Inspired by a little-known episode in English history, this blood-soaked 13th-century actioner may not have the budget to compete with Hollywood’s historical epics. But, in common with its heroes, it faces big odds with a hardy combo of tenacity and savagery.
In 1215, the megalomaniacal King John (Paul Giamatti), having been forced to sign the Magna Carta, seeks payback on the barons who coerced his endorsement of the power-limiting document. With the pope’s blessing, he aims to reclaim country-wide control.
Standing in his way are a small band of rebels defending Rochester castle (then a pivotal garrison in Southern England) against a siege by John’s Danish army.
Leading the resistance is Brian Cox’s Baron Albany, alongside grizzled mercs Jason Flemyng and Mackenzie Crook and James Purefoy’s templar Knight, Thomas Marshall.
One of the script’s few fictional characters, Marshall also proves less sketchy than the stereotype-edging rest. On top of the mounting threat of annihilation and/or starvation, Marshall is grappling with vows of silence and celibacy, the latter put to the test by Kate Mara’s young baroness Isabel. Alas, such sparks of human interest are often doused, not least by a couple of cheesily obvious sword-metaphors.
Luckily, when it comes to literal blade-brandishing, director Jonathan English nails it.
Despite the budgetary constraints, the aptly named filmmaker orchestrates the ample violence with verve, crafting one of the bloodiest Brit-flicks of recent times. Heads are hacked, bodies split, tongues sliced, hands (and feet) cleaved…
English namechecks both The Vikings and El Cid as influences, but there’s more than a doff of the scabbard to The Alamo and Seven Samurai.
The resulting tone stays the right side of solemn, revelling in the grit and gore. And while Purefoy broods manfully, jaw-clenched throughout, Giamatti plays to the rafters, his John a bug-eyed, scenery-gnawing sadist.
A ripping yarn capably told, this cinematic history lesson may not be wholly factually sound, but scores brownie points for unflinching brutality and ruthless realism.