I’m a little surprised I missed the theatrical release of Ironclad this past summer. It is, after all, a movie where people cut each other to shreds with swords, and just about the only kind of movie I like more are the ones about French people smoking cigarettes (and, naturally, SFF). Thus, I was greatly pleased to find Ironclad available to stream on a site that shall remain nameless as punishment for their maladroit branding instincts. Not only was it available, a friend of mine recommended it as one of the most gruesomely violent things he’d ever seen. Sold, said I.
Ironclad is, ostensibly, a dramatization of The First Barons’ War, a 13th century affair wherein a number of English barons—backed by France—fought to make King John accept the terms of the recently-signed (under duress) Magna Carta. It was a relatively brief and embarrassing episode, most notable for one particular siege, where 100 men at Rochester Castle resisted John’s troops for long enough that he had to resort to some truly creative nastiness to prevail, in spite of having a massively larger army. As the subject of a piece of historical fiction, this episode does have the advantage of relative novelty, while still being about a historically resonant subject; the Magna Carta was enormously influential.
Those looking for a serious chronicle of these events should be warned to continue their search. Ironclad has a different set of priorities. King John is presented as a cartoonishly bellicose villain, with Paul Giamatti chewing so much scenery he can be seen to gain ten pounds by the end of the movie. The good guys, instead of a consortium of barons, are presented as the Archbishop of Canterbury (Charles Dance), a detail of Knights Templar (led by James Purefoy), and a scrappy, ragtag band of populist underdogs, who have a tendency to say weirdly 20th-century socialist stuff for a bunch of dudes who are supposed to be running around 800 years ago. And there are about twelve of them, instead of a hundred. Having already taken this degree of leave from the historical records, the lady of the castle (Kate Mara) walks around in bare shoulders and cleavage tops, openly flirting with James Purefoy in spite of his vow of celibacy, awkwardly straddling the line between proto-feminism and eye candy and unfortunately all-too-often nudged by the director and writers toward the latter.
But what of the violence, the magnitude and scale of which was the impetus behind my watching Ironclad in the first place? Well, on this count the picture does not disappoint in the slightest. Many men kill many other men with swords, axes, clubs, boiling oil, catapults, bombs, and even—disgustingly—dozens of burning pigs. While this last was intended to point up King Paul Giamatti the Wicked’s villainy rather than make the audience go “awesome!” like the beheadings, behandings, bearmings, and befootings, it was nonetheless the one point at which the violence truly crossed the line. It’s handled with relative taste by director Jonathan English, in any case, and is in fact something King John’s troops did to weaken the structure of Rochester Castle in 1215. Anyone who can handle the mindbogglingly grisly violence of the preceding hour and a half of Ironclad will presumably not regard this as the last straw, and will get mad at Paul Giamatti rather than the movie. All the other horrible things people do to each other in the movie fall well within the boundaries of acceptable extremely graphic cinematic violence. The blood, gore, and limb-severing effects are quite well-done, and with the exception of a couple lapses into trendy shaky-cam incoherence, the action scenes in general are compelling and visually legible.
The question of whether Ironclad is a good movie is not a terribly pressing one. It brought to mind Game of Thrones in a not altogether complimentary way that really served to deepen the fierce longing for season 2, as there are no Machiavellian blonde people, no direwolves and (most tragically) no Peter Dinklage. Fans of ultra-gory violence will be rewarded with plenty of what they’re looking for in Ironclad, provided they’re willing to sit through some fairly long, repetitive stretches in between sieges. The picture itself is competently enough assembled that it passes the time fairly divertingly, provided one is not overly offended by poetic license with the historical record and not overly shocked by extremely violent subject matter. I can’t stress that enough. Ironclad was almost too violent for me, and nothing is too violent for me. But that “almost” means that I can, with the above-mentioned reservations, recommend this to anyone participating in one of those “what’s the most violent movie you’ve ever seen” discussions. Ironclad is right up there, be that endorsement or warning.