So Ironclad, the 2011 independent film about the Siege of Rochester castle in 1215 was popular enough that in 2014 they released a follow-up, Ironclad: Battle for Blood. About the only person returning is director Jonathan English, and in the grand tradition of sequels, this one is much lower-profile. Where the original had a number of big-name actors (James Purefoy, Paul Giamatti, Charles Dance, and Derek Jacobi in particular), the only well-known actor this time around is Michelle Fairley, who played the ill-fated Catelyn Stark on Game of Thrones. She’s given almost nothing to do as the wife of Gilbert de Vesci, a besieged castle-owner, but she does it marvelously.
The film is set six years after the events of the first film, and at the opposite end of England, on the English border with Scotland. The De Vesci family has held a castle there for three generations, and local Scottish clan leader Maddog (Predrag Bjelac) has decided to attack the castle because the English have a habit of raping and murdering Scottish women, including Maddog’s wife and daughters. So, armed with a limitless supply of generic fantasy Scottish warriors, he lays siege to the castle, trapping Gilbert, his wife Joan, their two daughters Blanche (the whiny but slightly plucky one) and Kate (the hard-working but mostly helpless one), and their young son Hubert (Tom Rhys Harries) inside, along with a large number of generic servants and guards, including Mr. and Mrs. Smith, a couple so forward-thinking that they’ve decided to adopt surnames more than century before anyone else in the British Isles.
But Gilbert realizes they don’t have enough fighting men to hold the castle, so he sends Hubert out in search of his cousin Guy de Lusignan, who happens to be the young Guy the Squire from the first Ironclad, all grown up into a completely different actor (Tom Austen). Guy has been so traumatized by his experiences at Rochester that he’s become a bare-knuckle prize-fighter. But Hubert persuades him to help the family, and along they way back they pick up Berengar, another prize-fighter who owes Guy his life; an executioner named Charles Montserrat Pierrepoint III; and Crazy Mary (Twinnie Lee Moore), a psychotic serial killer that Pierrepoint was supposed to execute for killing a dozen men. They manage to get back into the castle, and from that point on, the film largely follows the script of the first Ironclad: increasingly desperate battles to keep the attackers out, increasing failure to keep the attackers out, the gradual death of most of the named characters in a rain of graphic violence, the suicide of an important character, and a tiny number of emotionally traumatized survivors.
The film has a serious problem with names. The De Vescis all get names appropriate to a family of Norman English extraction. But the name Charles Montserrat Pierrepoint III is just laughably anachronistic, and the only named Scottish character, Maddog, is using a Welsh name, Madoc, because all them Celts are pretty much the same culture anyway. But the biggest problem is Guy (which ought to be pronounced ‘Ghee’, but isn’t) de Lusignan, who is apparently related to a major French family whose members include King Guy de Lusignan of Jerusalem. In the first film, Guy doesn’t get any sort of loconym or family name; he’s just Guy the Squire. But for this film the screenwriter decided to just grab the first historical ‘Guy’ he could find, without pausing to think that naming his character after one of the most famous Crusading figures might be a tad bit unwise. It’s sort of like writing a contemporary film with a character named George and deciding to name him ‘George W. Bush’ without bothering to comment on it.
But that really typifies this film’s approach to its subject. While the first film did a reasonably good job of reproducing the basic events of the Siege of Rochester and its historical context, this film just makes up a minor conflict on the Anglo-Scottish border, with no roots in actually events beyond the general fact that the English and the Scots fought regularly along the border for several hundred years. The de Vescis are fictional, Maddog is fictional, and this Guy de Lusginan is fictional. The film also tosses in a variety of anachronisms; I’ve already mentioned two wildly wrong names. Hubert pays Guy in guineas; he might as well pay him with travelers’ checks, since guineas won’t be minted until the 17th century.
But the biggest anachronism comes at the end of the film, when a voice-over by Hubert tells us that Guy left England to fight in the Hundred Years War. The Hundred Years War won’t start for another 112 years after the time of this film. It’s sort of like setting a film during the American Revolution and telling us that when things were all over George Washington (but not that George Washington) left to fight in the First World War.
Despite the overt historical ineptitude, the plot that mostly rehashes the first film, and the wildly predictable details (Blanche and Guy have a meet-hostile, so you know that by the end of the film they’re going to kiss), the film does offer a few small interesting moments. When Hubert returns with his Seven Samurai four warriors (the budget was small, so they had to trim out the other three warriors), the castle is being attacked, and the heroes have to make a frantic run for the sally port, a small, heavily fortified back door that most castles actually had; the most tense moment in the whole film is whether anyone inside the castle will realize that the heir to the castle is pounding on the sally port before the Scots realize it and kill him and his men.
