Semi Movie Review: Ironclad (Historical Revisionism of the Worst Sort)

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Have you seen Ironclad?  It stars Paul Giamatti as King John of England and James Purefoy as Thomas Marshall, a Templar Knight (Purefoy, by the way, seems to have had a role in at least 3/4ths of the medieval-era-ish film productions released in the last 6 or so years, which is impressive).  If you haven’t, you’re probably not missing anything you didn’t see in Braveheart.

It’s not a bad movie by itself, mind you.  A little on the long side at two hours, sure.  But as a film, it has a lot going for it.  Decent acting, a plot that makes internal sense, and a narrative that balances between all out war (there will be blood!) and the rigors of attrition.  If this were set in the mythical kingdom of Genland, with the plot centered on King Hojn’s use of Adnish mercenaries to reclaim his throne from the wicked barons who forced him to sign the Namga Artac, then it would be an interesting movie with lots of parallels to England’s medieval history.

But that’s not what this film is about.  You see, in this version of history, King John doesn’t successfully take Rochester Castle from an entrenched baronial force.  Rather, the French
magically show up and he’s forced to trudge out into the marshes of England trailing his treasure (which is mysteriously lost), after which he dies of dysentery.  Thus the heroes are saved!  Oh merciful heavens our surviving heroes can go on to live their lives in sin!  Yes, sin.  You know why?  Because Thomas Marshall violates his religious codes of conduct as a Knight Templar by not only sleeping with a woman (abstinence!), but with a woman married to another man.  This results in said woman explaining how important it is for Thomas to live life.  Oh!  He must live it by committing a cardinal sin!

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying sex out of wedlock or adultery is evil or even sinful in my mind.  But we’re not talking about the world I live in.  We’re talking about 13th century England.  Now, I don’t want to suggest here that nobody was breaking religious law back then.  I’m sure the Knights Templar were quite good and putting their willies where they shouldn’t (according to their religious rules).  But we’re told in this story that these vows are supremely important to Thomas.  Not just important, but so damned important that he spends the entire movie resisting temptation of one form or another, claiming the moral high ground alongside others with less strict religious rules.  And all this is destroyed by a single woman.  If any story could make it more clear to us that the serpent of the Bible lives in the loins of the female human, this is the one.

But I suppose that’s me reading a lot into a movie within a film tradition in which religious “rules” really only mean a lot when it comes to who you marry and who you behead.

The real problem with this movie is that it gets its history so terribly wrong as to be dangerous.  Let’s toss aside the fact that somehow our hero has resisted wicked temptation his whole life, the criminal use of modern phrases, and the strange logical gap between the importance of Rochester Castle (it controls everything in London and is ever so crucial to King John’s campaign — this is actually true) and the suspicious absence of anything resembling a defensive force in the castle itself (you can count the number of soldiers/archers/defenders on your hands and feet and still have digits left over).  Let’s just talk about the utter failure on the part of Jonathan English (ha!), Erick Kastel, and Stephen McDool to write a story that resembles the actual event.

Let’s take, for a moment, the glorious inadequacy of these writers, shall we?  The BBC website says the following of the battle Ironclad attempts to depict:

King John lay siege to the castle in 1215 and took it after two long months. He finally undermined the south east tower and burned the props with the “fat of forty pigs” causing the tower to collapse. The city was well placed for raids on London and it also enabled them to devastate the lands of Kent, particularly those belonging to Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, who had crowned Rufus and was therefore Odo’s and the rebels’ enemy.

Short, but sweet.  The English Heritage website adds a few more details:

In 1215, garrisoned by rebel barons, the castle endured an epic siege by King John. Having first undermined the outer wall, John used the fat of 40 pigs to fire a mine under the keep, bringing its southern corner crashing down. Even then the defenders held on, until they were eventually starved out after resisting for two months.

What’s that?  The French didn’t show up and send King John packing at Rochester Castle?  Really?  You mean our heroes lost by starvation, thus surrendering after an understandably brave months-long fight?  The only thing Ironclad gets correct in the above description is that King John used the fat of forty pigs (sappers!) to cause the tower to collapse.  But most everything else — the order of events, the players, etc. — falls apart when under simple scrutiny.  There’s no city.  No cathedral.  No indication that anyone actually lives near Rochester Castle, which is unusual when you think about the film’s logic:  this is such a strategic point for taking the country, and yet nobody seems to live in the bizarre wasteland around the castle (there’s no farmland either).  Not for miles!  And we’re given some beautiful shots of England countryside to prove this!

Even Wiki-frakking-pedia points out where Ironclad fails miserably:

William d’Aubigny commanded the garrison but contemporary chroniclers do not agree on how many men that was. Estimates range from 95 to 140 knights supported by crossbowmen, sergeants, and others.[9] John did take the castle, most of the higher nobles being imprisoned or banished; and the French did not arrive in England until some six months after the siege had ended.[10] Characters departing significantly from the historical record include William d’Aubigny who was not an ennobled wool merchant (nor was he tortured and killed in the siege).

You’ll notice the citation numbers.  Those two citations happen to come from fairly reputable sources:  Rochester Castle by Reginald Allen Brown (a guidebook from the English Heritage folks) and David Hume’s The History of England.  That’s right:  David frakking Hume.  But in Ironclad, a ragtag group of six “warriors” show up to “take” Rochester Castle and then defend it with the ragtag group of folks living inside.  And d’Aubigny has his feet and hands cut off and his body chucked from an improvised catapult into the side of the keep.  And John has a happy time with murdering those few nobles he gets his hands on in the film.

Odd how those little details managed to slip the writers’ minds.  But why?  Isn’t the very idea of defending a castle from a superior force already an exciting and dramatic story?  Couldn’t they have told that story?  Did they have to have the French roll in early and save the day?  Deus ex machina!

Maybe I’m asking too much from my medieval movies.  Maybe becoming and academic has soured me to historical fiction.  I don’t know.  What I do know is that this kind of crap annoys the hell out of me.  I want my historical fiction to at least get the major facts correct.  Otherwise, you might as well be writing alternate history…

Sadly, Ironclad neither gets the facts right nor does it succeed as an alternate history.  It’s a film that historians of the period can watch only if they’ve had a lobotomy performed by a chimpanzee with a hot poker.  Even then, brain seizures are likely…

Directing: 2.5/5 (there are some weird moments where people seem to be doing something different when there are perspective shifts)
Cast: 3/5 (decent enough)
Writing: 1/5 (I don’t reword stupidity)
Visuals: 2.5/5 (CG blood = idiotic)
Adaptation: 0.5/5 (it gets half a point for being correct about the fact that a siege took place)
Overall: 1.9/5


Disclaimer #1:  I do not have a problem with artistic license.  Fiddling with minor details to add a little drama is fine by me, so long as the actual history remains relatively unchanged.

Disclaimer #2:  I am not a medieval history major, but I am one of those silly academics who has some vague idea how to research basic history to figure out whether something is true.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

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