The Horror!? Ironclad
Posted February 8, 2013 by Denis K.
It’s 1215 in the Kingdom of England, and King John (Paul Giamatti chewing scenery like a true champ) is quite displeased by having been pressed into signing the Magna Carta. So displeased, in fact, he imports a group of Danes under their Captain Tiberius (Vladimir Kulich) into the country to help him take the baronies he just made peace with truly back into his loving arms.
But a small part of the former rebels led by Baron William D’Aubigny (Brian Cox) and Archbishop Langton (Charles Dance) are willing to even hand the crown of England to the French king Louis to keep John out of power. The French, however, will take their time. Who wants a crown delivered on a silver plate, right?. Because of the French dithering, their cause could be lost before it even truly begins if John and the Danes are able to take the strategically important castle of Rochester, which controls access to large parts of England.
Our rebels are a bit low on bodies at the moment, so it falls to D’Aubigny to take a troop of seven men he gathers in the traditional manner of such films, and who are played by people like Jason Flemyng and Mackenzie Crook, to the castle to help protect it together with the minor garrison its actual lord Reginald de Cornhill (Derek Jacobi) can – not exactly happily – muster. D’Aubigny’s trump card, though, will be Knight’s Templar Thomas Marshal (James Purefoy!), a man who may have been traumatized by the Crusades but who is still the best at what he does (which, as you can assume, isn’t very nice).
Soon, John and his Danes arrive at Rochester and a siege ensues. The fighting and screaming and nearly dying of hunger is only interrupted by various discussions about the worth of faith and oaths, as well as the mandatory love story: Marshal and Reginald’s wife Isabel (Kate Mara) – a woman really too independent to be happy in her time and place – fall for each other hard.
As I already warned, if you go into Jonathan English’s (a rather ironic director name taken in this context) Ironclad hoping for respect for historical facts, you’ll be struck down with some kind of fit sooner or later; this is, after all, a film taking place in 1215 that ends with the French king Louis holding the crown of England, which is not a thing that happened, and, curiously enough, also not really a historical fact that needed changing for the film’s story to work at all. It has to be said, though, that the film does show an interest in a degree of historical veracity beyond historical fact, so the middle ages in Ironclad‘s England are appropriately poor, cold, muddy, and the populace’s education leaves something to be desired. I think the easiest way to ignore the film’s historical failings is to treat it as a – rather excellent – sword and sorcery film without the sorcery. Just pretend this takes place in Engelund, and the king’s name is Jim, and all problems are solved.
If you are one of those people unable to do that, though, you’ll probably also be quite annoyed by the film’s treatment of its characters. Everyone’s psychology works more or less like that of people in a movie made in 2012, with little regard taken for what we today assume to be the specifics of the medieval mind. Personally, I don’t mind this too much. I’m generally doubtful when a film turns historical figures into aliens, because I doubt human psychological and emotional needs have changed all that much during the course of history, but rather our consciousness of them and our way to express them has.
Anyway, the film’s rather open approach to history also results in something I find rather believable, and definitely one of the three elements I like most about it. Namely, Ironclad‘s willingness to treat its female lead as an actual human being with a degree of agency. The film is never confusing Isabel’s position and rights in life with an expression of her actual inner life. Isabel is still, alas, neither hero nor actual centrepiece of the film, yet Ironclad shows a respect for her and interest for her that can’t be taken for granted in this sort of historical adventure movie, particularly not a contemporary one where historical veracity often rather seems to mean “putting the women in their places”.
The second element of Ironclad I find particularly noteworthy is of course James Purefoy, for James Purefoy is an actor who is evidently improbably awesome in whatever role he is cast in, putting charisma and effort in whether a film and script deserve them or not. What is true in general is also true here. Actually, the rest of the cast of predominantly British character actors are no slouches either (particularly Kate Mara and Paul Giamatti), but, you know, James Purefoy!
Finally, Ironclad is also just very, very good at the main thing it sets out to do, creating gory, exciting and slightly repellent battle scenes which from time to time feature a bit too much of the old shaky cam but make up for that by their sheer blood-spattering power. These scenes are quite a thing to behold and are in fact so convincing they leave no doubt in a viewer’s mind that twenty men can hold off one thousand enemies in a siege. Which is exactly the sort of thing I like to take from my medieval adventure movies. Hail King Louis!
The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name. In case that isn’t enough, you’ll find even more of his work archived at Wtf-Film.com.