Ironclad has it all. A formidable cast, good jokes and awe-inspiring action scenes featuring the full range of medieval weaponry. To cap it all, it even features a bunch of vicious Vikings. What could be better?
Although set many, many years ago in 13th Century England, most of us are probably at least slightly familiar with the era. For starters the country is ruled over by (bad) King John (played by Paul Giamatti), who was Robin Hood’s chief enemy when he was not fighting the Sheriff of Nottingham. The tyrannical king has just been forced to sign the Magna Carta, the famous charter of rights that guarantees the rule of law in England and Wales, and is often seen as an influence on the drafting of the constitution of the United States.
Having been pushed into signing away his absolute control over the country in the Magna Carta by rebellious barons, John is anxious to get his authority back. This involves visiting the castles of the barons who dared to take him on and then killing them. He’s successfully subdued much of south England and will march on London once he’s taken Rochester Castle in nearby Kent.
Sounds simple enough. He’s the king and he’s hired a bunch of Wodin-worshipping Danish mercenaries, Vikings really, to split the skulls of anyone who is foolish enough to stand in his way. Naturally, things aren’t that easy. William Marshall (James Purefoy) a Templar knight (the same Templars who play an important role in The Da Vinci Code) and baron Albany (Brian Cox) have different ideas. They raise a rag-tag group of foot soldiers to hold Rochester Castle and save the country from King John’s badness.
Ironclad has been called a ‘medieval Magnificent Seven‘, a film which draws much of its power from the diverse personalities of the Seven. This lot might not be as memorable as James Coburn or Steve McQueen, but they are distinctive. Mackenzie Crook is Marks, an archer with a good eye, Jamie Foreman and Jason Flemyng are two tough cockney swordsmen, and newcomer Aneurin Barnard plays a young inexperienced squire. The first three actors know how to put on a good performance, but perhaps the script doesn’t quite give them quite enough backstory or personality to allow us to really feel they are distinct personalities.
The main acting action is centred around James Purefoy, who makes a fine, if troubled, action hero whose time on the crusades has taught him that “to kill a man is not a noble thing.” Better yet, a portly Brian Cox acts his chain-mail and tabard off as the single-minded Albany. Neither does Paul Giamatti let the side down as King John, a cowardly weasel in a velvet dress. It would also be a shame to forget the lovely Kate Mara as the delightful love interest.
It’s when the swords swing and arrows rain that Ironclad really takes flight. Shot over a miserable autumn in Wales, director Jonathan English strove for authenticity in the battle scenes. Don’t think this involves prancing about with a toothpick, instead five foot long broadswords, skull-crushing maces and battle axes were all used to great effect back then. English, wanted to show what these weapons could achieve, the victims “don’t die from being hit by the axe, they die from a heart attack that the wound causes, catastrophic blood loss.”
The action scenes are very involving and fresh – I’d never seen an attack by the medieval equivalent of artillery, a trebuchet sling shot. It’s very impressive. The crew apparently used a host of the latest technical effects including image-shakers and something called 5D cameras previously used by Michael Bay on Transformers 2. The Bourne movies, with their close up fight scenes and lightning-fast cutting, were an influence on the film makes too.
I’ll admit I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the film, but came out having really enjoyed it. It is largely a series of huge scraps, but they are very impressive and quite gory. That’s on top of a host of accomplished actors putting in good performances. And lets not forget, not many movies treat us to a horde of wild Vikings.