Apr 262018

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Warner Brothers, 2011, 121 minutes
Cast: James Purefoy, Brian Cox, Paul Giamatti, Kate Mara, Vladimir Kulich, Derek Jacobi, Charles Dance, Jason Flemying, James Foreman, Mackenzie Crook, Rhys Parry Jones and Aneurin Barnard
Story: Jonathan English
Screenplay: Jonathan English, Erick Kastel and Stephen McDool
Producers: Rick Benattar, Jonathan English and Andrew Curtis
Director: Jonathan English

Historical Background

When Richard I died from complications following the removal of a crossbow bolt from his shoulder on April 6, 1199, his brother John became king of a powerful empire that included England, Normandy, Brittany, Anjou and Aquitaine. Having repeatedly betrayed Richard, John was not the ideal choice, but the alternative was Richard’s twelve-year-old nephew, Arthur of Brittany. Proving to be both a poor diplomat and a poor general, John alienated his supporters, and had lost almost all of his territories in Europe to the king of France by the spring of 1204. Confined to England, John levied heavy taxes to raise an army in order to regain his family’s lands. In particular, he charged outrageous succession fees, essentially an early form of inheritance tax. Already resentful that John’s father Henry and brother Richard had gradually weakened the barons’ independence, conflict between John and his barons was inevitable, heightened by his surprisingly vindictive nature. When John’s attempt to reconquer his lost territories ended in crushing defeat at Bouvines on July 27, 1214, and John returned to England broke and humiliated, his rebellious barons saw their opportunity. Following a brief conflict, the king and the barons met at Runnymede on June 19, 1215 where John swore to uphold the Magna Carta, and the barons renewed their allegiance to John. A mixture of specific regulations related to taxes and a broader limitation on the crown’s power, the Magna Carta was supposed to be a peace treaty but failed because John did not want a peace treaty. Roughly two months later, the barons knew that war was unavoidable but they needed someone with a claim to the throne in order to have an excuse to rebel. No English claimants survived, so they looked across the Channel to Louis, son of King Philip of France.

Plot Summary

Heavy taxes caused the barons to rebel against King John (Paul Giamatti), and intervention by the Templars enabled the barons to force John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. Refusing to accept limits on his power, John recruits Viking mercenaries, led by Tiberius (Vladimir Kulich), by promising to persuade the Pope to withdraw Christian missionaries from Danish lands. An abbot and three Templar knights attempt to prevent John and the Danes from hanging a baron who had forced John to sign the Magna Carta, but only one of the Templars, Thomas Marshal (James Purefoy), escapes. Riding to Canterbury, Marshal explains the situation to Archbishop Stephen Langton (Charles Dance), who decides to invite Prince Louis of France to become king of England. Hoping to buy time, Marshal and Baron William d’Aubigny (Brian Cox) recruit men to hold Rochester Castle to block John from reaching London. Unfortunately, Baron Reginald de Cornhill (Derek Jacobi) only has eleven men-at-arms. Lady Isabel (Kate Mara), the baron’s young wife, immediately falls for the gruff, war-weary Marshal. After both a frontal assault and a bombardment by a trebuchet fail, John decides to starve them out, but they hold out over months.

Historical Accuracy

Ironclad gets the big things right. Fed up with John’s crushing taxes and astonishingly vindictive nature, many barons rebelled and forced him to grant the Magna Carta. However, John refused to accept limits to his power and hired mercenaries, so the barons offered the throne to Prince Louis. That said, the script gets a remarkable number of details wrong.

The opening narration states that John was famous for losing wars with France, levying heavy taxes and sleeping with his barons’ wives. The barons finally rebelled and the three years of war decimated both armies until intervention by the Templars helped to force John to sign the Magna Carta.

It is never explained in the movie, but large-scale battles were actually quite rare in medieval times. Instead, warfare primarily consisted of sieges and burning peasants’ lands to deprive an enemy lord of tax revenue. The initial conflict between the barons and John that resulted in the Magna Carta (the Great Charter in English) was surprisingly brief, since the barons formally rebelled on May 5 and John granted the charter on June 19, roughly six weeks later. While there were Templars in England, and they were elite warriors, they did not play a role in the barons’ rebellion. Furthermore, it seems odd that no other Templars joined Marshal at Rochester to avenge their fellow abbot and monks.

