Features Films

Medieval Movie Review: Ironclad

By James Turner

This movie from 2011 gives an extra-bloody version of a somewhat famous English siege.

Directed, written and produced by Jonathan English, Ironclad is a bloodyhanded and heavily distorted retelling of King John’s siege of Rochester Castle in 1215. Perhaps best described as Seven Samurai meets Robin Hood, Ironclad blends this impressive conceptual pedigree with the muddy, washed out and blood-spattered visual aesthetic common to action films and videogames of its era. In some ways a successor and cultural descendant of The War Lord (1965), which we have previously covered, Ironclad relishes the opportunity to expound upon its own perceptions, or perhaps preconceptions, of the brutality of the period. Neatly structured around the central siege, Ironclad combines the grit and studied cynicism of the Western with a convincing impression of the barefaced heroics, classic set pieces and big stakes of the historical epics of yore.

While only the most generous of viewers would ascribe historical accuracy to Ironclad, buried deep under the layers of distortion and fabrication lovingly added onto the film in the name of spectacle and pulp, the film harbours a spark of historical relevancy. In short, the film’s subject matter is an exceptionally well-chosen and interesting one, the specificity and stakes of which easily lend themselves to adaptation. While almost certainly familiar to readers of this site, Prince Louis of France’s invasion of England in 1216 remains little known amongst members of the general public for whom dissuasions regarding the opposition to King John are likely to include murmurings of Robin Hood.


My own father, who while not a medievalist is far from historically illiterate, had never heard of the incident and had upon first viewing of Ironclad presumed the entire incident was fabricated for dramatic and artistic effect. Prince Louis’ imminent invasion and attempts to use the ongoing baronial rebellion as a means of outrightly replacing John is the catalysing event of the film. Our band of heroes seize control of Rochester Castle as a means of facilitating and supporting the French invasion and Louis’ coming is desperately looked for by the defenders over the course of the gruelling siege around which the majority of the film is structured. Combined with the richness and inherent interest of the source material, this structure lends Ironclad a great deal of cinematic potential.

When faced with overwhelming opposition from England’s aristocratic and baronial classes, King John, played by Paul Giamatti with a manic and intoxicating relish, accedes to their wishes, signing the Magna Carta. Then as soon as the rebels have gone home, dismantling their massive army, he rather opportunistically started prowling around their homes, picking off his enemies one by one. One of John’s unsuspecting victims is playing host to an abbot and his small bodyguard of Knights Templar, one of whom, Marshal, played by the usually boyishly charismatic James Purefoy, is planning to leave the Order. When John’s minions attack, the abbot and the other Templars are killed and the Marshall is left to bring word of the king’s treachery to Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury (Charles Dance).


The archbishop calls upon his friend and ally, Baron William d’Aubigny, and together the three hatch a plan. Langton will write to Prince Louis of France requesting aid, while d’Aubigny and Marshal will seize and hold the strategically vital Rochester Castle, held by the easily biddable tax collector, Reginald de Cornhill (Derek Jacobi). Joining them in this foolhardy task are d’Aubingys naïve young squire (Aneurin Barnard) and three of his former soldiers, each of whom has a distinctive weapon and fighting style (Jason Flemyng, Mackenzie Crook, Rhys Parry Jones). On their way to the castle they pick up a condemned criminal (Jamie Foreman) who is recruited seemingly on the base that it boosts their numbers to an obligatorily magnificent seven. Throwing out the king’s garrison, the party secures Cornhill’s reluctant cooperation as they are besieged by a vindicative John. As this unlikely band strives to repel the king’s frequent attempts to overrun their defences, the party’s most formidable combatant, Marshal, also has to reckon with the mutual attraction blossoming between himself and Cornhill’s wife, Lady Isabel (Kate Mara).

Using a siege as a setting or climatic event has considerable utility and advantage for any action movie. The intense but intermittent nature of violence during siege warfare allows films to balance compelling action scenes with moments of quite contemplation and character interaction, which are normally greatly fuelled by knowledge of the precariousness of their situation and the immediacy of death. While the enclosed nature of depictions of sieges allows the audience time to recognise and bond with members of the cast, it also gives them a chance to identify the geography of the battlefield, an awareness which instils action scenes with a sense of clarity and immediacy which could easily be lost amongst the chaos of war. In all these regards, as we shall explore in greater detail a little later, Ironclad excels. Unfortunately for scholars and enthusiasts of medieval history this clarity and focus often come at the price of historical inaccuracy.

