Revisionist history in the movies is nothing new. Only last year we had Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood implying that the titular character’s dad wrote the Magna Carta.
That document is the focal point of Ironclad which picks up where Robin Hood ended, flinging us headlong into the bloody Barons’ War, a swords and chainmail medieval romp which reduces the 100 men in the siege of Rochester to a handful of heroes and boasts almost splatter levels of gore.
It’s 1215 and King John (Paul Giamatti) has been forced to sign the Magna Carta, a document which strips the king of some of his powers and gives it to the people. Furious at the indignity of it all, he recruits a band of Danish mercenaries to retake the country. Thus it’s up to a stalwart band of heroes to hold the line at Rochester Castle while waiting for French reinforcements, for if that falls, then the King’s army will swiftly reclaim England.
Strapping themselves in for the siege are Baron Albany (a rather wheezy Brian Cox), pious Templar Marshall (James Purefoy) accompanied by his page and Frodo Baggins look-a-like Guy (Aneurin Barnard), philanderer Beckett (Jason Flemyng), archer Marks (Mackenzie Crook), recently freed criminal Coteral (Jamie Foreman) and the constable of Rochester’s (Derek Jacobi) guard, all of whom stage a kind of medieval Alamo against the King’s invading forces.
Purefoy makes a believable hero, gruffly organising the castle defences, cutting a fine figure in a suit of chainmail while never cracking so much as a smile, although it’s immediately obvious that his vows of chastity are going to be duly shredded at Lady Isabel’s (Kate Mara) first appearance.
Paul Giamatti is on fine form as King John, screaming foam-flecked soliloquies about his divine right to rule, looking suitably miserable and ordering some of the most brutal executions in recent memory. Ironclad is spectacularly, almost at times, hilariously violent. Ten minutes in and someone’s had their tongue cut out and come the film’s finale, dozens of combatants have parted company with arms, legs, heads and gallons of blood.
As a result the realities of medieval combat are rammed home hard and it’s appropriately brutal for the period; this isn’t a film that pulls its punches. It may seem excessive but any film which deems it appropriate to not only execute a main character but subsequently cut off his hands and feet before catapulting his corpse at the castle battlements has got to be given some credit, if only for audacity.
By now, you should realise that it’s not a film to take entirely seriously and indeed that’s almost impossible with some of the appalling dialogue on offer (“I don’t like it, it’s too quiet” being one of the more delectable morsels on offer). The characterisation is also pathetically thin and there are periods of dull filler where nothing happens (perhaps designed to stop the audience from vomming into its popcorn) but for the most part, Ironclad features enough shouting, stabbing and swordplay to provide entertaining but undemanding cinema viewing