“No one alive can remember a siege so fiercely pressed and so manfully resisted.”
– Barnwall Chronicler
Who doesn’t love a good historical epic? The genre experienced a bit of a draught in the early ’90s, it wasn’t until Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning Gladiator revived interest that Hollywood reopened the floodgates. From Robin Hood to Kingdom Of Heaven to Troy, big-budget movies based on historical or mythological events, or sword and sorcery epics, are in. Occasionally, you’ll even discover a few jewels mostly ignored by Hollywood honchos, such as the terrific Solomon Kane or the topic of today’s review: Ironclad.
I have a certain fondness for movies that feature siege warfare. We’ve all seen dozens of armies sword fighting in our movie-going lifetimes and countless sequences of two large masses of men rushing headlong toward each other with horrible, limb-rending mischief in mind. But a siege? That’s a completely different animal, featuring a host of weaponry not normally seen in action movies. Trebuchets slinging boulders (and the occasional plague infected corpse, just for funsies) over ramparts, soldiers ducking behind fortifications, ballista nocking and firing massive arrows and men deploying early thermal weapons such as boiling pitch or tar.
So it’s with a smile on my face that I prepared to experience Ironclad, a movie that concerns itself with the events in and around the First Barons’ War, an English civil war that lasted from 1215 to 1217 and featured some of the more famous sieges in the history of warfare. Brace yourselves, it’s time for a history lesson. I promise it will be brief, but filled with juicy historical goodness – and it just might come in handy if you’re ever a contestant on Jeopardy. King John (played here by Paul Giamatti in full foaming-at-the-mouth grrr-I’m-a-monstah! mode) was a naughty, naughty boy.
Despite signing the Magna Carta, King John wasn’t really all that interested in following its precepts, notably such small things as not outright murdering serfs for no good reason and allowing the common people to believe that their kings weren’t really all that awesome and sent down to Earth on the wings of angels. Tired of King John’s fanatical devotion to the “off with his head” school of problem solving, a group of rebel Barons attempted to wage war against him, with mixed results.
Ironclad, directed by Jonathan English in his first big-budget venture following a decent B-movie outing with 2006’s Minotaur, details the siege of Rochester Castle by none other than King John himself. Yes, he was a despot, but he was a hands-on despot. Our point-of-view character is Marshall, a Knight Templar played by James Purefoy, who distinguished himself in this type of movie once before. Purefoy was well-cast as the titular hero of 2009’s Solomon Kane. Marshall, along with a rag-tag band of knights, servants, old people, and women must hold out for as long as possible against the tyrant on their doorstep.
The cast is rounded out by a bunch of familiar faces: Kate Mara is Lady Isabel, the love interest; Jason Flemyng, seen in this summer’s X-Men: First Class, is his usual strong presence; and Thespians Brian Cox and Derek Jacobi bring some gravitas to the whole affair with their performances.
Overall, it’s a very strong cast and the actors are well served by a decent script. However, despite some good acting throughout, Ironclad’s true selling point is the over-the-top violence of its combat sequences. If you’ve ever seen an episode of SpikeTv’s Deadliest, then you’re already well aware of the kind of damage it was possible to inflict on the human body with such weapons as broadswords, morningstars, double-handed axes, and the truly pants-wetting flanged mace.
Luckily for gore fans, Ironclad pulls no punches in depicting injuries. Skulls are caved in, limbs go flying about with alarming regularity, and there’s enough of the red stuff spilled to fill several swimming pools. You’d think that a small group of rebels might have trouble holding off an entire army for any period of time, but you’d be wrong. In siege warfare, the math breaks down quite simply: 10 to 1. Any invader trying to break down a fortified position requires 10 times as many soldiers as the occupying force if he hopes to overcome the entrenched defenders. So, suffice it to say, Purefoy and co. aren’t going down without a fight.
I leave it to you to discover the fate that eventually befell Rochester Castle’s defenders. The movie does take some historical liberties with the events presented, but the gruesome realities of Medieval warfare remain intact.
Ironclad wasn’t a huge theatrical release, barely making an impact on the American scene. It’s currently making the festival rounds, where it will no doubt reach a much more appreciative audience. If you’re in the mood for blood and guts, or just want to sit down to watch a good movie, Ironclad is a choice piece of entertainment. I highly recommend it.
- Yell! Rating (x/5 Skulls):
- Year Released:
- 26 July 2011 (USA)
- Jonathan English
- James Purefoy, Paul Giamatti, Jason Flemyng, Kate Mara, Charles Dance, Vladimir Kulich, Derek Jacobi, Mackenzie Crook and Brian Cox
- Action, Adventure
- Official URL: