When we saw Ironclad advertised as coming to UK cinema screens, I and a few mates all thought “James Purefoy, as a Knight Templar, wielding a mighty broadsword in a castle-siege full of blood, snot and carnage? That’ll do nicely. We’ll go and see that, then!” But, quicker than you can pour boiling oil over a raider’s head, the film was gone. Disappeared. Vanished. Huh? What happened there, then? The only other time that I can recall a film that I was heavily into being manhandled away from screens with such alarming haste was when Christophe Gans’ simply awesome Brotherhood Of The Wolf ventured across to Blighty. I saw that one on the first day of its theatrical run, despite the staff of the Odeon trying to warn me away – “It’s French, you know? It’s got subtitles!” - and was utterly blown away by it. I then took the Friday afternoon off to go and see it again … only to discover that they’d stopped showing it! As it happened I was able to then purchase the French 3-disc DVD over the weekend. Ha-haaa! I win! But then that's not why we're here, is it?
Ironclad batters down the gates of Blu-ray in this region-free US edition of Jonathan English's pulverising history lesson in medieval siege and destroy tactics. And although I missed it at the flicks, I'm more than happy with its arrival on hi-def home video.
Although the film begins with one of the narrative voice-overs that tells us what time period we are in, who the main players are and what the overall context of the situation is about – something that is always a bore but, all too often, a necessary evil – Charles Dance, who delivers this scene-setter, also ends it with a great little tease of a line. We've heard and seen via maps and montage how the ruthless King John (a superb Paul Giamatti) has had his hand forced into signing the Magna Carta, and learned how the history books seem to think that the story ends there … but Dance slyly informs us that they've neglected to report “what King John did next ...”
It's a good hook.
We see the sulky and terribly vexed monarch greeting an armada of war-hungry Danes who he has recruited as a mercenary army with which to take back his rebellious country, and then commencing the march inland with retribution on his mind. Stopping off at castles and baronial seats along the way to, ahem, return the favours done to him by all those who signed that damning document, he and his grizzled mob of heathen warriors make the mistake of arriving at a provincial fortress that a group of Knights Templar, returning from the Crusades with their clerical leader, Abbot Marcus, have holed-up in to avoid a storm. No sooner has King John re-affirmed his authority by hanging the weaselly lord and had his henchman hack out the Abbot's tongue to silence his preaching tones, than he has opened up a can of medieval whupp-ass as the trio of Templars wade-in with extremely proficient and, indeed, fearless gusto, cutting a swathe through the shaggy foreigners and clearly infuriating the King. He doesn't like Templars at the best of times. The heroic Thomas Marshal (an excellent James Purefoy) rescues the priest and makes it away from the bloodbath, but has sealed his own fate in so doing. The priest does not survive the journey to Canterbury and when Marshal breaks the news of King John's treachery to the Archbishop (Charles Dance), he finds himself allied with a few stout-hearted men under the command of Baron Albany (Brian Cox) and becomes embroiled with a last-ditch attempt to thwart this merciless army and buy time for French allies to cross the Channel. Rochester Castle is the strategic vantage point that controls all of South Eastern England, and would make a vital staging post for King John and his forces. Both Albany and Marshall decide that this is where they should make their stand and hopefully hold him back until the French arrive.
But with so little time available, Albany is only able to amass a motley band of thugs, veterans and ne'er-do-wells. When they arrive at Rochester, they number only around twenty fighters, and that's including the handful of soldiers that the owner, the reluctant Cornhill (Derek Jacobi), has at his disposal. But with Marshal's battle-honed expertise and knowledge of siege tactics, and their combined bravery, the men hold fast and await the massed attack of King John's barbarian horde.
The depiction of sodden England, 1215, is believable and earthy. The squalor of the villages and the damp atmosphere is pungent and evocative. English, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Erick Kastel, filmed the independently produced Ironclad in Wales … as those gloriously wide sandy beaches we see as King John greets his new army plainly reveal. But it is great to find that we aren't being taken on a tour of the British Isles like we were in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, say. And the windswept overcast visuals creep into your bones, bringing you just that bit closer to the story. But the real delight in how English brings this little-known historical vignette to the screen is in the casting.
It's taken some considerable time, and plenty of strong, committed work, but James Purefoy has become one of the most dependable and consistent of British actors. It is amazing how he can switch from the suave and the smarmy for the likes of the barrister he played in TV's recent Injustice, to someone who is gritty, grunge-caked, and almost bestial in his noble ferocity – the traits he obligingly evinces here as Thomas Marshal. Purefoy struts and glowers in that most clichéd of historical action components, the dour, haunted hero who has one last battle left in him, but he is utterly convincing as a man whose service to God and to honour is unimpeachable and blended with righteous hellfire. If he ever smiles throughout the duration of the film, it is hidden beneath too much mud, blood and sweat for us to see it … and it would probably have hurt him more to produce such a simple thing as that than it would all the wounds and grievous damage that he receives from the enemy. That sourpuss expression becomes his badge of honour and it is so refreshing to see a leading man who doesn't resort to flashing those pearly-whites at the camera. He looks the part, he sounds the part, with that West Country accent brutalised even further with grunting pain and single-minded blood-lust, and, man, he acts the part in some truly staggeringly violent close-combat. After tours of duty in A Knight's Tale, Rome, Camelot (in which he was the best thing, besides Eva Green) and Solomon Kane, this is a modern man who really knows how to use a sword. There's no glamour to what he does with that wicked, ever-honed five-and-a-half foot English broadsword, none of that twirling, dexterous showmanship that other blade-users like to employ – he just thrusts it through enemy after enemy with cold-hearted, sinew-stretching might, cleaving limbs and heads from bodies, hacking through armour and chain-mail to bisect attackers, and casually eviscerating his foes with a fiercely pragmatic resolve that you have no problem believing has come from years of valiant service in the Holy Lands.
His detachment from emotion, and his firm beliefs play a large part in how he acts and behaves, how he confronts his destiny. This dedication to his faith and to his cause could be a recipe for off-the-peg characterisation, and if it wasn't James Purefoy we were talking about then that would surely be the case here. But his indomitable glumness and steely-eyed pessimism become the very attributes that make him all the more human and charismatic. It is true that Solomon Kane was a good Templar-template for the super-warrior we meet here. Both he and Thomas Marshal are men who have pledged their lives to a higher power, and both seek some sort of atonement for the acts they have committed. But whilst ex-mercenary-turned-man-of-the-cloth Kane struggles to keep his inner demons under wraps until outer demons persuade him otherwise, Marshal understands that his Order demands that he use his incredible anti-social skills in the service of God. As he says to the young squire who joins their meagre forces, “Only the weak believe that what they do in battle, is who they are as men.” That would be corny coming from anyone other than Purefoy, and it is to his credit that we buy into his mindset so easily and so completely.
All the cast are remarkably good, ensuring that Ironclad isn't a one-trick-pony.
Who would have thought that indie-demigod, Giamatti, would be able to pull off a portrayal as a Dark Age English monarch? But he essays the embittered King with just the right amount of blue-blooded arrogance and insecurity, careful never to send the tyrant into the realms of the camp or the regally dismissive. We don't ever come to understand his plight – I doubt we are supposed to, he's far too removed for that – but we can certainly appreciate his anger at the circumstances fate has dolloped on top him. Giamatti gets a good couple of scenes with which to cut loose. We hear one past tale of childhood indiscretion that has cemented in him the conviction that he can do no wrong, and that all who say otherwise should be swiftly smote down. And then we get a tremendous, howling and yowling hissy-fit that would be quite comical if it weren't delivered in the middle of a protracted sequence that boasts some outrageously nasty punishments and executions. His indie background enables him to avoid the trademark theatrical villainy that we are so used to seeing in such a character, meaning that he digs a little deeper into the character without sacrificing our hatred for him. Yet whilst it is hard to see him as truly evil - Giamatti has, of course, played baddies before - his depiction of King John, though never destined to be remembered alongside the most shudder-inducing of cinematic scumbags still makes the blood boil with a desire to see payback wrought upon him. English doesn't do a Gladiator-style remix on history, though, which at least keeps things on the right thematic track.
The goodies, this veritable Magnificent Medieval Seven, are also of good stock. Purefoy is reunited with two of his Solomon Kane co-stars, Mackenzie Crook, who here takes up bow and arrow and becomes the Legolas of the bunch as Marks, and the rather ubiquitous Jason Flemying, who is a pure wanton ruffian who has serious authority issues, but also possesses a very understandable love of the ladies, as Beckett. After wetting his blade in the gizzards of his foes, he's quick to bed a wench and get to work with a sword of a different nature. I like that attitude. Welsh-born Aneurin Barnard, who looks like a cross between Orlando Bloom and Elijah Wood (which he's already a LOTR tribute act!), is the more typical innocent swept up in the waves of slaughter. Playing the Baron's squire, Guy, he must learn the art of warfare and find some courage. And quickly. As with Purefoy, he is more than capable of providing his stock character with plenty of emotional depth, even if his arc of development doesn't stretch all that far. Rhys Parry Jones gets to be the Brian Blessed of the bunch – at times he really does look like Flash Gordon's champion ogre! Armed with an axe and a beard that can probably perform an equal amount of damage, he is the Little John type of warrior. Very like Clint Eastwood's William Munney in Unforgiven, he has to say goodbye to his young kids as the Baron, an old friend, comes along with this last mission, and there is something very tender about how he does it, something that convinces. Without fear of dropping a spoiler, there is a look in his eyes that leaves you under no illusion that he thinks he will not be back for a reunion. Another familiar face from TV as well as film is that of Jamie Foreman as the uncouth petty criminal, Jedediah, freed from the stocks to join Albany's little band of home-turf crusaders. This one is a master of improvisation – he even uses a severed arm to batter a foe to death! They are all fairly conventional figures for the genre, yet each actor is able to bring a little something extra to his role.
