With many British fantasy/medieval films being made of late – some excellent (Christopher Smith’s Black Death) and some poor (Neil Marshall’s Centurion) – Ironclad is another in a long line of films that mostly seek to thrill in the way of battles and quests. They’re aimed at a very specific audience – mostly males that are as into science fiction as they are fantasy – and usually offer a lot in the way of production value but little in the way of intelligent plots (something only cinema suffers from to this extent, since current fantasy literature is brimming with narratives that are both highly clever and also feature brilliant battles – in particular, the work of Joe Abercrombie). Of course, this isn’t a fantasy film but rather historical realism of the medieval kind, but the two genres are often viewed as being synonymous to one another by fans since they offer very similar qualities.
It’s when these films step outside of their clichéd boundaries that they can achieve much more than the general, shameless, demographic-pleasing method allows. Black Death, for example, is a film with great characterisation, which is an acute meditation on the nature of religion and how devout belief can achieve both feats of great bravery and also completely ruin you just as easily. Ironclad panders towards the action side of the medieval genre very heavily indeed, to a degree leaving intelligence at the door as a result, but in the quality of its fight scenes and in a couple of other aspects, the film succeeds on the whole.
A retelling of the 1215 Battle of Rochester Castle, the film aims for historical accuracy (at least roughly), as it follows a small group of Knights Templar as they defend the castle against the tyrannical King John, believing he has forsaken the country and its people. The film addresses the idea of historical inaccuracy at one point, highlighting how history is always written by the winners/those in control of the records, as the King shouts: “Do not record that!” and slaps the parchment out of the documenter’s hands. Paul Giamatti dons the role of the vicious King John, playing the character in a comic book villain-esque manner, which, although effectively scary, feels a little cliché at times. The writers do try to implant some reasoning behind his harsh persona at one point, when his character explains that he was taught: “Any threat to the throne must be dealt with ruthlessly, for that is the only way to maintain the power of a King” – implying that his philosophy is one that was drilled into him in his childhood as a young royal. But even this can’t account for the over the top villainy and sadism that the character perpetrates.
Purefoy plays even more surly and grizzly a character than usual, but does so with great effectiveness and serves as a worthwhile hero to root for throughout the hellish slaughtering that befalls his group. It is easy to see why Kate Mara was selected for the role – her beauty makes believable her eventual seducing of Purefoy’s character Marshall despite his vow of abstinence to God, and she also carries enough feistiness to her to pull off the few battles scenes that her character takes part in. The film even actually questions the logic behind vows of abstinence a little, with Mara’s Lady Isabel arguing that surely love couldn’t be seen as a sin in God’s eyes. Brian Cox and the rest of the recognisable but throw-away English cast are all serviceable enough in their smaller roles.
It’s the film’s competence in the way of action as well as its sombre tone that make it succeed. The battles are fast and very brutal, as Marshall’s group face off not only against the King’s men, but also against the King’s hired Danish allies. It earns its 18 certificate easily; limbs are chopped off left and right, both in battle and as a method of torture. The success of Purefoy’s character Marshall is its other strength. He utters few words throughout the entire film, but when he does he comes out with some highly quotable lines, such as when he is asked indirectly if killing is noble, he states: “Not even when it is for God.” And his final line is equally as honourable and memorable. The plot is average up until Marshall’s group are forced to lock themselves in the keep. From then on the film picks up in quality a little and doesn’t let up until its close, the tension and stakes building rapidly.
This is far from anything exceptional, but it’s a good film that will satisfy fantasy/medieval fans with the quality of its battles, the charm of its discourse, and a sombre tone that matches the horror of its events well.
Ironclad is out on DVD and Blu-ray now – order it here