B movies are, in their own way, more revealing about a culture than blockbusters or independent critical favorites. A major Hollywood production can astonish viewers with special effects, star power, and explosions, so it doesn’t matter if the story makes no sense. Art house films compensate for their small budget with lots of exposition and explanation so you at least know what is going on, even if you are bored to tears by it.
The kind of movie you dig out of a Redbox has a more difficult challenge. It has to have enough action to keep the average person entertained but also have a more or less coherent plot so the drunk guy who bought it for three dollars can follow what’s going on. The result is that B movies have to fall back on what Thomas Friedman called a “super story,” a larger narrative that we all already know and comfortably understand. B movies are important because they show what our culture takes for granted.
Ironclad is an unusual example of a second string, straight to DVD movie featuring a first rate cast. Plagued by production and finance problems and the dropout of one of its major stars (Megan Fox), the film struggled to the finish line and met with critical indifference. Nonetheless, it features Golden Globe winner and John Adams star Paul Giamatti, Shakespearean actor and Troy veteran Brian Cox, Mackenzie Crook of Pirates of the Caribbean, and stars James Purefoy, the fearsome Mark Antony of HBO’s Rome. Even more interesting, the film was marketed as a blood and guts medieval epic but has political pretensions, telling the story of the Magna Carta and the English quest for “freedom.”
The film is easy to follow. The evil King John, “the most villainous of England’s monarchs,” is forced to sign the Magna Carta by the English people, who for some reason are helped by the Knights Templar. Immediately going back on his word, King John brings an army of pagan Danish mercenaries to help him reassert his authority. A traveling Templar named Thomas Marshall, his comrades, and his priestly companion are then waylaid by the King’s forces and only Purefoy’s character survives. Joining forces with the Baron William d’Aubigny and a motley collection of soldiers, the small group holds out against the forces of the king at Rochester Castle until help comes. Many, many, many people get ripped apart by swords, axes, hammers, and various other implements of destruction in gory fashion. We all learn about freedom. The end.
So much for the plot, but there are several narrative devices familiar from our degraded culture that are hammered home again and again, with hardly a hint of subtlety. First is the evil of the Crusades and European knights in general. Though the promotional materials features the Templar with sword and cross righteously preparing for battle, it’s no surprise that the Order is seen as villainous. It’s suggested that Marshall has returned from the Crusades and, in the tradition of Kingdom of Heaven, he is ashamed and disgusted of his actions, as is everyone else. A naive squire asks him if it is true what the Templar swords say, “blessed and omnipotent is the warrior of Christ,” and Marshall storms off. One of the Baron’s followers growls at Marshall, “I’ve seen what your holy brothers have done.”
What exactly did he do? We’re never told, but we don’t have to be. As a culture, we have already accepted the idea that the Crusades are a just another aspect of the uniquely evil nature of Western man.
Similarly, the Church is evil. Charles Dance (before he was Tywin Lannister) portrays a virtuous Cardinal who sides with the rebellion against the king. Unfortunately, the church is backing King John and is going to excommunicate the Cardinal for siding with the people. What concrete support does the Papacy offer? Well, the Pope has agreed not to Christianize the Danish, allowing their leader “Captain Tiberius” (professional Aryan Vladimir Kulich of The 13th Warrior and “Ulfric Stormcloak” from Skyrim) to lead his Viking warriors in a fight for freedom.
At this point, you might be protesting that by 1215, Denmark had already been Christian for two centuries, that “Captain Tiberius” is a pretty weird name for a Nordic Viking chief, and that it makes no sense for the head of the Roman Catholic Church to support paganism just to help King John. Again, though, from the point of view of a typical person, this actually does make sense. The Church is evil and repressive, just like kings and other people who are undemocratic. Templars, Crusaders, and especially Nordic warriors are simply proto-Nazis who like killing for the hell of it. The heroes are those people who rebel against their own institutions, like the virtuous Cardinal and Purefoy’s Marshall.
You may notice on the movie poster a determined, square jawed woman holding a mace. This would be Isabel (Kate Mara) a proto-feminist held down by those repressed pricks who think women shouldn’t be swinging broadswords or coupling under their husband’s roof with warrior monks sworn to chastity. Her job is to shoot smoldering looks at Marshall and then taunt him throughout the film so he can be liberated from his repressive Order. For example, after abandoning the care of a severely wounded man so she can flirt with Marshall, she manages to obtain his name and smirks “Did that break some holy vow?”
Purefoy spends most of the movie glowering and grinding his teeth but manages to display sincere anguish as a Templar trying to uphold his oaths in the face of this woman. Isabel meanwhile seems completely oblivious to the horrific carnage surrounding her as long as she can eventually fornicate. It gradually becomes ludicrous. Purefoy is praying in front of an altar; Isabel decides it’s the perfect time to flash some cleavage and question his oaths. Eventually she just comes right out with it and screeches, “Damn your Templar vows!” This is pretty blatant for closing time at a Beltway open bar, but in the Middle Ages? Marshall responds that it is those very vows and his Order that have made him into the warrior that will hold the castle.
Eventually, Isabel manages to break Marshall, with lots of moaning, hiking up her skirt, writhing and touching that seems more embarrassing than sexy. When they finally kiss, the chorus sings as our repressed heroes finally stick it to that stupid God and his stupid knightly orders. Isabel spells it out afterward, “stop hiding behind vows and commitments . . . it was the Church . . . it was the Templars that made you kill! That makes you resist your desires now . . . I am not a sin!”