Brian Cox is strangely more relaxed than in most of his usual performances. Gone is that acerbic, argumentative demeanour, replaced with a fatalistic sense of humour. It took me a while to get used to this nicer, more heroic incarnation … but he does well. And it is great to see him truly getting stuck-in to the cut 'n' thrust as the valiant Albany. Only Derek Jacobi, out of this cluster of traditional male stalwarts, who has probably made more period dramas than I've had the chance to see, appears to be slumming it with the rather thankless and, quite honestly, irritating part of Cornhill. But then, he is meant to be a moaning old git. He even orders the defenders to clean all their mess up after the first attack – the place is strewn with bodies, and bits of bodies – and keeps cropping up over someone's shoulder to offer … absolutely no advice at all.
Vladimir Kulich brings plenty of imposing gravitas to the part of the great Dane, Tiberius, the leader of John's mercenary army. He was the Viking chieftain, Buliwyf, in the vastly underrated action/horror romp, The 13th Warrior, from John McTiernan (but since butchered by Michael Crichton acting as editor on the adaptation of his early book The Eaters of the Dead) and he provides a terrific physical nemesis for Marshall. You know that these two have to come face-to-face, but the great things is that English has already hurled them at one another during that frenzied opening skirmish, so the hostility between the two is palpable and the eventual face-off something we've been looking forward to. But he is also much more than merely a barbarian heavy. One scene has the snarling King John threatening to send him back home with his tail between his legs for failing, yet again, to crack the castle, but Tiberius' fears for what he find back home make him almost as sympathetic as any that are trapped within the walls of Rochester. Kulich is smart enough to give the wolfskin-wearing berserker more depth than simply the surly aggression that all the rest of his men have in spades. He's in top shape, too. Wait until you see him bare-chested and painted with blue tribal war-paint!
The only downside amongst this ensemble is Anna Friel-lookalike Kate Mara's Lady Isabel. Much too young and forward-thinking for her crusty, aged husband, Jacobi's ever-affronted Cornhill, she can't help but hit a duff note in the otherwise quite authentic proceedings. She is also responsible for that most unlikely of conceits, in the doomed romance she strikes up with Marshal, once he lets his stoic guard down in a lull in the fighting. Whereas Giamatti can evade his American birthright and assume full Olde English Kingship, she is unable to. Looking too impossibly glamorous, she tends to stick out a mile from the others, and her accent does betray her heritage on occasion. But we should be thankful, perhaps, because she actually replaced Megan Fox in the role, who would have been even more unbelievable. And Mara does, at least, get stuck in with the lads when things start to look even grimmer for the goodies.
English delivers the gruesome goods with élan, taking the eye-popping savagery of Braveheart, to which all filmic depictions of physical warfare owe a bloody debt of gratitude, but keeping his barbaric acts fast, frenetic and full of visceral momentum. The blood sprays in geysers and a plethora of prosthetic body-parts are hacked away and lashed around the place until Jacobi's castle-home becomes as slippery as an slaughterhouse. Fight choreography is terrifically well-handled, with particular attention paid to how these ancient weapons really inflict the damage. People who aren't immediately despatched with a felling-blow are hacked-at and beaten as they gurgle away on the deck. Mêlées are gruelling to watch, each swipe clearly dangerous and nothing done for the sheer aplomb that it might possess on camera. It's good to see the men using everything they can in ruthless desperation. Fists, elbows, knees are solidly thunked into vulnerable faces and groins. Marshal even gets to put the nut on someone. And all of this feels mighty real. Compare the battles here to what we saw in Ridley Scott's epic misfire of Robin Hood, which felt sanitised and watered-down despite what the filmmaker and his star, Russell Crowe, said about adhering to realism. Once the Danes have scaled the walls and the fighting rages, hand-to-hand, it may be a gorehound's delight, but you still shudder at the immense intimacy of the inter-personal mayhem being wrought. Gaping wounds shoot blood and shorn flesh in vivid slurries, deep blade penetrations are rammed home so hard that actually make you grind your teeth, and the carnage just keeps coming thick and fast. Lots of prosthetic mutilation occurs – heads scythed in two, shoulders chopped from the body, a sword plunged through someone's mouth right up to the hilt – but English can't resist embellishing some of the flung gore with CG welters that even spatter the screen. Neil Marshal did this with the simply daft Centurion – but he actually made the mistake of overdoing it, too, until the effect was rendered both comical and boring. English gets the balance just right.
