It’s 1215. Following years of oppression, King John has finally signed Magna Carta, a document intended to impose limits on his tyrannical power. The ink had barely dried, however, before the enraged king gathered an army together and began to exact bloody revenge on the barons who forced him to sign on the dotted line. This quickly resulted in civil war, with King John and his forces on one side, and the rebel barons, supported by nights sent by monarchs in France and Scotland, on the other.
If the above sounds uncomfortably like a history lesson, fear not. Ironclad may use the First Barons’ War of 1215 as its backdrop, but it’s really a full-blooded siege movie at heart. In fact, you could even call it Assault On Precinct 13th Century if you felt like it, because Ironclad is, in essence, a retelling of John Carpenter’s claustrophobic classic with added wigs and leather.
After a brief bit of scene-setting (and an introduction with a map that looks uncomfortably like a Channel 4 docu-drama), we’re thrown straight into the violence. King John (a scenery chewing Paul Giamatti) is terrorising the barons of southern England, with the assistance of a group of glowering Danish mercenaries.
Determined to prevent the king from regaining control of the country, Albany (Brian Cox) and a group of hastily assigned warriors, including the terse, gravel-voiced Templar knight, Marshall (James Purefoy), attempt to hold Rochester Castle, a strategic point that could prove pivotal in the unfolding war. With Albany and his meagre forces locked down inside the castle, and King John’s thousand-strong army camped outside, the stage is set for a lengthy and bloody skirmish.
While the heroic James Purefoy is given top billing in Ironclad, it’s notable just how starry the rest of the cast is. Charles Dance and Derek Jacobi’s appearances are brief yet welcome, Jason Flemyng’s great as a licentious warrior with a girlfriend who looks like a glamour model, Mackenzie Crook is underused as a luckless archer, and Kate Mara pulls off a surprisingly good English accent as Purefoy’s love interest, Lady Isabel.
The real star of Ironclad, though, is its eyeball-popping violence. If you’re looking for a film in which its heroes end up knee-high in cleaved-open heads and lopped-off limbs, Ironclad will provide the perfect evening’s entertainment.
Jonathan English’s direction is, shall we say, rather workmanlike, and Ironclad struggles to rise above the quality of an average BBC period drama in the cinematography stakes (though this may be to do with the film’s compromised aspect ratio, which I’ll return to later), but this hardly matters if you’re after a bit of sword-swinging action, and this film has loads of it.
And as daft as the film sometimes seems, much of what takes place is actually quite accurate. There really was a siege of Rochester Castle in 1215, and King John really did order in a herd of 40 swine in an attempt to smoke out the rebels within. Whether those rebels really looked quite as smouldering and picturesque as Purefoy and Mara is lost to history, and I rather doubt that King John spent quite so much time camped outside, shaking his fist and screaming.
King John really was a nasty piece of work, though, as my subsequent research revealed. And while Giamatti doesn’t even try to do an English accent as the despicable monarch, his portrayal of a spiteful, ranting little man-child is quite brilliant. There’s even a scene where Brian Cox and Giamatti get to bellow at each other in a nerve-tingling, entertainingly over-the-top exchange, before something rather horrific happens, which I won’t spoil by describing.
Ironclad suffers a little from its stock selection of characters, but as an action movie, it’s still a lot of fun. It occurred to me, in fact, that it’s been some time since anyone’s made a really satisfying siege movie, like Zulu, Assault On Precinct 13 or Night Of The Living Dead. Ironclad doesn’t achieve the classic status of those movies, but it’s nevertheless an exhilarating little film, carried through its weaker moments on a tidal wave of blood, knackered limbs and sheer charisma.The Disc
Anyone wanting to see lots of horrendous injuries in high definition may find the Blu-ray of Ironclad a worthy investment. It’s important to point out, however, that Warner has presented the film in a 16:9 format, rather than the 2.35:1 ratio in which it was originally shot.
While this may pass some viewers by unnoticed, purists (who surely form a fair percentage of Blu-ray customers) may well be put off by the fact that the edges of the picture have been lopped off. This would certainly explain why the composition looks so askew in some shots.
It’s equally difficult to pluck up enthusiasm for the disc’s meagre selection of bonus features. These amount to little more than a collection of brief interviews with Ironclad’s cast. Giamatti’s is the most memorable, largely because he appears to be suffering from a horrifying cold.
You can rent or buy Ironclad at Blockbuster.co.uk.