There have been a lot of historical epics in the past couple of decades – next to the superhero movie, it has become a favourite blockbuster genre, and tends to be more favoured come awards season. Though it flew somewhat under the radar on release, IRONCLAD is much better than the majority of its Medieval-set peers. It’s slightly better than BRAVEHEART, it’s much better than KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, and it’s a whole lot better than Ridley Scott’s ROBIN HOOD.
Loosely based on events in the First Baron’s War (1215-17) where (in brief) an alliance of English noblemen supported by the French monarchy attempted to depose King John after he failed to uphold political reforms brought about by the Magna Carter. History lesson over, Ironclad follows a lone Knight Templar (James Purefoy) desperately trying to hold Rochester Castle against the Danish mercenary army of King John (Paul Giamatti) with a small band of warriors and misfits, until French reinforcements can arrive.
James Purefoy takes the lead as conflicted Templar Knight Thomas Marshall, which makes sense since Purefoy sits right next to Russell Crowe and Sean Bean as the most prolific historical action hero. Purefoy is great at glowery seriousness, and comes into his own twirling around a longsword in the heat of battle. The cast is full of British character actors doing their thing – Brian Cox as a grizzled nobleman, Jason Flemyng as a loveable rogue, Charles Dance as the official (in this case, a bishop) pulling the strings. The whole cast are clubbed into submission though, by the sheer snarly brilliance of Paul Giamatti as a terrifying, wrathful King John.
Ironclad is a film that’s made in the details. Most filmmakers wouldn’t bother with the details, but they make the film world work, and give it weight. From Marshall sharpening his sword with a scrap of chainmail, as he would while on a lengthy campaign in the Holy Land, to acknowledging how much power the written word, and the Latin written word especially, gave the nobility and the church in Medieval England.
The other thing Ironclad gets right is the absolute brutality of Medieval warfare. The blood, the dirt, the dismemberment; it was ugly, brutal, personal and inelegant. The carnage wrought by a Medieval take on THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN on waves of attackers is shocking – we get to see the result of boiling oil in the face, axes in the face and a broadsword cleaving someone clean in half down the middle. All the action is captured in an immediate, visceral hand-held style, and along with the grey camera filters and the liberal spraying of blood and lethal showers of dust and masonry, the battle scenes feel more akin to SAVING PRIVATE RYAN than any castle siege film. The warfare isn’t glamorised, it’s hard-hitting, gruesome and well-directed by Jonathan English, and makes you appreciate the horror of fighting in the 13th Century.
What I didn’t like is a really irritating film cliché raising its ugly head, that of the celibate hero breaking his vow of religious devotion for the first pretty lady (Kate Mara) he meets, and seemingly without much persuasion. Just once I’d like to see a priest, or a nun, or any pious character sticking to their pledge and brushing aside the temptation of flesh. It always weakens and undermines the character, and it always invokes a sigh of annoyance from me. But if characters taking a vow of chastity didn’t give in, then we wouldn’t have sex scenes in these films, and as we all know, sex sells.
As engaging and pulse-pounding as the film is for much of its run-time, Ironclad does run out of steam in the final act. Once (spoiler) the siege is broken, we’re given some uninspired scrapping inside Rochester keep, complete with self-sacrifice and a pointless plot device used to artificially inject some much-needed tension when the film has been utterly drained of it. The filmmakers reduced the historically documented Rochester garrison size to make the odds more dire and our heroes mission all the more impossible, but once the enemy forces get over the castle walls it’s frankly ridiculous that the defenders still manage to put up a fight. Plus there’s the obligatory final “boss fight” between Marshall and an imposing opponent who’s only appeared on camera so far to make you want to see what he can do with the business end of a battleaxe. Their fight is brief, lumbering and a little dull, but it’s the only real low-point in the film’s otherwise excellent action.
Ironclad is a surprisingly fulfilling historical action film that manages to rise above its contemporaries through uncompromising battle scenes, refreshing attention to detail, and a frothing madcap villain turn from Giamatti. It’s a film that deserves to be seen more, and may become a bit of a cult classic in the future. A sequel is about to be released, which will surely prove again that lightning can’t strike twice. None of Ironclad’s cast is returning, but at least Jonathan English is back to direct, so the action should still pack a punch. SSP