'Ironclads' is paper-thin documentary


Face it, any Civil War movie that appears these days in the aftermath of Ken Burns' PBS historical documentary of that name is going to suffer by comparison.

And that is certainly the case with "Ironclads," a well-intentioned, but seriously flawed, made-for-cable movie that premieres tonight at 8 o'clock on the TNT channel.

The subject matter is ripe for such treatment. This is about the historic naval battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac, the first fight between iron-armored ships that made every wooden navy ship obsolete in two hours of a March afternoon almost exactly 129 years ago.

But, after the gritty, moving realism of the archival pictures and voices in Burns' "The Civil War," the Hollywood touches in "Ironclad" appear silly and almost obscene.

Particularly bothersome is a major subplot that seems to be of the made-for-demographics type, meaning an attempt to get women to watch a war movie.

Though a brief search of a few references could turn up no supporting evidence for its historical accuracy, the story seems too outlandish to be totally invented.

Still, if not made up out of whole cloth, clearly it was heavily embroidered. The central character is one Betty Stuart, played by Virginia Madsen, a beautiful Virginia belle who's actually spying for the North, having turned against slavery while going to school in Baltimore, of all places, hardly a hotbed of abolitionism.

Though she sends back information about the Confederates' progress in turning the scuttled Merrimac into the ironclad Virginia, it turns out she has sailor-boy suitors on both sides of the battle and ends up tailoring her spying to suit.

All of this is told in a Romantic-novel, heaving-breasts style that hardly adds to the verisimilitude of the piece.

However, once "Ironclads" gets to the actual battle, it shows an admirable attention to historical detail, with a nice performance by Alex Hyde White as a young southern naval officer.

Indeed, this story is so improbable and dramatic that it needs no enhancing. One day the just-finished Merrimac goes out and devastates the Union ships blockading Norfolk, sinking two. The very next morning -- could it have been scripted better? -- the Monitor shows up.

The film, made on location in Virginia, used both full-size reconstructions and models of the two ships, but it doesn't come close to recreating the dirtiness and confusion of life inside their cramped confines. But it does accurately portray what happened in their fight, two heavyweights slugging it out until both retired from the ring in exhaustion.

Like so much of the South's military in this war, the Merrimac was a product of ingenuity, using materials at hand to gain a significant, but temporary, upper hand.

The Monitor, like so much of American engineering, the work of an immigrant -- the irascible Swede John Ericson, played by Fritz Weaver -- showed the superior technology that would ultimately prove decisive in the Union victory.

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