In the recent British comedy "The Trip," Steve Coogan laments that he, as a comic actor, has never been given the chance to star in a costume drama. He improvises a pre-battle speech at the hearth: "Gentlemen to bed. We rise tomorrow at 10ish."
"Ironclad" would have served Coogan's dreams perfectly, and, boy, could the film have used his vitality.
Cynically conjured as a kind of medieval "300," "Ironclad" is an utterly joyless exercise in blood and dirt. It's set amid the post-Magna Carta tumult of 1215 England, where King John (Paul Giamatti) is on a murderous rampage, out for vengeance on those who signed the famous charter.
King John is attempting to reassert control over his country, which has moved to limit his power. In southeast England, a band of rebels endeavor to stop him at Rochester, where a gray monolith of a castle presides.
Here the film gathers its characters, and here it stops.
Baron Albany (Brian Cox) is among the barons who have countered the cruel king by forcing him to sign the Magna Carta. With King John backed by Danish mercenaries, the barons, aided by the Knights Templar (the Catholic order of Crusade-fighting knights), opt to confront him before he gets to London.
In "Seven Samurai" style, Albany collects a band of hardened warriors for the fight. Chief among them is the Templar Thomas Marshall (James Purefoy, who played Mark Antony in "Rome"), whose bloodlust has been much dimmed by the Crusades. Soon after we meet him, he abandons his vow of silence, but all the words he speaks in the film come reluctantly and with foreboding for war's inhumanity.
Inside the castle is the aging Reginald de Cornhill (Derek Jacobi), who's angered that his home should be turned into a battlefield for a cause he doesn't believe in. His young, frustrated wife, Lady Isabel (Kate Mara), provides one of the more forced intrusions of sexuality you'll ever see in a film that is 99.8 percent men and mud and 0.2 percent women.
The rebels are outnumbered 1,000 to 20, a brave ratio that nevertheless falls well shy on the "300" Courage-O-Meter. (It was 300 vs. 1 million in "300.")
In the ensuing fight, there is much blood-spilling. There is horse-eating and live pig-burning. There is beheading, behanding, befooting and even betonguing.
Director Jonathan English, in his third feature film following the likes of "Minotaur," naturally uses a lot of handheld camerawork in monochrome shades to highlight the ugliness of the affair.
With blond hair and a barbarian headband, Giamatti appears something like the less handsome medieval brother of Bjorn Borg. The most appealing draw of "Ironclad" is to see the fine actor in full tyrant flight.
He does get a decent, furious speech in ("I am the blood. I am God's right-hand man."), but Giamatti is mostly left alone on the outside of the castle while the action swirls inside. If nothing else, he's now one of few actors to have played historical figures central to the Magna Carta and what's often considered its heirs, the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence (as John Adams).
Much of "Ironclad" is viewed through a contemporary lens, exaggerating the 13th century battle cry of freedom and common law. This history, in the script by English, Erick Kastel and Stephen McDool, is far from accurate.
The rebelling barons were not defenders of liberty, but instead used the Magna Carta as a political bargaining chip. It would be centuries before the charter (which was much altered over the years) came to have any real effect.
Yes, it may be hard to believe, but 20 men did not win the rights of man in a pig-burning battle in 13th century Rochester.
"Ironclad," an ARC Entertainment release, is rated R for strong graphic brutal battle sequences, and brief nudity. Running time: 120 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.