Ironclad (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1233301/
Action/ Historical drama
Set in early 13th century England. After being forced to sign the Magna Carta, the tyrant King John begins his Church-backed retaking of the country. King John's reneging on the Magna Carta is opposed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the barons behind the Magna Carta. The Archbishop teams a Knight Templar with Lord Albany to bring a ragtag group of mercenaries together to take and hold Rochester castle, stopping King John's advance to retake England, while envoys of the Archbishop negotiate with the French to invade and depose King John.
The film has an incredibly strong cast with Paul Giamatti as King John, James Purefoy as the Templar Thomas Marshal, Brian Cox as Lord Albany, quite a few other recognizable strong supporting cast members. I was pleased to see Vladimir Kulich. He played Buliwyf in The 13th Warrior, one of my favorite films.
The watch-ability of the film does improve by having an awareness of the history surrounding King John, the Magna Carta and its significance. The film does take some liberties with historical accuracy, probably to ratchet up the drama. I have no idea how much of the Magna Carta history is taught in schools any more, I barely remembered anything from my school days. I did the next best thing - took a quick Wikipedia look-see.
In some ways the film has a Seven Samurai feel to it - mostly in that the ragtag group assembled by Albany numbers seven and they face a large opposing force of King John and his Scandinavian mercenaries. But in comparison the writing, character depth, direction and story Seven Samurai (and even its remake The Magnificent Seven) is much stronger and plays out much better.
The cast did great. The locations and sets seemed late Dark Ages enough, as opposed to 'pretty-fied' squalor. The special effects during the fight scenes were good and grisly. Chopping and maces and stuff. Considering a modest budget of $25mil they did quite well.
I thought the film felt less polished when it came to the flow of the film - I don't know if it was editing choices or some of the dialog or what. At times there is voice-over exposition, but it seemed more intrusive than helpful to me for some reason. Thankfully it isn't too often. At times the pace of the film seemed to drag, but then it would pick right back up. The film did lack some in the fleshing out of the mercenary characters collected by Albany, so there is less connection felt with them than one felt with "Seven Samurai" and "The Magnificent Seven" core cast. The film focused more on the major players: the Templar, Albany, and Albany's squire, with bits of big King John attitude and ruthlessness. To be fair there is a little character-type establishment for each one brought along, but after that first meeting there isn't much else to define them.
Despite the film's flaws I still enjoyed it and felt it was worth the watch. Not so much a must-see film, but more a worth watching if you've got a free evening and happen to enjoy medieval themed films. I thought it much better than the latest Robin Hood film. As for learning something about history - it's best to look it up to correct the historical inaccuracies of who was where when.