Some of these inaccuracies are understandable results of the filmmaking process. In order to make the defenders of Rochester castle feel truly isolated and to give the film’s many action scenes and attempts at escalade room to breathe, the neighbouring Rochester Cathedral and the urban sprawl that surrounded the castle in the 13th century have been done away with. The film delivers us a tight-knit cast of suitably impressive and stylishly memorable defenders composed of the formerly mute Templar, the Baron, his squire, his mercenary comrades, the handful of men-at-arms who composed the castle’s original garrison and when things get truly dicey, Lady Cornhill and her maid.

Clearly this was a decision undertaken for budgetary and dramatic reasons. Not only is it cheaper to forgo a second horde of teeming extras, but the compactness of the main cast also allows each of the defenders to have their time to shine in terms of the cut and thrust of the film’s action. It also means their losses are felt more keenly as they are slowly whittled down by the attackers as the film piles heroic last stand upon heroic last stand. The historical d’Aubiny was far more popular and far more conscientious when it came to garrisoning the castle against the king’s inevitable counterattack, filling the castle with anywhere between 90 and 150 knights, even before we include the ubiquitous and necessary crossbowmen and sergeants at arms that must surely have accompanied them.


Perhaps less forgivable in terms of historical inaccuracies, but no less dictated by the needs and conventions of cinema, is the way in which the course of the film’s siege of Rochester Castle differs from its historical equivalent. Most glaringly, in the film the siege fails, and our brave cast of rag-tag defenders are able to resist the pernicious will of the king, holding out long enough to see him flee before Prince Louis and the Archbishop.

In fact, the historical siege seems to have concluded rather quicker than the film intimates and in a far less dramatic fashion. Having successfully undermined the castle and caused the partial collapse of the keep, John’s forces continued to bombard the structure with five siege engines while the defenders retreated to its sheltered interior. Within a matter of days following this breach, the garrison was forced to surrender, spurred on by a lack of provisions and the constant pressure placed upon them by the besiegers. There is some primary evidence to suggest that the defenders expelled all excess mouths from the keep, such as non-combatants and the wounded in the immediate aftermath of this breach only for the remaining defenders to surrender definitively soon after.

In contrast, in the film, this breach is followed by a last bloody scramble which culminates in a fight to the death between a templar and a Viking clad in leather trousers. In contrast to the gleeful brutality of the film, the majority of the defenders were spared. The anonymous but historically well-regarded and broadly contemporary chronicler of Barnwell Priory noted that the sole defender to be executed in the aftermath of the siege was a crossbowman who had previously served the king and whose subsequent presence amongst the rebels of Rochester constituted a more personal betrayal. While the William d’Aubigny of the film meets a rather unpleasant fate, being screamed at by Paul Giamatti before having his hands and feet hacked off, the historic Baron d’Aubigny survived the siege and was merely imprisoned by King John.


What makes the future King Louis VIII of France attempts to claim the English throne of such interest is that it remains one of the great ‘what ifs’ of medieval English history. Had Louis succeeded in gaining widespread acknowledgement as King of England, perhaps the Hundred Years’ War would have seen a succession of French kings waging war to secure or reclaim control of England. In the movie Marshal and the small band of surviving defenders greet Prince Louis’ arrival in England with a mixture of relief and joy. The arrival of the French Prince and his army spell the end for John and carries an implicit promise that peace and justice will soon be restored.

This editing of history is necessary from a cinematic storytelling point of view to deliver the audience a measure of catharsis after having vicariously experienced the tribulations and losses of the defenders. Students of history on the other hand will know that Louis’ arrival in 1216 is but another stage in an ongoing cycle of violence. Later that year with John safely dead, many of the Prince’s English allies abandon Louis to rally behind the king’s infant son, Henry. The ugly war that followed culminated in Louis’ defeat in 1217 at the hands of a Marshal entirely different from the protagonist of Ironclad. This was, of course, the venerable Earl William Marshal of Pembroke, the former tourneying legend turned king’s champion who commanded the supporters of young Henry III at the battle of Lincoln.

