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.
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.
Speaking of Paul Giamatti, did you always have him in mind for the role of King John?
He came on board at a very early stage. One of the producers of the film, Rick Benattar, had produced another movie called Shoot Em Up, with Clive Owen and Paul. As soon as Rick mentioned him, I thought, the character that Paul played in Sideways, Miles, that nervous, insecure, shy writer, that's actually kind of what you imagine King John to be like.
By this point I’d read King John’s biographies, and all the information about him from the period and he just comes across as being this…. He wasn’t really a villainous man; he was a nervous, insecure, shy man and just unfortunately happened to be born the third son of the two most powerful people of the world at that time, Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, who literally ruled and controlled half of Europe. King John inherited that entire empire and, by the time he was forced to sign the Magna Carta, all that was left of his empire was Southern England. He lost everything; that’s how bad a king or ruler he was, or how weak a ruler he was. So he was a very bitter and twisted man, but I don’t think he was a bad man. He was not suitable for that job, perhaps like many recent modern leaders that we’ve seen in the western world. He was the son of a very successful person, was in a family of very successful people, but didn’t have the same faculties himself, and that was really his problem, his undoing.
I just thought that Paul imbued all those characteristics and brought those to [John], and that the idea of seeing that same sort of character from Sideways but in a Medieval story would be fascinating. I think the moment you were talking about earlier with the catapult, the real reason why that moment works so well is because of Paul’s performance that leads up to it. Paul’s performance and his extraordinary rant is the entire foundation for that ghastly event, the horror of seeing Brian Cox being dismembered and then strapped to this catapult. I always wanted, since the very early stages, to give King John this great soliloquy, kind of like Jack Nicholson’s in A Few Good Men, that classic rant to Tom Cruise. I wanted King John to have a moment like that, which is all about what it is to be a Medieval King, because frankly we couldn’t even imagine what it must be like to inherit that kind of power and to know what to do with it.
I think the question is, How [was she ever attached to the film]??? [Laughs.] I can tell you that I had a lovely cup of coffee with her. That was charming. [Laughs.] That was a highlight. The producer didn’t go and he’s still envious of that. She read the script and was interested but the schedules just didn’t work out.
How would it have changed things? I don’t know. Honestly, to Megan’s credit, I think she would’ve been great, I think she would’ve brought a totally different quality than Kate, who I think did a wonderful job. I think Megan, obviously, she would have brought a more overt sexual quality. She probably would’ve given the film a little bit more profile in the U.S., which would’ve helped. But then, when I met her for a cup of coffee, she was halfway through filming Transformers 2, and clearly her profile is not what it was at the time.
In the film, celibate Templar Knights are rumored to hate women. Meanwhile, James Purefoy's Templar character protects his horse from being eaten during the siege because Knights want their steeds to die an honorable death in battle with them. Was anything sketchy going on between the Templars and their horses?
[Laughs.] I don’t know. The Templar Knights were celibate as a society, and they could take vows of silence. They had pretty extreme lifestyles—for a period. I don’t think people were necessarily retaining those vows or lived by them for their entire lives. What’s the horse all about? They had a very devout attitude towards their horses; the symbol of the Templars is actually two Templars on one horse, two men riding one horse, which in itself is a little bit interesting image…. I mean, what else is there to say?
In your research for this film, what was the most interesting thing that you learned about sieges?
I suppose it’s really like the beginning of psychological warfare. The whole idea of castle was that, when it was surrounded by the enemy, you close the gate, put down the portcullis, lift up the draw bridge, and basically wait it out. Once you did all of that, castles were basically impenetrable. People didn’t have cannons, people didn’t have explosives. But then it became a waiting period, and then it became about starvation, dreadful psychological warfare. It requires a certain degree of subtlety to communicate that on film. There are some of those concepts in the film, not as drawn out as I would like, but they are there.
I found it interesting that the sounds of merriment and scents of food coming from King John’s camp were like instruments of psychological torture.
In real life, they would catapult diseased carcasses, rotting cow carcasses, over the wall to try to create disease within the castle, but also to create a sense of “Here’s food, but you can’t eat it because it’s gone off." One of the amazing things I wanted to show, but didn’t get a chance to, is that in the real Rochester castle, they talk about how the last animal [the people inside] had, a pig or a horse or something, they kept it alive and they tortured it every day, so that the enemy outside the walls would hear the animal being tortured and would imagine that they still have food inside the castle, whereas, in fact, they didn’t.
This stuff is all very complicated and subtle. It’s great stuff to read about, but let’s just catapult Brian Cox against the wall and let people watch that. [Laughs.]
I’ve seen them in movies before, but I can’t get over the longswords. How the hell were people able to carry these things around, much less fight battles with them in cramped spaces?
Yeah, longswords were basically invented to decapitate horses and to dismember the limbs of cavalry people and knights. These swords were so heavy. Even the one that we had made, we had some lightweight ones made of aluminum, and it still weighs about 35 pounds. A full weighted iron one would have been 50, 60, 75 pounds.
Once you got some momentum behind that thing and you’d swing it and hit something at like 30, 40 miles an hour, it’s going to…it would chop an oak table in half. You can only imagine what these things would do to the human body. The ball and chain, and war axes, what those weapons would do to the human body...not because they were very sharp, because I don’t think a lot of the time they were very sharp—after you’ve hit a few objects in a battle, these things are quite blunt—but it’s the fact that they were sharp enough. The weight of these war axes would be like 50, 60 kilograms and you're swinging them at 30 miles per hour at an object, you’re just going to crush anything you hit. Anything you hit, you're just going to crush it. Even if someone’s wearing chain mail or plate iron.
At an early stage, we talked about the violence feeling like a car accident, feeling like watching car accidents. That’s what I really wanted it to be, 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.
Perhaps the highest compliment I could pay you is that your film, and especially the action sequences, looks like it cost way more than the reported $25 million.
I spent as much time and resources as possible on the battles because I wanted the movie to be a battle movie, an action movie set in the period. I didn’t want to fall into the trap of a lot of other European movies where it becomes a period drama. I didn’t want to make Elizabeth, as much as I love Elizabeth and the sequel. I mean, they’re great movies, but I didn’t want to make a period drama set in 13th Century. I wanted to make an action movie; I wanted to make a movie that I would have loved as a 13-year-old boy.