From Ivanhoe to Ironclad: Excavating Layers of Tradition in a Medieval Film
By Teresa P. Rupp
The Year’s Work in Medievalism, Vol. 32 (2017)
Introduction: It is the winter of 1215. The forces of King John have built a siege tower that they hope will allow them at last to take Rochester Castle, which they have been besieging for weeks. Suddenly, using a catapult they’ve built, the castle’s defenders hurl flaming projectiles at the siege tower, blowing it up. As John rages in frustration, an official, perhaps the royal historian, scribbles in a big book (pre-bound for convenience). John rips the pages out of the book and yells, “Don’t record that!”
By calling into question the trustworthiness of the historical record, this scene, from the 2011 film Ironclad directed by Jonathan English, could be the filmmaker’s pre-emptive strike against those who would criticize a film’s historical accuracy. Curiously, English does not avail himself of the excuse he gave himself. He makes no mention of this scene in the director’s commentary included on the film’s DVD; on the contrary, he insists on the film’s historical accuracy. He states numerous times that the events in Ironclad were “based on fact,” that he wanted to depict what the Middle Ages were “really like.”
Rather than insulating himself from charges of inaccuracy, statements like this invite interrogation of his claim. And in fact, the claim does not hold up; Ironclad contains numerous errors of fact. Such analysis, while important, suggests that only two historical moments matter when considering a historical film: the filmmaker’s time and the time in the past in which the film is set. Interpreting the film then becomes a simple matter of judging how well the movie conveyed the time period.