And, I must say … hats (and, indeed, hands) off to the jaw-dropping sequence when King John has an important captive dismembered and then strapped to a catapult and his body hurled against the wall of the keep. Now, that's making a political statement!
Back on the topic of CG. English does well with his Danish armada settling in to the Southern shore, but there are times, just split-seconds, when the flaming pots hurled from King John's catapults become a touch too animated in mid-flight. The actual impacts, however, are suitably physical and totally devastating. Filmed almost entirely with digital cameras – the Panavision Genesis combined with the Canon D5 - by the great David Eggby, who lensed Mad Max, Quigley Down Under, Dragonheart and most pertinent with regards to the sheen of this project, Pitch Black - the film has an incredibly detailed look, but it is one that is partially desaturated, earthy and profoundly stark. Shaky-cam moments are also employed, but they add quite vividly to the fight-scenes, well and truly placing you right in the thick of it. Although the film does occasionally remind you of its low budget, the fact that English had built an exact replica of Rochester Castle means that he has a full-size battleground to play in, and one in which he can get a full 360-degrees of action. Therefore, as small as the film actually is, it feels huge when it comes to the theme of a lonely fort under determined and relentless assault.
The film carries a good score from Lorne Balfe, which is big on long, doom-laden and ethereal passages for choir and ethnic voices. This latter element is normally used to depict the far-away shores of Troy's Greece, 300's Sparta, Gladiator's Moroccan and Roman vistas, and here it brings with it the twisted memories of Marshal's time spent fighting in the Crusades, as well as evoking the mood of an England that was both teased and threatened by potential invaders upon its soil and foreign attitudes being culturally assimilated. Good use of the choir avoids that stereotypical sound of the medieval era, which is usually ecclesiastical and cloying. This comes over as being inherently character-based and is not too overtly ladled in to the mix, meaning that it quietly gets the emotions across without slapping you about the face and telling you what you're supposed to feel as events become more grim.
Whilst I think that Ironclad is actually an awesome movie (it ticks row upon row of boxes for me), it does suffer from a middle stretch that seems quite lethargic. A relax in the fighting in essential, and every siege movie, from The Alamo to Assault On Precinct 13, needs some downtime to re-establish the reasons why the characters are in this predicament in the first place, and to simply get out breath back. The Siege of Rochester Castle actually lasted a lot longer than you might have thought, but English's decision to bring Charles Dance back again for another voice-over is an unfortunately twee one that hauls some of the drama from the saddle of its war-horse. He speaks over a montage of the passing of days and the worsening of the conditions within the castle … but simply leaving us with the montage, alone, would have been fine enough to inform us of the defenders' plight. I'm afraid this element took me right out of the film for a little bit. It is later in this interlude that little character licks are shoehorned-in, as well. Jedediah learning to write and the woeful love-nest for Marshal and Isabel smack of dull formula. And these scenes really do have the feel of foot-dragging filler.
But, overall, I loved Ironclad.
It is earthy, vivid, exciting and extremely violent. Plus it's got James Purefoy getting grim and gruesome with an impossibly big sword. Some of the details may be a little shaky, but this is one helluva of slice of little history. You can't beat a heroic last stand, and I'd be proud to stand beside Ironclad.
Well recommended, and a very strong 7 out of 10. But carnage-lovers (like me) should feel free to carve that up to an 8!
Finally, I feel compelled to decry the lousy cover-art for this US release. This looks like a sister-piece to the wretched (yet embarrassingly enjoyable ) Nic Cage romp, Season Of The Witch. And the tag-line … oh, sweet Jesus, what idiot came up with that? “Heavy Metal Gets Medieval” - are you for real? I'd like to get medieval on this PR loser with some heavy metal, myself. What a cretin! The UK release, botched aspect aside, at least features the terrifically brooding and bloody theatrical artwork, and the infinitely better slogan of “Defend The Castle. Kill The King. Save The Nation”.