Other changes to the source material are downright bizarre even in the context of the structural and storytelling needs of a cinematic adaptation. The film’s opening narration tells us that the Knights Templar were a leading force in bringing the cruel excesses of King John’s early reign to heel and took a leading role in the creation of the Magna Carta. Of course, the historic Knights Templars played no such role and did not such thing. While they owned a considerable amount of property within England, they were as an institution primarily concerned with recruitment and financial matters. In fact, the Templars while refraining from intervening directly in the conflict had lent King John a considerable sum of money, much of which must surely have gone to financing his war against the rebels. No doubt their inclusion within the film and its adoption of Marshal, the formerly mute Templar bad-ass as a protagonist is the result of Dan Brown’s lingering effect on pop culture. The taciturn and unflappable Marshal wears the Templar mystique and warrior code in a manner highly reminiscent of the professional gunslinger of classic Westerns.

Another break from history is that the army King John besieges Rochester Castle with is made up of pagan Danes who believe that John can prevail upon the Pope to end his campaign of conversion. In actuality, Denmark was entirely Christian by the end of the eleventh century, as was the majority of Scandinavia. John’s relationship with the Papacy was incredibly fraught and variable with England being placed under a lengthy interdiction as a result of his ongoing disputes with Rome and the cultivated hostility of the majority of English bishops.


In reality, while the majority of the King’s forces at the siege of Rochester were mercenaries, they were from Flanders or Aquitaine. Flanders had long been a source of recruits and soldiers for hire for both John’s father and great-grandfather while his family maintained an association with and some level of control over regions of Aquitaine despite John’s loss of the remainder of their once vast European domains. It seems that the filmmakers’ eagerness to pit Vikings against Knights Templar was driven primarily by the sort of anachronistic and comparative pulp imagery that fuels the likes of For Honor a 2016 video game that pits oddly generic iterations of Vikings, Knights and Samurai against each other in a formless and narrativeless three-way conflict. They were included in short because they are recognisable and cool.

The tagline for Ironclad used throughout the film’s marketing was “Blood Will Run”. In this regard the filmmaker’s word is as good as gold. The film relishes the unstinting and escalating violence which follows each attempt by the King’s forces to storm the castle and places a very early 2010’s emphasis on grit and gore. These scenes are all wonderfully staged and suitably intense, although sometimes it feels a bit like the film is trying to have its cake and eat it by both exulting in sprees of violence and lamenting the terrible consequences it inevitably brings to our cast of heroes. In a sense it’s all supposed to be a spectacle, the characters’ intimate moments no less raw and brutal than their swordplay. The death of Rhys Parry Jones’ character, who I believe was called Big Falchion Guy, is given considerable poignance and depth by the touching scene in which he bids his two young children goodbye, leaving with them instructions on what to do should he fail to return.

Paul Giamatti is an utter delight as John, his teeth gnashing in near incandescent frustration in response to every setback and every challenge to his god-given status. This culminates in the epically unhinged diatribe he delivers to the captured d’Aubigny. It is an impressive commitment to a role that could easily have degenerated into a collection of villainous cliches. Instead Giamatti infuses the part with a wounded soulfulness, creating a portrait of a character who feels like he has been wronged and wounded at every turn of his entire life. While I’m normally a huge fan of James Purefoy, I think the role of Marshal, in a sense a medieval iteration of the ‘Man With No Name’, fails to provide enough for him to really get his teeth into. That being said, he does everything the script asks of him with commendable alacrity and economy. Derek Jacobi is woefully underutilised as the milquetoast and dissimulating Reginald Cornhill, although he has one or two excellent scenes with Kate Mara who visibly chafes in her marriage to a far older man, ultimately unworthy of her courage and dauntless conviction.

All in all, Ironclad is very much a product of its time and genre. While you’re unlikely to find much in the way of historic nuance, it commits itself wholeheartedly to its idiosyncratic vision of a blood-stained medieval action movie instilling the ascetic and sensibilities of 2010’s action movies into a classic format gilded with occasional medieval flourishes.

James Turner has recently completed his doctoral studies at Durham University before which he attended the University of Glasgow. Deeply afraid of numbers and distrustful of counting, his main research interests surround medieval aristocratic culture and identity.

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