“Ironclad” is a medieval action/adventure film set in England in the 13th Century. It was directed by Jonathan English and shot in Wales. It cost only $25 million. Some of the cost went to a replica of Rochester Castle.
A narrator tells us that in 1215, after a three year civil war, King John was forced by the barons to sign the Magna Carta. John is described as being famous for losing wars, levying punitive taxes, and sleeping with the wives of barons. The Knights Templar were important in the defeat of John. “What is not remembered is what John did next.” Intriguing because most histories of the Magna Carta end with the supposed fait accompli. And England lived happily ever after. It turns out, not so much so.
King John (Paul Giamatti) has hired mercenary Danes to get revenge against the rebel barons. One of them is the Baron Darnay. When John and his force attack the Darnay Castle. Three Knights Templar valiantly defend the castle in a graphic and frenetic melee. It turns out that Knights Templar are real badasses. One of them, James Marshall (James Purefoy) escapes and Archbishop Langton (Charles Dance) convinces him to join the Baron D’Aubigny (Brian Cox) to help stop John. The plan is to halt his majesty at Rochester Castle. They assemble the usual motley crew: D’Aubigny’s gung-ho squire, an archer, a sell sword who does not like Marshall, a brute, and a slob. Rochester’s Baron Cornhill (Derek Jacobi) is not too thrilled, but he knows there is no movie without the siege. Plus, he knows that he is no match for James Purefoy when it comes to his wife Isabel (Kate Mara). He has good reason to be concerned. Queue the Danes arriving from the mist. After D’Aubigny taunts John by telling him that he is “no more a king than the boil on my ass”, it’s game on. The Danes have trebuchets, but decide to escalade instead. Some manage to get in so we can have gratuitous violence. The wounds are extremely graphic. One guy kills another with a severed arm. I don’t mean that the loser has a severed arm, I mean the victor uses a severed arm to bash him to death. It’s that kind of movie. Before the siege is over, we get fire balls, siege towers, mining, and lot of dismemberments. And John goes from most evil king to most evil human being because of this movie.
“Ironclad” is a nice time-waster. Well, if you like seeing men killed by arms of other men. It does fit the modern trend of extreme violence. It also fits the recent trend of escalating the violence so it does not seem redundant. That means if you find the first skirmish stomach-turning, don’t stick around for the big finish. In this case the violence will give you a primer on siege warfare tactics and weapons in medieval times. The castle is authentic and realistically grimy. The same can not be said for the characters. After a siege of several months, the beards have not grown and the shampoo is holding up real well. The cast is a mix of the well-known and the little-known. Purefoy is excellent, as usual. Paul Giamatti chews the scenery gustily. He put a lot of effort into his seven days of work. The characters are typical stereotypes from any small unit, who will survive? movie. No need for character development. Dysfunction is set up, but not pursued. The romance is very predictable. As far as historical accuracy, it does bring to light an obscure incident in British History. Just please read up on it after watching the movie. It is not a documentary. For instance, the ending is the opposite of the actual conclusion. Oh well, entertainment is everything, right?
GRADE = C
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The movie is based on a siege that occurred during the First Baron’s War. This war was a result of King John reneging on the Magna Carta. The barons, who had forced him to sign the Great Charter in 1215, encouraged Prince Louis of Francis (the heir apparent to Philip II) to invade England to support them. Louis marched into London without a fight and then proceeded to lay siege to Dover. The siege was unsuccessful and Louis fell back to London. John seized the moment and marched on London. Rochester Castle blocked his path. The barons had sent a force under William D’Aubigny and constable Reginald de Cornhill opened the castle to him. John arrived soon after with a force of Flemish, Provencals, and Aquitainians. No Danes. By the way, the movie is inaccurate in portraying the Danes as pagans, they were actually Christians. And they would not have painted themselves blue, that was a Pict/Scot thing. The force defending the castle was substantially larger than in the movie. Probably 95-110 knights and crossbowmen. When John arrived he sacked the nearby cathedral and city. He then assaulted the castle using five siege machines and undermining. His men breached the walls and captured the bailey easily. The defenders retreated to the keep which was a tougher nut to crack. However, a mine was dug under the wall and a large number of pig carcasses facilitated a fire that caused the wall to cave in. Some stalwarts still held out. John allowed some to come out and then proceeded to have their hands and feet cut off to intimidate the remainder. They eventually surrendered due to starvation. Louis did not send a relief force because John had destroyed the bridge over the Medway River. John wanted to hang the garrison, but one of his men talked him out of it.