I had a craving for a little 13th century English history (like you do), but wanted it a little cheap; a little, um, dirty. Like when you could get steak, but you want a greasy hamburger. These movies looked like they might fit the bill: they were set at the right time and had about a dozen people from Game of Thrones in them.
Action/Adventure, 121 Minutes, 2011
Way back in the 13th century, King John of England (Paul Giamatti [IMDB]) was a tool. A royal tool. Such a tool, in fact, that his barons rebelled and, with the help of the Knights Templar, defeated him. They forced him to sign the Magna Carta, which limited the power of the king. He promptly ignored it and brought in an army of Danes (who dressed like Scots, for some reason) to help him reclaim the country (that he hadn’t actually lost).
I’m not an expert on history, so the details of the story may elude me. I do have it on good authority (well, Wikipedia) that pretty much everything that happened in this movie… didn’t. Fiction or no, it is a decent ride.
The movie is set around the siege, by the king, of Rochester Castle. It’s held by a small group of mercenaries lead by Baron d’Aubigny (Brian Cox [IMDB]) and a grizzled, veteran templar, Thomas Marshal (James Purefoy [IMDB], who’s getting really good at this sword and armor stuff). The obligatory, but tepid, love interest is provided by the lady of the castle (Kate Mara [IMDB]) and the obligatory, but bland, innocent-to-war by the Baron’s squire, Guy (Aneurin Barnard [IMDB]).
The story is simple and told with sincerity by a quality cast. The setting is solid and the effects, mostly sword wounds and dismemberments, practical and effective. The emotional strings being pulled are obvious, yet effective all the same. King John is a total dick, so screw him. The defenders are noble and funny and sympathetic, so yay for them!
The highlights of the film are the many battle sequences which go to impressive lengths recreating actual medieval combat (with some license on the ease of dismembering people). Fans of medieval sword-fests shouldn’t have much to complain about, but others may find the pacing and lack of dragons frustrating.
“Ironclad: Battle for Blood” on IMDB
Action/Adventure, 108 Minutes, 2014
The sequel moves us North; all the way to the Scottish border a few years after the events of the first film. The new king has yet to cement his power, leaving the border lords to fend for themselves against incursions of Celtic raiders. One such lord, in desperate need, is none other than the uncle of Guy the Squire (played now by Tom Austen [IMDB]), from the first film.
Guy has become bitter and twisted since the tragic events at Rochester and now makes a living as a sellsword and street brawler. When called upon by his family he reluctantly agrees to help and enlists the help of a trio of less-than-savory mercenaries to assist.
This movie isn’t as polished as its predecessor, but in many ways is more approachable. Where the first dealt with medieval politics, this is more universal: the protection of one’s home and family. The cast is less experienced, but everyone acquits themselves well. CGI is used sparingly, mostly to expand the environment. It’s obvious, when used, but not as jarring as it could have been.
The battle sequences are less bombastic and the pacing slower as well. Those that found the first at all tedious will find this much more so. Guy’s angst has a tendency to get old, fast. His character, of course, eventually comes around after spending most of the movie pouting like a teenager going through a particularly cruel puberty.
None of this makes the film especially bad, but none of it makes it any better. Fans of the first should enjoy it well enough, while others likely won’t ever bother with it at all. It’s a solid, if uninspired, movie, with limited appeal.