D’Aubigny brings his squire Guy (Aneurin Barnard), and recruits three men who had served with him in France: Beckett (Jason Flemying), Daniel Marks (Mackenzie Crook) and Wulfstan (Rhys Parry Jones). Impressed with the defiance shown by Jedediah Coterall (Jamie Foreman), a man held in stocks, he is recruited as well. Combined with Baron de Cornhill’s eleven men-at-arms, the total number of defenders is less than twenty men, which is much, much smaller than the real garrison. The actual William d’Aubigny led somewhere between 90 to 140 knights, as well as a sizeable number of men-at-arms, to defend Rochester.

Archbishop Langton plays a key role in the movie, backing the rebels despite the threat of excommunication. While the genuine Langton had begun to side with the rebels, he had left England in mid-September to join every other major church official at the Fourth Lateran Council in Rome, just as fighting broke out again and the rebels invited Prince Louis to take the throne. Furthermore, the script fails to state that Rochester officially belonged to Archbishop Langton, managed for him by the sheriff of Kent, Reginald de Cornhill.

Although D’Aubigny constantly babbles about the rights of the common man, the document itself is ignored, which seems strange for a movie about the Magna Carta. During dinner, the young squire tells de Cornhill that they are fighting for the people, but the baron dismisses him as naive, which would seem an ideal opportunity to fill some screen time with a discussion of the Magna Carta. Unfortunately, no such discussion takes place. In fact, no one read one single line of the Magna Carta throughout the entire movie, which is honestly bizarre.

Sooooo, was the Magna Carta intended to protect the rights of the common man? None of the rebel barons were good men concerned about the rights of the common man, they were hard men, accustomed to near-total independence, who resented John’s growing tyranny because it interfered in their own dominance of their lands. While most of the clauses dealt with the barons’ grievances, they claimed to have rebelled to ensure justice for the entire kingdom, not just themselves, therefore they included clauses that benefited Wales, Scotland, London, the merchant class, and even peasants. In particular, Clause 39, which states “no free man shall be taken or imprisoned…” rather than “no baron”, transformed it from a document about barons into a charter of freedom.

Among the numerous errors in the script, the decision to have Danes serve as John’s mercenaries is especially puzzling. Possibly, director Jonathan English added an army of Vikings to the script after Vladimir Kulich agreed to play the mercenaries’ leader. While it is true that John made up for his limited support among the barons by hiring large numbers of foreign mercenaries, they were mainly Flemish and French.

The script overstates the strategic importance of Rochester Castle. In reality, John supervised the siege personally because it had become a symbol of the barons’ rebellion. The defenders’ only hope was relief by a large force of rebels, but the rebels were too few to drive off John’s men. So, the crossbowmen and catapult operators worked in shifts to batter the castle’s walls day and night, while miners dug steadily under the castle with picks. The besiegers broke through part of the outer wall at the end of October, but then had to face the main keep itself. In the end of November, the fat from forty pigs was spread on the wooden supports of the mine underneath the southeast tower and lit on fire, burning the supports and causing the tower to collapse. The surviving defenders retreated to an area inside the castle but they finally surrendered, after almost two months.

Oh, this reminds me of another minor detail that the script got wrong. The real garrison surrendered, unlike the fictional garrison.

Throughout the movie, the characters repeatedly wonder if they can last until the French arrive, but the French prince’s appearance is anti-climatic, and it would be generous to describe the character as a cameo. After briefly nodding hello to the new French king of England, Marshal rides off with Isabel to get some well-deserved loving.

