Thursday, December 2, 2010

Centurion gripping but suffers from skeletal characters

UPDATE: "Centurion" is now available for instant download from Netflix!

I finally had a chance to watch "Centurion" about the fate of the fabled Legio IX Hispana produced in 2009 but never formally released here in the US.  I was finally able to get it from Netflix.

Modern recostruction of lorica segmentataImage via Wikipedia
Modern reconstruction of lorica segmentata armor
I've been so starved for historical ancient epics lately that I was more than willing to overlook many historical inconsistencies and just enjoy the action.  I had read initially that this film was going to be some modern interpretation of the legend of the Ninth and by that I feared film producers were going to forgo costuming and tell the story in a modern setting.  I guess I've been to too many Shakespearean presentations lately with characters like MacBeth dressed in 20th century garb which has really turned me off.   But, happily, I was able to watch my courageous Romans in their full panoply of lorica segmentata!

Bust of the Roman Emperor Domitian 1st century...Image by mharrsch via Flickr
The Roman Emperor Domitian
Of course the Roman governor, Agricola, was presented in a less than favorable light.  Historically, Agricola was recalled to Rome by Emperor Domitian in 85 CE and died a private citizen in 93 CE so he was dead and incinerated long before the film's action takes place in 117 CE.  But the film does raise questions that have plagued historians about the truth of some of the claims made about Agricola's victories in Scotland by his son-in-law Tacitus.  So we'll cut the film a little slack for that.

The fictional events seem to be related to the aftermath of the Battle of Mons Graupius in which Agricola's troops defeated Caledonii led by the revered warrior Calgacus.  Calgacus is the leader who gave us (via Tacitus in his biography of Agricola) the famous paraphrased quote "they make a desert and call it peace."

Whenever I consider the origin of this war and the necessities of our position, I have a sure confidence that this day, and this union of yours, will be the beginning of freedom to the whole of Britain. To all of us slavery is a thing unknown; there are no lands beyond us, and even the sea is not safe, menaced as we are by a Roman fleet. And thus in war and battle, in which the brave find glory, even the coward will find safety. Former contests, in which, with varying fortune, the Romans were resisted, still left in us a last hope of succour, inasmuch as being the most renowned nation of Britain, dwelling in the very heart of the country, and out of sight of the shores of the conquered, we could keep even our eyes unpolluted by the contagion of slavery. To us who dwell on the uttermost confines of the earth and of freedom, this remote sanctuary of Britain's glory has up to this time been a defence. Now, however, the furthest limits of Britain are thrown open, and the unknown always passes for the marvellous. But there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace. - Calgacus, in Agricola by Tacitus.
In the film the Caledonii war leader is Gorlacon, played by Ulrich Thomsen.  Gorlacon, is, as far as I can tell, purely fictional and actually has very little screen time.

The real villain(ess) is the Brigantes turn-coat Etain, a female warrior essentially presented as hatred incarnate whose family was raped and slaughtered by the Romans and whose tongue was cut out, rendering her mute.  Now, normally we would have at least some sympathy for her because of all she had endured but the producers gave us no flashbacks to emphasize her tragic background and no scenes to indicate she possessed any other aspects to her character except singleminded thoughts of butchery so you can't help but hope the Romans will make an end to her, preferably with as much brutality as she herself demonstrates.

The director used the scissors too liberally on the character of the main hero too, Centurion Quintus Dias, played by Michael Fassbender.  We get very little background information on him but we can at least admire his tenacity for escaping a brutal massacre at Inchtuthil - a real Roman fortress on the bank of the River Tay southwest of Blairgowrie, Perth and Kinross, Scotland, built as an advanced headquarters for Agricola's campaigns against the Caledonian tribes.  Centurion Dias would have been a member of the Legion XX Valeria Victrix which occupied the fort until it was withdrawn to replace Legio II Adiutrix in Deva (Chester) after that legion was recalled to Moesia to fight the Dacians.  The evacuation of Inchtuthil, like the recall of Agricola, has been traditionally dated to 85-86 CE too, leading me to wonder again why the filmmakers set the date of their story to 117 CE.  Recent archaeology does point to the fort's occupation longer than previously thought, though, so again I must cut the filmmakers a little slack.

What little characterization the film possessed was awarded to Titus Flavius Virilus, played by Dominic West, the Ninth's brawling, up-from-the-ranks commander.  Although his scenes were brief and he died in fairly short order, I liked him.

I also liked the scenes of the Ninth's ambush, with the Caledonians rolling flaming boulders upon the Romans while the legion tried desperately to maintain defensive formations.  Virilus was not lulled into complacency by his female Brigantes "guide" and his men were marching in good order - not like those of Publius Quintilius Varus in the Teutoburg Forest, so I was gratified by that.

As the Roman survivors first attempt to free their captured commander then flee their pursuers, the film devolves into a formulaic chase movie where more and more survivors succumb to their ever relentless enemies.  When they finally turn and fight at an abandoned Roman fort, I get frustrated because the Romans should cut the head off the snake by targeting Etain, the most skilled tracker/warrior among the Calendonii.  Instead she is one of the last to meet her fate.   

Still, the film made enough of an effort to portray the period accurately that I will add it to my collection and for Roman military buffs, I would recommend watching it at least once. 

The other film about the Ninth Legion, directed by Academy Award winner Kevin MacDonald,  is not set for release until February 2011, but it's synopsis makes it sound much more like the novel "Eagle of the Ninth" by one of my favorite authors, the late Rosemary Sutcliff.

In 140 AD, two men – master and slave – venture beyond the edge of the known world on a dangerous and obsessive quest that will push them beyond the boundaries of loyalty and betrayal, friendship and hatred, deceit and heroism…The Roman epic adventure THE EAGLE stars Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell and is directed by Academy Award winner Kevin Macdonald. 20 years earlier, Rome’s 5,000-strong Ninth Legion, under the command of Flavius Aquila, marched north carrying their treasured golden Eagle emblem. They never returned; Legion and Eagle simply vanished into the mists. Hearing a rumor that the Eagle has been seen in a tribal temple in the far north, Flavius’ son Marcus (Tatum), determined to restore the tarnished reputation of his father, is galvanized into action. Accompanied only by his slave Esca (Bell), Marcus sets out into the vast and dangerous highlands of Scotland – to confront its savage tribes, make peace with his father’s memory, and retrieve the hallowed Eagle. Along the way Marcus realizes that the mystery of his father’s disappearance may well be linked to the secret of his own slave’s identity and loyalty – a secret all the more pressing when the two come face-to-face with the warriors of the fearsome Seal Prince (Tahar Rahim). - Apple

I am really looking forward to this one so I hope it will garner screening in the US or I'll be stuck waiting for the DVD release again.  At least now, thanks to some great Black Friday deals on a new LCD HD TV and Blu-Ray player, I'll get to watch it in Hi-Def!

Eagle of the Ninth the  Roman Invasions The Arrival of Caesar (The Agricola and The Germania)    The Roman Conquest of Scotland: The Battle of Mons Graupius AD 84 (Revealing History)
Enhanced by Zemanta
If you enjoyed this post, never miss out on future posts by following me by email!

1 comment:

David said...

Interesting review - thanks!

Just a minor point - Deva (where Legio XX Valeria Victrix was based) is Chester, not Colchester (Camulodunum).