The Magna Carta is an important document. This is pretty much all that we learn and retain from our middle and high school years. But why was it important? This is something that movies, books, and TV shows rarely go into. Ironclad is one of the exceptions to this rule.
In Ironclad, we learn that the Magna Carta was a document signed by the dastardly King John of England, of Robin Hood fame. In it, he made official the rule that kings, while still retaining immense power, could not exercise arbitrary power over their subjects. You couldn't get taxed for shits and giggles. You couldn't be ordered to run a lap around Great Britain just because the king woke up on the wrong side of the bed. Instead, it was made clear that the king's duty was to uphold the law of the land; you could be punished or controlled only insofar as you broke the rules. Granted, this still allowed a great deal of leeway, but it reduced the legitimacy and likelihood of petulant rulers exerting dictator-like power without justification.
Ironclad begins by showing us King John signing the Magna Carta under duress. King John's a rotten bastard, so the only way the barons of England can get him to sign the document is by holding him at swordpoint. After this, the barons renew their oaths of fealty and loyalty to the crown. Being a freaking nutcase, King John waits until everyone leaves him alone and goes back to their castles. Then he brings in an army of Danish mercenaries, tells everyone that the Magna Carta was a meaningless paper only good for wiping his ass with, and then goes positively berserk all over the countryside.
Pictured: King John losing his shit
Specifically, Ironclad shows us the siege of the castle Rochester, a strategic lynchpin that commands the southwest part of England. We follow a member of the Knights Templar, Thomas Marshall, basically a supremely badass knight of the cross who fights against King John in order to secure the rights granted to men through God. Swiftly realizing that castle Rochester must be held from King John at all costs until French reinforcements arrive, Marshall gathers a highly bizarre and eclectic mix of crazy medieval bastards who gleefully spend the entire movie killing hundreds of King's John army as they slowly seize the fortress. Think Kingdom of Heaven meets The Alamo meets Seven Samurai, and you'll have a pretty good idea of what this movie has to offer.
For a movie I randomly discovered on Netflix, Ironclad has a LOT of recognizable actors in it. James Purefoy (the Knight Templar) was Mark Antony in HBO's Rome. Paul Giamatti is King John. Brian Cox is the head baron. Charles Dance (Game of Thrones' Tywin Lannister) is a sympathetic archbishop. Derek Jacobi (Gladiator, Underworld: Evolution) is lord of castle Rochester. And more! It made me quite surprised that I'd never heard of this movie prior, and that I'd never seen a trailer of it before.
An amusing, and perhaps disappointing, facet of the film, though, is that the cast doesn't really need to act that much. This is an action movie first and foremost; most of Ironclad is essentially a drawn out siege battle that serves to show off a gigantic and realistic medieval warfare reenactment. But, in a sense, it works out perfectly. The incredible choreography and authenticity of the gritty combat takes up half the film, allowing the quieter moments to be dominated by the talented actors everywhere. But, really, we know the truth. You just know that they all accepted the roles so that they could dress up in chainmail and whack at each other with stunt swords.
Knight, Outlaws, and Monarch
What about the characters? Thomas Marshall, Knight Templar, is convincingly aggressive and withdrawn. This is not somebody you want to run into in some alleyway. His devotion to the philosophy of the Knight Templar is clearly defined and is shown to give him immense drive. This is part of what makes one of his character developments so funny. See, the lady of the castle is married to a man who is far older than her; she hasn't gotten laid for quite some time. Thus, the moment the Knight Templar arrives, she is constantly after him, despite clear indications from Marshall that it would interfere with his focus if he forswore his vows. Nonetheless, she just does not lay off. Consequently, a good part of the movie is this sideplot that involves her trying really hard to get in his pants. There's even a scene where he lets her touch his sword despite his obvious reluctance. Freudian subtext much? Needless to say, this is one part of the movie which kind of failed to engage me seriously. It was just too hilarious to watch and, after a while, you actually start feeling sorry for the Knight Templar. It was that bad!
Aside from that, the rest of Marshall's merry band of killers is such a silly mix of nutjobs that they're always entertaining to watch. You've got the horny stealthy psycho guy. You've got the fat guy who apparently spends all of his time laughing madly while he kills people. You've got the Legolas stand-in. A couple others. Then there's the squire kid. Seriously, where'd they get this guy? He looks like Elijah Wood's clone. Anyways, he spends most of the movie as the intellectual college guy out of his depth; he quotes Latin and provides a firm defense of why they should be fighting for the Magna Carta and what it is while simultaneously being the combat newbie and nearly getting himself killed a lot. But, in his defense, he never comes off as annoying. And he undeniably serves as the heart of the team. Go Frodo.
Finally there's the big players. Brian Cox's Baron Albany is great, though holy shit; I've never seen a more gruesome death in any movie ever. Derek Jacobi is suitably lordly. Paul Giamatti's King John, however... He's in a league of his own. Paul Giamatti manages to make us feel for the King while simultaneously loathing him. His outburst of a monologue on the absolute power of kings was epic. Loving the role, Paul Giamatti decides to play King John as if he must have a CRAZY temper tantrum every ten minutes or else someone has to die (and does!). It's priceless, stunning to watch, and worth the price of admission alone.
All in all, Ironclad was awesome. But let me clarify something: my tone throughout this review, while humorous, should not be taken to mean that this movie is some comedic medieval satire. By contrast, this movie is gory as all hell, ridiculously dark at times, and is one of those war films where just about everyone is dead by the end of it. You can guess that by watching a trailer and reading a plot summary, so that's no huge spoiler. They hold castle Rochester at all costs, creating a Dark Ages bloodbath worthy of Kill Bill.
This is a guy movie through and through. If any of this appeals to you, go for it. And, though the Magna Carta is a highly important plot point within Ironclad, don't expect this to be an effective history lesson on it. It just isn't that kind of movie. What it is is an old-fashioned brutal fight with a purpose, reminiscent of Braveheart, Gladiator, and more.