The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.

Written by John Bleasdale.

Photo from the article It all started with Braveheart (1995), I suppose. Mel Gibson’s William Wallace biopic gave us Mad Max in a kilt, madly inspired pre-battle oration, the lovingly rendered gruesome period violence, and two armies clashing in the middle of a field. Released the same year, Rob Roy, like Braveheart, also featured Brian Cox (a name that comes up again and again in these films) in a small part, but in the end failed to do much, being a more conventional costume drama without the sweeping battle scenes, and two more armies clashing in a field. Then in 2000 Gladiator seemed to shrug off worthy, Oscar-like pretensions and enact the conventions as just straightforward fun. Characters gruffly muttered things in RSC accents, Oliver Reed took the part that Brian Cox should have nailed, armies clashed together in a field, and Oscars were won anyway. Most importantly, lots of money was made and Russell Crowe achieved a stardom more fitting to his ego. The revival of the historical epic seemed complete, and the only way to go was down.

In 2004 Troy and Alexander eagerly seized the baton and plummeted. Brain Cox was once more installed in Troy, but the film was a mess, aided by enthusiastic CGI silliness that must have looked old in preproduction. Hilariously, Oliver Stone insisted the Macedonians should not speak with RSC accents and gave the viewers some slim entertainment value in hearing Val Kilmer’s Oirish imprecations to Colin Farrell to get on his harse. The film fell flat and big-budget historical fluff was looking decidedly dodgy, appearing particularly limp beside the increasingly popular fantasy franchises, which could also provide the two-armies-clashing-in-a-field shots.

Nowadays, epic just isn’t that epic anymore. Valhalla Rising (2009), Centurion (2010), The Eagle (2011), and now Ironclad are not exactly low-budget, but they are definitely not high-rollers either, often using CGI to cover a host of sins. Valhalla Rising is at least pleasingly bonkers and, in so being, quite original. The rest tend to be Ridley Scott wannabes, complete with a sub-Hans Zimmer score of chunky percussion and a mix of Celtic and choral mythering, a decided lack of humour, and Ridley Scott snow. Ridley Scott snow is the kind of snow that goes up rather than down, because of course it isn’t real snow, it’s burnt paper which floats about in all directions but down. Even Ridley Scott, in fact, is looking increasingly like a Ridley Scott wannabe. Kingdom of Heaven (2005) could have been a brilliant film, despite the snow, if only it hadn’t been for the actor-shaped hole that inhabited its centre in the form of Orlando Bloom. Robin Hood(2010) was so turgid and irritating on almost every level that even Russell Crowe seemed to be beginning to feel twinges of self-doubt. Like many films that had gleefully yelled ‘charge!’ after the success of Gladiator, it felt as if the property masters and costumers had been hired and completed their creations after years of meticulous research, thousands of extras had been bussed to a location in Ireland, snow and fog machines had been set on maximum, only for the director to glance down and realise they had forgotten to write a script. Something was drummed up in the coffee break and the production went ahead.

In the 1988 Willem Dafoe/Gregory Hines film Saigon there is a scene with a memorable piece of dialogue delivered by Fred Ward (as Dix) which pertains and is worth quoting in full: “You're floatin’ in a big sea of shit and instead of just stayin’ in the boat, no, you reach out and you pick up this one little turd and you say “This turd, well this turd pisses me off. I’m gonna do somethin’ about THIS turd!” Well, as far as my relationship with the contemporary historical epic goes, Ironclad is that turd.

Where to begin?

Okay, Paul Giamatti has a stupid wig. He glares popeyed and does that sort of clever/angry villain that you’re supposed to secretly quite like. Think Alan Rickman in Die Hard (1988). Except that here he offers pure ham. Perhaps anticipating his ultimate demise by dysentery, his rant at Brian Cox is particularly offensive, giving us a sample of verbal diarrhoea. But along with his performance there’s just the numbskullery of his character in the first place. His threats are so confusing that his Danish henchman looks on uncertainly, not sure whether he’s been fired. And his back story is equally thick-witted. Listen to the story he tells about stolen peaches, his father and a serving wench, and try to work out what the point is. And by the way he threatens the Danish mercenary Tiberius with Christianization, despite the fact Denmark had been completely Christian for the last hundred odd years. This inaccuracy would not have been too much of a problem if the film’s narration hadn’t insisted on DaVinci-Code-ing us with the claim it was going to tell us what really happened.

What is this obsession with ‘what really happened’ anyway? King Arthur (2004) was supposed be about who King Arthur really was; Robin Hood likewise made claims to authenticity, but both the films still stink and none of the claims stand up to the least bit of scrutiny. Roland Emmerich’s upcoming Shakespeare conspiracy theory story Anonymous looks as if it may take this into realms so godawful that I don’t want to even start thinking about it until I absolutely have to. Incidentally, Ironclad might well have wanted to think again about its valorisation of those hypocritical thugs, the Knights Templar, after recent events in Norway, but that presupposes they thought in the first place.

More irritating than the confused chronology and the odd anachronism (nice to see medieval dentistry doing so well) is the overall selling of the eternal present: this idea that basically there is no fundamental difference between now and then. And so we have the proto-feminism of the feisty woman, Maid Marian, Kiera Knightly and here Lady Isabel, who earns her grrrl power spurs by having a drink, leering at the Templar, Marshall (James Purefoy), and dismissing her husband (Derek Jacobi) with a glib homophobia worthy of a Mel Gibson picture. She doesn’t actually do any fighting like Kiera, or tool up as a knight, the way Cate Blanchett ineptly and hilariously does. And her seduction of Marshall does actually lead to a disastrous turn of events in terms of the siege. So... what exactly is the message here? The t’was-ever-so-ness of these narratives can almost always be seen in the focus-group-friendly politics of the main characters who are ever fighting for ‘freedom’. Do you remember the end of 300 (2007) in which the Queen wins over the Spartan parliament with an impassioned speech about freedom? That’s right. Sparta: the cradle of Western democracy.

Maybe I’m taking this all too seriously. But the badness here isn’t passive. It doesn’t sit there being bad, in a take-me-or-leave-me way. It actually assaults you, insults you. We are supposed to be wryly amused at the cloth-eared banter; we are supposed to be thrilled that Gareth from The Office is an arrow-firing killing machine, and moved when Brian Cox gets catapulted into a wall after having his hands and feet chopped off. And what about the hero shot? Marshall, emerging from his post-coital languor to find that the castle has been overrun while he was supposed to be standing guard, armours up, gets on a horse, charges, falls off his horse, starts getting seven shades kicked out of him, gets his foot caught in the stirrup and is dragged into the castle and safety. Hooray. And we’re supposed to cheer this klutz who decides maybe love is more important than fighting, while facing a besieging host?

It’s too much. It’s one turd too much. But I don’t want to be entirely negative, so here are some helpful suggestions.

1. A year of no violent historical epics.

2. Calm down with the CGI. For Heaven’s sake.

3. Please, Cox, read the script before you say yes.

4. Mr Giamatti, when someone gives you a wig, don’t just stride off towards the camera. Have look in the mirror. Ask yourself a simple question: is it possible for me to give any kind of performance while wearing such a creature?

This Alternate Take was published on August 10, 2011.

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