It is the year 1215 and the rebel barons of England have forced their despised King John to put his royal seal to the Magna Carta, a noble, seminal document that upheld the rights of free men. Yet within months of pledging himself to the great charter, the King reneged on his word and assembled a mercenary army on the south coast of England with the intention of bringing the barons and the country back under his tyrannical rule. Barring his way stood the mighty Rochester castle, a place that would become the symbol of the rebel's momentous struggle for justice and freedom.

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For anyone with an interest in history, this is a film well worth watching. Anachronisms slip in - John 'signing' Magna Carta; the Great Charter itself symbolising a kind of protean democracy; what appears to be a Jacobean table adorning John's tent – to name a few. Yet the film is true to the period and events it portrays and is worthier than most medieval epics in recreating the atmosphere of the time. It outshines Ridley Scott's 'Robin Hood' and bears comparison with 'Kingdom of Heaven'. Most viewers will find it less entertaining than either, if only because the scale is much smaller. The writers have made an effort to do justice to the events and characters portrayed. The film is very instructive in recreating this short siege of Rochester Castle by King John in late 1215. Autumnal mists, watery Medway landscape, mud balanced with medieval technical ingenuity. The whole business of siege is handled very effectively - water and food supply, siege engines, retreat to the keep as the outer bailey is taken, undermining by fire. The battle scenes leave little to the imagination as steel slices through flesh and bone. Probably the bloodiest and rawest depiction of medieval warfare I have seen on film. The script is pretty faithful to the written records which survive. The depiction of John is the best I have seen on film – probably his first film appearance as a mature king not in the context of Robin Hood. Paul Giamatti is given a good script and carries off the role with panache. It was good to hear him at the end of the film justifying his cruelty with an impassioned speech about anointed kings and his absolute right to expect loyalty from his subjects. A nice little story about his father punishing a servant for a crime John had committed. As a child, John had seen his mother and 3 older brothers conspire to overthrow his father, resulting in the long imprisonment of his mother. Against all the odds John had outlived his brothers to become king. Possessing ability and cunning, surviving quarrels with both barons and Church; all this gives John a hinterland deserving a script as good as this. 'Bad', impolitic, lecherous, loser against Phillip 'Augustus' of France he may have been, but John was not the one-dimensional villain the Robin Hood stories have bequeathed us, no mere spawn of the 'Devil's Brood'. Unfortunately, the film does add to the 'Bad' King John myth with a blatant untruth. D'Aubigny (Brian Cox) survived the siege to become a loyal servant of John's infant son, Henry III. It is amusing to see John instructing his chroniclers to omit details of siege events when they are going against him. Amusing because historians have expended much ink debating whether or not John's priestly chroniclers were biased and did him an historical injustice. Going any deeper into the politics of the period would have presented problems. Stephen Langton, both Archbishop of Canterbury and Arch-inspirer of the Charter, is portrayed sympathetically as John's nemesis. The Pope's recent support for John and the stronger hand this gives him against the rebels is explained. Charles Dance, Brian Cox, and Derek Jacobi all bring convincing gravitas to their well-written roles. It is difficult to put words into the mouth of an historical John (as opposed to a mythic 'Robin Hood' John) which are both accurate and understandable to a modern audience. We like democracy and hate absolute rulers. John was a feudal overlord rather than an absolute ruler and his relationship to his barons was as much personal as God-given. This long-dead medieval mind-set is hard to grasp and has nothing to do with modern notions of democracy. Magna Carta is rightly seen as a stepping-stone on that long path, but the events we see here were essentially quarrels among the feudal elite and about Church/State boundaries. Quarrelling was endemic to feudalism and any king needed to be 'robust'. Any further descent into historical explanation would undermine the drama. Some viewers may think it already does. As a balance, the minor characters are entertaining and provide some comic relief. The fictitious romance between the warrior-monk James Purefoy and the lady of the castle will be a plus for some and a minus for others, according to taste. For me it spoiled the film's ending (aimed at the American market perhaps?). A case can be made for it as a device to relieve the dramatic tension of bloody siege and impending doom. James Purefoy's Knight Templar is an interesting extenuation of the Orlando Bloom character in 'Kingdom of Heaven' and Russell Crow's Robin Hood. Sickened by crusading slaughter in the name of God, all three characters feed into our contemporary existential angst about confrontation with Jihadism. Pity about the film's title which conjures up images of battleships rather than knights.

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