Ironclad is fun enough, with the kind of team of specialists that I adore in movies like Predator and the 13th Warrior, but it suffers from illogic and an annoying ignorance of history in what purports to be a historical movie.
The positives of this movie include most of the actors, the fighting, the style of film, and the period.
James Purefoy, the hero of the movie, is consistently awesome in everything in which I have seen him. Having him as the brooding Templar with the dark past is of course going to win. The dude is built for that kind of role. I totally believed he could physically handle himself in the manner displayed on the screen. Kate Mara as the love interest was suitably attractive and delivered her lines with sincerity. Derek Jacobi is Derek Fucking Jacobi and Brian Cox is Brian Motherfucking Cox, so of course they were brilliant as the simpering and warlike barons respectively. I’m always happy to see Jason Flemyng, and he doesn’t disappoint. Paul Giamatti is another actor who dominates any scene he is in, and I think it was a masterstroke to have him portray a bitter and angry King John, spouting both saliva and divine right rhetoric. And it’s got Vladimir Kulich—that’s right, Buliwyf from the 13th Warrior—as the oddly named Danish mercenary captain Tiberius.
The fighting, while it used the god-awful shakey-cam technique that I absolutely fucking hate, pulled back often enough to get the feel for the tempo and flow of the battle. Seriously, though, how much does it cost to get a half-decent fight choreographer on set? Probably less than craft services, so please do it more often. If they can do it in South Korea, they should be able to do it in England and Hollywood.
The concept of the team of individuals with individual specialties protecting a focal point from the attack of an overwhelming force is a favourite of mine. I mean, the movie that I might consider one of my top picks for best movie ever is the Seven Samurai. My go-to Dungeons & Dragons movie is the 13th Warrior. Are you seeing a pattern? I love this particular style of movie, so I bought into this early.
And it’s a medieval actioner, set in the early 13th century, no less. Of course I’m in! Bring it on.
But then there is the extreme illogic, the occasional stupid character moment, and the ignorance of history that is set out as fundamental to the story.
Like I said, I love the Seven Samurai style of movie, which this is, but in the Seven Samurai and in the 13th Warrior—unquestionably a far lesser work, yet one of my particular favourites—the deaths of the defenders have impact because they make sense. They are logical. What fucking idiot allows the superior force to reach the top of the wall of the castle one is defending? Especially when they are on ladders and the heroes keep brandishing poles used for pushing ladders away from walls? When you are defending a tight, spiral staircase, why would you surrender that position and move to fight in the open? There were so many moments when the absolute stupidity of the castle defence made me cringe. Of course a small number of men can defend a castle from a large number, that’s what it’s built to do, but you actually need to use the defences if you are going to do that.
Just as a warning, we are getting into spoiler territory here, so if you are worried about that, turn back now. Everything you need to know is in this review’s first paragraph up there.
With that out of the way: the characters also act in ways dictated by what the writer (and/or director and/or producer) wanted to happen rather than by what might happen organically. And, yes, we are 21st century people watching a 13th century story, so we have expectations in regards to how people will react, but this can be done within the confines of the story. No 13th century woman is going to lack understanding of religious vows. No Templar is going to allow someone to get away with saying his vows lack love—Templars were supposed to be what they were based on a love of God and protection of the innocent. Having the woman rail against the vows and having the Templar sorely tempted and succumbing to that temptation doesn’t mean he has to hate the vows he took. It’s actually more tragic if he still believes in his vows and must seek to find amends for his weakness.
And finally, for a movie that purports to be about the sieges of Rochester, it doesn’t seem to know shit about the history of the period. King John wasn’t exacting revenge for Magna Carta, neither side had disarmed or demobilized even after its signing. The war in which the siege of Rochester occurred was actually the war Magna Carta was supposed to avoid. Also—and this is kind of a key point—Rochester fell to King John’s forces, as did all of England after it. And finally, there was no French prince, King John’s son became Henry III, and the Plantagenets ruled England until Henry Bolingbroke deposed Richard II to become Henry IV.
And to all this historical fuming, you might answer: it’s a movie. And I agree, but like Braveheart, if you want to ignore history, don’t make a historical movie. Even the Three Musketeers (at least the novels and Richard Lester’s movies) respect the history in which it is set. If you are going to ignore everything about the history of Rochester, why set the film at Rochester? Why tell the story of the siege of Rochester when you obviously don’t want to tell the story of the siege of Rochester? Why not create a fictional castle, perhaps in King Stephen’s time or during Richard III’s reign, in which to set your story? That’s what Pillars of the Earth did. It ain’t the historical and political aspects on which this movie focuses. It is about ass-kickery, and that can be done at any time in any culture. If you want to make some kind of obscure criticism of rulership or law or whatever, do it with subtlety or just don’t do it.
So there are a lot of negatives, but the actors and the exuberance of the movie make it fun to watch. This could work as a renter. If your gaming group is looking for a movie night, I can only recommend this if you have already watched the Seven Samurai, the Magnificent Seven, and the 13th Warrior. Also, if you are ready for a steep decline in cool and logic.
I give this one 2.5 hand-and-a-half swords out of five.
My other movie history rant, The Dreaded History and Braveheart Rant.