Ironclad: Battle for Blood


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Ironclad: Battle For Blood
"It's bloody, it's brutal, it's sometimes hard to follow..."

One of the rules of cinema-going, if one wishes to enjoy action films, is never to know too much about the subjects they use as background. Historical inaccuracies, in particular, are so commonplace that we take them for granted and emphasis is placed on the viewer's supposed duty to suspend disbelief rather than the filmmaker's duty to try and get it right in the first place. Ironclad: Battle For Blood is a rare exception to this, and upon watching it one might begin to sympathise with those who falsify history deliberately.

One common criticism of films set in the dark ages and before is that they're too sanitised - thematically as well as aesthetically. This film is reminiscent of Valhalla Rising in that it makes a conscious effort to kick in the other direction and tell it like it was. The same is true of its approach to battle scenes, which eschew fancy swordplay in favour of hewing, hacking a dropping things on people. It's bloody, it's brutal, it's sometimes hard to follow, but it's a lot easier to understand the motivations of the two opposing sets of characters, rooted as they are in fear and the desire to put an end to the fighting once and for all.

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A vague sequel to 2011's Ironclad but without the benefit of Brian Cox, the film focuses on young Hubert (Tom Rhys Harries), set to inherit the family castle and estates, whose father's ailing health forces him to seek the aid of his cousin in defeating the Celts who intermittently besiege it. Said cousin (Tom Austen) has recently returned from the Crusades and is suffering the kind of trauma and self-hatred popularly assumed not to have affected soldiers before World War One. The last thing he really wants to do is go to war again but, like many a soldier, he knows only one way to make money. He's also motivated - more grudgingly - by a longstanding fondness for Hubert's sister. So he gathers a small group of fellow mercenaries and they go to the rescue, 13th Warrior-style. Despite their skill (at least in comparison to hastily trained peasants), the task that lies ahead will not be a simple one.

In keeping with the film's realist approach, there are no clever tactics or concomitant brilliant set pieces here. The Celts (whose own grievances get a fair, albeit brief, airing) attack in random waves, fight until they get tired, and then go home again, even when fighting for just a bit longer might bring them final victory. The defenders do little to take advantage of the castle's inbuilt defences and leave themselves with a number of entirely unnecessary weaknesses. This can be frustrating to watch but then again, it's fully supported by the historical record - this is how real people behave. Sadly, the actors lack the charisma necessary to really keep us rooting for them despite their clumsiness, so the film never quite succeeds as it might have done.

One nice touch here is the presence of women on both sides of the battle lines, both in traditional but often elided support roles (e.g. putting out fires) and as warriors. It's the more effective because it's done with little fuss; other characters with military experience take it for granted. Encountering a self-possessed woman for the first time triggers a coming of age process in Hubert, highlighting his youthfulness and emotional vulnerability as he tries to handle the brutal situation unfolding around him.

Although the acting is, for the most part, uninspired, the direction pedestrian and the special effects poor, there's actually a lot to recommend this film. Its biggest weakness is that it doesn't deliver the kind of narrative most cinemagoers want, but this is also a large part of what makes it deserving of attention. A real effort has gone into getting this right. It's a bloody slice of history, served fresh.

Reviewed on: 20 Jun 2014
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A young nobleman asks his mercenary cousin to help defend the family fortress from marauding Celts.

Director: Jonathan English

Writer: Jonathan English, Stephen McDool

Starring: Tom Austen, Tom Rhys Harries, Twinnie Lee Moore, David Rintoul, Michelle Fairley, Roxanne McKee, Danny Webb

Year: 2014

Runtime: 108 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


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