an idea to keep the small kingdoms divided. He will hold a tourney and the winner will marry Isolde. This proves very popular and the results look more like gladiatorial combat than most of our ideas of a tourney. Tristan is triumphant and wins the King’s daughter for King Marke. They meet along one last time and debate running away, but Tristan’s strong sense of duty wins out.
King Marke falls in love with Isolde and tries his best to make her happy. Eventually she and Tristan can stand it no longer and begin to meet in secret.
The film portrays the cultures of the Dark Ages well, the beginnings of Christianity in the islands, the divided groups in Angleterre, the shifting alliances. Very well done film. I won’t spoil the ending for you.