Getting Medieval on that ass should mean something. A brutal period in history, the Medieval Age was filled with some of the most grotesque and cruel violence that man has ever inflicted upon his own kind. And yet the era has frequently been romanticized, depicted in films as a time of chivalrous duels and gentlemanly discourse, or turned into dull, dialogue-laden period pieces that largely ignore the skull-smashing, limb-chopping reality. Fortunately for lovers of carnage and gore, filmmaker Jonathan English’s focus is squarely on action, blood, and guts.
The English director’s new Medieval action flick, Ironclad, tells the story of the bloodshed that occurs after rebel barons force England’s inept and tyrannical ruler King John (Paul Giamatti) to sign the Magna Carta, an historic document that grants rights to freemen and limits the power of the monarchy, in 1215. Unwilling to accept the challenge to his divine right to rule arbitrarily, King John swiftly raises a mercenary army to crush the barons and the country’s first glint of democracy and regain absolute power. To prevent his advance and preserve freedom, a Templar knight (James Purefoy) and a group of rebels and hired swords strategically hold Rochester Castle and endure a long siege, bloody battles, and catapult assaults.
Everything you loved about violent underdog movies like 300 and Braveheart, but with even crazier, previously unseen tactics of sending foes to hell, Ironclad, which hit theaters last week, is one to watch with the boys (sneak some strong drink into the theater and take a swig every time a limb gets detached from a body—we guarantee you too will be torn apart in no time).
Complex caught up with Jonathan English recently to talk about the fine art of catapulting people, sick forms of early psychological and biological warfare, and why sadistic King John wasn't such a bad guy after all.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)
Complex: How did you come to this story?
Jonathan English: In 2006, I visited Rochester Castle (right), which is about 15 miles outside of London, not specifically researching for this project but just because I love castles. As soon as I got there, I was completely taken by the atmosphere of the place; it feels like a building that was built for war, it’s feels like a battleship. The walls are like 15-feet thick; it’s quite impressive, even now.
I started reading about a particular battle, where a small band of rebel men had defended the castle against King John and an army of mercenaries for like six or seven months. At the end of the tour, standing in front of a particular corner of the castle, which is clearly a different color to the rest of the castle, it describes how King John collapsed an entire section of the castle, finally overcame the men inside, and won the battle. I thought that would make an amazing film, kind of like Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven, or The Alamo.
Is this a well-known, patriotic story in England the way that the stand at the Alamo is in the U.S.?
No, what’s really amazing is that nobody knows about this story, it’s a completely forgotten part of history. Most people know the history up to the point of King John signing the Magna Carta, which is a very famous or celebrated document in English history—and American history as well, because it’s the basis of the American Constitution. It was like the first democratic document, where the people of a country were seeking to control the monarch or the ruler of the country and make them answerable to the people. So I certainly, as an English person, learned all about the Magna Carta.
What I didn’t learn, and what nobody really knows, is that the Magna Carta was then actually outlawed by the Roman Catholic Church. It was declared an illegal document, and anybody who had supported it would be excommunicated by the Church, and, with that kind of Papal blessing, King John then raised an army of mercenaries, brought them all over to England and tried to take back control of the country. And so, even after King John had signed the Magna Carta, this incredibly significant historical moment, it still took like another year to finally quell his further uprising, and he then died. [After a period under a French king, Louis] they made King John’s son, Henry III, the new King; he was 14 years old at the time and the first thing they made him do was sign the new Magna Carta. And that’s actually the Magna Carta that still exists to this day. None of the copies that King John signed actually exist anymore.
I didn’t really want it to be like chivalrous swordfighting. I wanted it to feel like you were observing a serious car accident and to have that kind of sickening quality.
A lot of the events of the battle were known—they were recorded at the castle—but also a lot of the events of King John’s life were known. There’s generally quite of lot documentation in writing, contemporary writing of the period by monks and priests, the Chroniclers of their time. The early Middle Ages is entering into a period where there is quite a lot of documentation existing from that period.
One of the really interesting sources was something called the Morgan Bible, which is in the Morgan Library in New York. It is, I think, about 50 full color plate illustrations that were done in 1250, so less than 30 years after our story takes place, but nonetheless in the period. They are considered to be like the Holy Grail of Medieval research because they were illustrations painted in incredible detail by monks in the period and they really show everyday life, but they also show battles, they show fighting and violence in unbelievable graphic detail—I mean, shocking detail: people being dismembered, people being decapitated and then hung, people having their hands and feet chopped off, people being catapulted. Those illustrations were the basis for a lot of the scenes that I wanted to show in the film.
Even as someone who is pretty desensitized to violence, the violence is quite brutal and stunning.
Human beings were cruel to each other in ways that we cannot even imagine. I felt one doesn’t need to show everything; it wouldn’t be palatable for a modern audience to see exactly what was going on all the time, but I wanted to certainly try and give a taste and to paint a more graphic picture than what normally is treated to in some of the larger movies that have been made of the period.
There’s a particular moment, when King John has just had a man’s hands and feet cut off, and then, as if that weren’t enough, he has him catapulted into a wall for a laugh and to make a statement. Apparently John never learned the meaning of the word “overkill.”
[Laughs.] Right, it comes directly from stories that I read at Rochester about things he did, and then these illustrations in the Morgan Bible, and it was like, My God, we have to! I’ve never seen that in a film!
We actually built two working catapults. There’s one that the characters build inside of the castle, the one that King John uses to launch [Brian Cox] against the wall. That was a proper working catapult, but one of the ones that King John’s army had, that was firing rocks at the castles, we built a full-size one of those as well. That was amazing, ’cause I think that was the largest working catapult in England [at the time of filming]. It’s called a Trebuchet, and it was built by the special effects unit for the film. The throwing arm was something like 18 feet long. We never tested the heaviest weight that it could throw, but we were throwing fairly large weights from it, that were actually going right across the river. It was a very impressive contraption, and to actually have Paul Giamatti standing in front of that thing, and hear the sound that it makes was amazing, absolutely amazing.