While they’ve always been fairly popular, there seems to be a renewed surge of interest in medieval epics. Films like Valhalla Rising, Season of the Witch and Black Death as well as the impending premiere of HBO’s new Game of Thrones series are proof enough of that. Movie audiences love the mix of broadswords and blood, and Jonathan English’s new film Ironclad certainly provides both in more than ample quantities. Setting its sights on the real life siege of Rochester Castle in 1215, Ironclad is essentially a 13th century men on a mission film complete with Templars, misfits and enough carnage to sate even the most jaded genre fans.
It is the year 1215 and a group of barons have forced King John (Paul Giamatti) to sign the Magna Carta and while it granted certain rights to free men, it also limited the powers and authority of the monarchy. As such, King John is not happy to have been forced into signing the document and quickly renegs on his word and, with an army of Danes at his back, sets off across Britain with the intent to bring both the barons and the country back under his absolute control. Intent on making sure the King keeps his word, Baron Albany (Brian Cox) rounds up a group of loyal men to help him make a stand at Rochester Castle, the lynchpin in John’s plan. Without it, the King is stymied, but if he manages to take it, the whole of England may likely fall. Hearing of the Baron’s plans, the King dispatches a team of scouts to Rochester to hold the castle. Albany and his band of merry men arrive, deal with the scouts and ready themselves for the imminent royal attack.
It seems like this plot is fairly close to being historically accurate, despite a few minor discrepancies. Albany is based on William d’Aubigny, a real baron who did indeed fight King John for control of Rochester Castle with a band of rebels in 1215. The biggest liberties appear to be taken with the ending, which wraps up nicely cinematically, but seems to stray a bit from the facts. The filmmakers have done a fine job taking the facts and shaping them only slightly to fit a narrative structure.The cast is pretty impressive. James Purefoy stars as the rogue Templar knight, proving once again that he may incapable of acting in a film set in the current century. After breakout roles on HBO’s Rome and 2009 festival hit Solomon Kane, Purefoy is right at home riding a horse and deftly wielding a sword. Paul Giamatti is relatively underutilized as King John, though he does have one incredible scene where he basically loses his mind. It’s awesome and intense and reminds you what a fantastic actor he is. Brian Cox seems to be a great fit for Albany, though I can’t be sure since I didn’t know d’Aubigny myself. He’s blustery and a little arrogant, qualities that the real-life man surely must have possessed. Filling in the familiar face you can’t quite place role is Mackenzie Crook, who made a name for himself as Garreth on The Office UK edition and the Pirates films and also appeared alongside Purefoy in Solomon Kane. Crook is very good as the eagle-eyed archer with a wry wit. Rounding out the cast are Charles Dance, Derek Jacobi and Kate Mara as the obligatory love interest for Purefoy, despite his Templar vows. Scandal!
Ironclad moves along at a decent clip, generating a fair amount of tension as it leads up to the battle sequences. Obviously, the battle scenes are the main attraction in a film like this and here they provide plenty of bloodshed and even gore. In one shot, a man is almost cleaved in two by a broadsword, and that’s just the tip of the bloody iceberg. Unfortunately, the battle scenes in particular are shot with a good deal of erratic handheld work making it difficult to see all of the great stunts and practical effects. The unsteady cinematography is really the only gripe I have with the film.
Otherwise, Ironclad is a solid medieval action film.