The final narration states that the rebels had won a year later, and John died of dysentery while fleeing for his life. Again, it is true that the real John died of dysentery almost a year after Rochester Castle was surrendered. However, the war had actually gone in his favor for most of that time. Determined to regain control over his kingdom, John sent half of his army to monitor the rebels in London, while he marched north with the remaining men to reclaim rebel territory. John was either determined to teach the rebels a lesson or could not control his troops, since he left a trail of destruction behind him. Men were butchered, women raped and towns burned. News of his atrocities spread, convincing the commanders of castles to surrender, while towns would pay huge ransoms to avoid destruction by the mercenaries.

Victory still eluded John, since three months of destruction had still failed to break the rebels, and he declined to face Louis in battle, after the French prince had landed in England on May 22, 1216. John’s refusal to directly oppose Louis drove formerly loyal barons to abandon him. By late June, two-thirds of English barons were rebels, and the English throne was almost in Louis’ grasp. Until John died of dysentery. The barons were rebelling against John, not in favor of Louis, who had clearly failed to make a great impression on the barons, since most of them promptly switched sides and swore fealty to Henry, John’s nine-year-old son.


An independent film that lacked an American or British distributor, Ironclad’s greatest weakness is not its modest budget, but its deeply flawed script. Director Jonathan English co-wrote the screenplay, and Ironclad was the second of his three movies (Ironclad II was the third). Honestly, the budget is not the greatest weakness, the actors are all good character actors who have all done better work, they just needed a better script and a better director.

Tiberius sounds Roman, not Danish, and the character was a waste of Vladimir Kulich. Great, now I want to watch The Thirteenth Warrior again. Paul Giamatti goes full force to create a repulsive John. In particular, John’s lengthy rant while he chops off the hands and feet of a prisoner has a disturbing intensity. I think Purefoy was uncomfortable playing such a lifeless character. I was certainly uncomfortable watching him.

Actually, almost the entire cast aside from Purefoy and Giamatti changed after the initial financing fell through, and the producers had to scramble to find cash from a variety of investors. Despite the limited budget, the sets are good, especially the castle. The scene of the collapsing tower probably ate up a large portion of the budget but was worth it. The fight scenes are exciting, and were intentionally bloody and visceral to attract American audiences.

Strange as it may seem, the script’s loosely accurate portrayal of the real garrison’s valiant struggle to hold Rochester Castle long enough to be rescued by the French is likely the reason why the film failed. I am not saying that it is a brilliant film, but it is relatively enjoyable, so I was surprised to learn that it was a box office bomb. The Magna Carta is a sense of pride among English, but it would be hard for the average English audience to feel patriotic about a movie where the main characters repeatedly proclaim that they must hold out until Prince Louis of France arrives and becomes king of England. Even though that is exactly what happened.

Viewers of Ironclad may believe that the film is about the fight between King John, who wished to reclaim the absolute power that had been taken from him when he had been forced to sign the Magna Carta, and the barons, who were fighting to preserve the rights of the common people and the nation itself. Cynics may complain that the barons were simply concerned with their own rights, not the rights of the smelly peasants. However, the film is really the struggle of the sex-starved young wife of the castle’s lord to persuade Purefoy’s Marshall, a Templar knight, to break his vow of celibacy and satisfy her carnal needs.

The story of a leader who gathers a group of disillusioned warriors, preferably seven, to defend a place against huge odds is not new in film history, and Ironclad is not a notable addition to the record.

  • kevin hardy

    Excellent coverage of the history behind the movie. I always admire your effort. I found the movie fairly enjoyable in a mindless way. It helped that I am a big fan of Purefoy and had not eaten right before the movie. It is one bloody movie. Like most movies of this subgenre these days. Hell, a guy kills another guy using a severed arm. The best thing about it is it makes it clear that the Magna Carta did not immediately make England a political paradise.

    • historyonfilm

      Thanks Kevin, your opinion means a lot. The film definitely deserves a bigger audience. Sadly, it says something about my non-history film viewing that I was not really bothered by the blood.

  • Philipp Kolle

    I absolutely love this article! I am trying to use it for a school project, but the requirement says “The analysis of a named historian (or historical society)” Does anyone know the name of the author?

    • historyonfilm

      Thanks for the kind words, I am Andrew Allen, and I write everything on the site, should probably update the About page. Hope it helps.