Later, once they’re inside, Guy and Hubert actually analyze the strategic situation with some intelligence. And Maddog shows a modicum of actual tactical cunning; he tortures a captured Englishman outside the castle as a diversion so a couple of his men (well, one man and one warrior woman) can climb up the chute of the garderobe (the latrine) and get into the castle. When word goes up that someone has gotten into the tower, Guy realizes that this is actually itself a diversion so the Scots can attack the walls while the defenders are distracted by the frantic search of the castle. (At least one actual castle really was captured when soldiers climbed up a garderobe chute, so the film deserves some credit for getting something right.)
But don’t expect too much tactical cunning in the film. Early on, Maddog uses a ballista, but the film promptly forgets that he has it, and for the rest of the film the only siege equipment he has are some ladders. Despite that, his men eventually force their way in, basically by hurling lots of burning tree branches over the walls and starting the whole castle on fire (fires that conveniently go out after the bad guys have gotten inside). He also, as I said, has an unlimited supply of generic Scottish grunts who fight fanatically for no reason other than disliking the English.
The Scots are pretty much straight out of a bad fantasy movie. They dress in random scraps of cloth, fur, leather, and chainmail, with the occasional kilt thrown in, and most of them wear blue face paint. The sleeve-less leather chemise and the chainmail bikini were apparently fashionable in fantasy Scotland in the late 12th century, as the above photo shows. They also include a good number of vicious warrior women, who we know are vicious because they usually look at the camera through their eyebrows, just like Crazy Mary does. And we know she’s crazy because she gets real stabby with guys and then smiles or laughs.
Although Guy does all the important fighting, Hubert is really in many ways the main character. The siege proves his coming of age, and he finds himself driven by his need to honor his father’s death by holding the castle at all costs. He gradually awakens Guy’s sense of family solidarity, which is the major theme of the film. The confusing subtitle (aren’t all battles ‘for blood’ in some sense?) is actually a reference to the family bloodline and the need for the fractured de Vesci clan to hold together in the face of adversity.
Maddog, in contrast, is boringly two-dimensional. He hates the English for events that happen before the film. His son is killed in the first assault on the castle, but this death, which ought to provide him with a suitable motivation to ruin the de Vescis, is barely mentioned again. He also has a penchant for shouting “English!” a lot. Eventually I started to think that perhaps he was yelling at the director for giving him such a thankless role.
However, for all that, the film does offer one genuinely interesting scene, at least genuinely interesting to me, given my interest in depictions of women in film. At one point, young Hubert walks in on Crazy Mary undressed. She shows him her tits before covering up, and then proceeds to rape him. He struggles with her but she overpowers him, pushes him down and mounts him. His struggles slowly get weaker, but at no point in the scene is it clear that he’s enjoying what’s happening. In true cinematic fashion, rape turns to interest, and he’s upset when he later catches Mary bumping uglies with Berengar. But Rhys Harries does a good job mixing attraction with confusion over what has happened between him and Mary. And the inversion of the gender roles in the scene is interesting, primarily because it’s so uncommon.
About the only other feature of interest is the film’s focus, borrowed from the first film, on the psychological strain of the siege. The violence is fairly graphic; at one point we get to watch Gilbert’s shattered arm be surgically amputated with a saw, and several people have their collar bones cleaved through. Guy is already emotionally damaged by the events at Rochester, and this siege just adds to his sense of horror. The young Hubert has to watch the slaughter knowing that he is responsible for the lives of everyone in the castle. And the de Vesci women get their fair share of emotional trauma as well. Kate is mostly incapable of protecting herself, but Blanche finds some strength at a few key moments.
What I find interesting about all that is that modern action films are typically disinterested in the emotional impact of violence. The hero is often given some manpain through the death of his wife/daughter/girlfriend/Shih Tzu at the hands of the villain, but the killings he commits are usually without emotional ramification. However in this film, there is a good deal of mourning for the dead, and repeated slow-motion shots of people dying or lying dead. Guy’s emotional turmoil is not generic manpain but post-traumatic stress disorder. Nor does the film repeat the first Ironclad’s use of the Woman as Prize trope. Guy gets nothing for his suffering except survival and perhaps a renewed sense of closeness to his family.
Ironclad: Battle for Blood is not a particularly good film. In fact, most of the battle scenes are downright boring because they’re so predictable, especially if you’ve seen the first movie. The climactic fight between Guy and Maddog goes on for far too long, and the ending of it is a little puzzling (why does the hulking Scotsman throw one of the crazy Scottish warrior women off the tower?). The few moments of real interest are mostly what happens between the battles. The poor quality of historical research results in some laughably bad mistakes. The villains are entirely borrowed from some low-budget Game of Thrones rip-off and Michelle Fairley is entirely wasted, apart from one nice conversation with Guy. It’s one of those films that’s best watched when you’re doing something else, like that pile of shirts that need to be ironed. But it’s not Dragon Knight, and that at least counts for something.
Want to Know More?
Ironclad: The Battle for Bloodis available from Amazon.