Of course, violating the vows of a holy order and having adulterous sex is about as close to a pure definition of sin as it gets, but not in the modern context. Sin is defined as repression, hierarchy, and discrimination, particularity in matters of sexuality. We witness a near perfect reversal – it is actually resisting desire that is the sin.
Inequality is another violation of the new God’s law, so when the evil blond villains finally break in, Isabel manages to get one or two Northmen with a mace, all while holding her skirt with the other hand. Seems legit. Her husband, who has his castle destroyed and all his people killed, eventually hangs himself in hopeless despair, but screw that guy – he was old, repressed, and boring.
Marriage vows and holy oaths are lame, but there are still some things sacred in the world – “freedom.” The Magna Carta, which defended the rights of the feudal barons is magically transformed into a democratic constitution which will bring the mighty low and create equality for all. At one point, the naive squire Guy, having been bloodied after the long siege and despondent at the prospect of defeat, retreats into the chapel. Turning his back on the altar, he stares at the Magna Carter reverently, the new Holy Scripture. Viewers can be trusted to assume that the prologue is something akin to “When in the course of human events . . .” but actually the immortal first lines are – “JOHN, by the grace of God King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and Count of Anjou, to his archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, barons, justices, foresters, sheriffs, stewards, servants, and to all his officials and loyal subjects, Greeting.” Stirring stuff.
The arranged marriage of Isabel and her prudish older husband for material gain will also be a thing of the past, as Magna Carta took a bold stand for equality with clauses like “Heirs may be given in marriage, but not to someone of lower social standing. Before a marriage takes place, it shall be made known to the heir’s next-of-kin.” Oh wait. Nevermind.
Nonetheless, the Great Charter motivates the Baron d’Aubigny and his democratic friends throughout the film. We know they are good guys because they curse, drink, and rut, and scream obscenities at the king during negotiations. There are unironic pronouncements of, “It’s the people’s castle now!” and “We are for the people!” I suppose we should be grateful that one of our lovable rogues isn’t a token minority like Morgan Freedman from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, to lecture the palefaces on how ignorant they all are.
Nonetheless, royal absolutism gets its say eventually. After being captured, the Baron is brought before King John. Defiant, the Baron cries that the king has betrayed his office and even betrayed God. Paul Giamatti’s response is meant to be unhinged but it actually makes more sense than anything else anyone says in the film.
Though religion, the Church, Christian morality, and all the rest is either mocked, ignored, or eventually betrayed by our heroes during the film, in his final moments the Baron justifies his case in the name of God. In rebuttal, the King rightly points out that he is, after all, “God’s right hand,” born a king, king “by the Grace of God” as recognized even within Magna Carta. The Baron can’t have it both ways. Nor is the Baron some champion of the people – his sudden democratic sentiments would probably be unexpected news to his serfs. In the end, he’s just a “wool merchant” protecting his interests while the Crown, and the Crown alone, has the responsibility of protecting the people and defining the state.
Clearly, we’re over-analyzing Ironclad here, but even this insane rant contains more sound political theory than any of the clichés we get over the course of two hours. More importantly, notice the words that are to be identified with the villain – terms like “order,” “purity,” “faith,” and “noble.” The idea that these kinds of justifications for authority are inherently corrupt is a theme we see in almost every film from V for Vendetta to The King’s Speech. It’s not surprising that Paul Giamatti characterized his King John as “Hitler, basically.” Far better for authority to be grounded in the hoary old slogans of Liberté, égalité, fraternité, and its endless list of dumbed down permutations.
The final meaning of all this is revealed in the fate of Thomas Marshall. As he admits, his Order has made him what he is. However, in the end he will use the skills and training instilled in him by the Knights to essentially war against his past self. He will do as Isabel constantly hectors him to do, and fight to become the man he was before he was a Templar. As in Thor, the hero’s extraordinary nature will be exploited to turn him into an ordinary man.
Marshall is able to defeat the pagan leader in the one on one duel that is conveniently arranged, his sword symbolically breaking in the process. Tywin Lannister, er, the Cardinal, rides to the rescue with a relief force and relieves Marshall of his vows. Disarmed, reduced to just another peasant, Marshall rides off with Isabel. Who knows whether she will still find him desirable now that he’s been stripped of everything that made him what he is.
What makes the underlying narrative dangerous is that the movie is simply fun to watch, especially for viewers eager to see the gore, slaughter, and fury of medieval warfare. Here the movie doesn’t disappoint – this isn’t clean, stylized violence. Bones poke out of gaping wounds, faces are smashed in, swords rip bodies apart. This is a simple, exciting movie for guys who want to see some blood and guts without having to think too much.
But you can’t do it. You don’t get even get to watch some brain dead movie about knights and war without being preached at about democracy, feminism, and the uniquely evil nature of traditional Europe. We can’t see a movie about anything in the past without it being carefully molded into another caricatured and factually inaccurate chapter in the endless story of the march towards Equality. We’re informed at the end that the castle still stands, and “so too does the noble dream that was Magna Carta.” Even our mediocre action movies have to be washed down with liberal cant. The Whig Theory of History infects even the Redbox.
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