Not long after Ironclad bludgeoned its way onto my blu ray player and TV, I realised that I would have to seal off that little bit of my brain that stores historical facts. It wasn’t hard to do because Ironclad may be historically preposterous, it may be ridiculous in plenty of other ways too, but it has three things going for it in particular: it is unashamedly good fun; it has enough action and gore in it to satisfy the most demanding lover of gore; our hero is James Purefoy, aka Marshal, aka The Purefoy.
The story takes us back to 1215 and the reign of Bad King John. John has signed the Magna Carta, a charter granting rights and powers to barons and freemen (well, mainly barons, actually), but he has gone back on the deal, causing a resurgence in the barons’ rebellion. One last castle stands strong against the might of John – Rochester Castle, controlled by Cornhill (Derek Jacobi) and his beautiful, much younger wife Isabel (Kate Mara). Cornhill is a reluctant fighter (and husband) but he has little choice once his castle is commandeered by Albany (Brian Cox) and a group of Templars, led by Marshal (Purefoy). John and a rather odd bunch of Dutch mercenaries, the leader of which likes to paint himself blue for some reason, besiege the castle and so begins months of skirmishes, bombardment, famine and sexual tension.
The scenes of action in Ironclad make this film. I have never seen such excellent use made of trebuchets in a movie. Missiles are hurled over the walls, smashing everything in their path. The mercenaries clamber over the battlements only to have pitch poured over them while having swords thrust into their mouths. Hands, feet, heads are all slashed and chopped from bodies as blood sprays in every direction like a field of red geysers. Marshal keeps his men fighting. Whenever he’s knocked out, he can bounce right back, leaving a trail of dead and mutilated mercenaries in his wake. Even when the castle is mined and a whole load of pigs are shepherded into that mine and blown up for optimum amounts of burning fat, Marshal keeps fighting, while Isabel looks on with pain and love in her beautiful eyes. And yet, surely, Marshal’s end is inevitable?
While I thoroughly enjoyed Ironclad, some aspects of it are rather hard to work around. Firstly, a large amount of that blood looks as if it’s been added in post production. Maybe less blood sprayed more realistically would have been preferable. Secondly, the siege is supposed to have gone on for months and yet Isabel is wearing the same dress at the end of the months of hardship and famine as she did at the beginning. No-one looks any thinner and while one person is shown eating a giant bug it is clear that Marshal’s horse has not been suffering foodwise. This problem, though, occurs because the months of terrible toil are passed over in a couple of scenes. Director Jonathan English is clearly only interested in the action sequences. He doesn’t even have much time for Isabel’s conquest of her reluctant and moody Templar virgin knight. Nothing stands in the way of a good battle or a satisfying mutilation scene.
The castle looks magnificent (less so at the end). The whole look of the film is wonderful – mud, stench and blood fight for dominance. The jumping, blood-spattered camera intensifies the action. Brian Cox clearly has a great time as the fighting lord Albany, Paul Giamatti is suitably pathetic as snivelling, blustering King John and Kate Mara has a role made in heaven. James Purefoy is magnificent. I’m not aware that he smiled once – he may not be able to. But with every menacing grimace, every piercing stare and every stab of his sword, he is the handsome knight. Violent and ruthless he might be, but the words honourable and gorgeous also fit him well. There is a scene near the end involving Marshal, Isabel and a horse which appears especially ridiculous considering the circumstances and yet I loved every second of it.
I would therefore recommend you watch Ironclad in the spirit with which it is intended. It has no other purpose than to entertain you and it does just that. And then there’s The Purefoy Factor.