My 100 Favourite Films In Review, Number 93 – Centurion

93 – Centurion:
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Unsolved mysteries, don’t ya just love ‘em? History is full of these little loose ends that we have no record of. Things that are just forgotten over time and eventually become lost. And these unexplained cases are quite the gold mine for writers. Plenty of writers love to take a historical event and go “well what really happened?” – and the story practically writes itself. A lot of the time they go for the obvious – take An American Haunting’s interpretation of The Bell Witch. But sometimes you’ll get a very interesting or at least enjoyable story. Between the 1st century BC and the year 120 AD, there existed a legion of the Roman Imperial Army – the IX legion to be specific. They were stationed in Britain, following the Roman invasion. And at some point they marched from York into Scotland with around three thousand men. But the IX legion disappears from any Roman records after 120 AD and their fate remains a mystery to this day. Theories range from the legion simply being disbanded, to more elaborately getting wiped out in a battle against the Picts. Since the latter is more exciting, three guesses which one the following movie uses.

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As most historical fiction does, the movie opens with a graphic of a map and some text explaining what’s been going on. The Roman Empire stretches from Africa to the Caspian Sea, but they’ve struggled to conquer the British Isles. Through a combination of unfamiliar terrain, harsh weather conditions and aggressive resistance from the Picts – it hasn’t been going well. And after our opening credits – showcasing the Scottish landscape – we meet our protagonist, played by Michael Fassbender. At this point in time (2010), ‘Fassy’ was in between. He’d already won critical acclaim for Hunger and achieved modest attention with 300 and Inglorious Basterds – but he hadn’t quite become the established star he is today. His narration opens the film with the following line:

“My name is Quintus Dias. I am a solider of Rome. And this is neither the beginning nor the end of my story.”

The movie flashes back to two weeks earlier, where Quintus is stationed at a garrison. The Roman centurions are feeling the cold of the harsh winter, losing most of their troops to frostbite. The Pict king Gorlacon frequently sends his armies to raid their posts. Quintus’s narration tells us that the Picts have played to their own strengths; relying on guerrilla tactics to pick off as many Romans as they can. Sure enough, a Pict army ambushes the garrison and slaughters the Romans in the night. The army is led by Vortix and Aeron. The latter is a female archer, which is not the movie trying to be politically correct – it’s actually historically accurate. In contrast to Roman society, where women had very few rights, Celtic women enjoyed slightly higher status. While the societies were still patriarchal, women could take up arms and fight in battle. So while warrior women weren’t a majority in Celtic tribes, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume there were a few.

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Besides, do YOU want to be the one to tell her she doesn’t belong in this film?

They take Quintus prisoner when he reveals he can speak their language. The language he uses is Scots Gaelic, which isn’t quite historically accurate. While no record of the Pict language exists, most theories hold that Welsh is the closest modern equivalent to it. But Neil Marshall thought viewers might find it odd to have a Scottish army speaking Welsh.

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And presumably to save actors from having to learn all of *that*.

We now switch to a garrison of the IX Legion. The scene has their General Virilus (Dominic West) beating another man in an arm wrestling contest. When the man requests another, Virilus beats him again. He then stabs him in the arm, bashes his face off the table and gives the order to start a massive bar fight. Cut to the next morning where Virilus is cheerfully sobering up. A message arrives from the Roman governor of Britannia, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, that all leave is cancelled and the IX Legion is officially going to war. Sadly, they really shouldn’t have mentioned the governor’s name – as he was recalled from Britain in 85 CE, and this movie is set in 117 CE. It’s a glaring error in an otherwise pretty decently researched movie. We return to Quintus being brought before Gorlacon, the Pict king. To demonstrate that these people defending their home are far from nice, Gorlacon pees in a bucket of water and then has Quintus ducked into it. But Quintus tells us he’s a soldier of Rome and will not yield…

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“No need to overdo it, Fassy.”

Gorlacon then has his son watch as they cut a gash across Quintus’s chest. If you think this little shot is insignificant, remember that Gorlacon has a son. Although Quintus is thrown in a cell, he spots a weakness when he kicks the wall. Now we move to Virilus speaking with Governor Agricola. To put things bluntly, the governor wants the Picts wiped out so they can all go back to Rome and remind themselves what warm weather looks like. Virilus is naturally reluctant since he’s come to quite like his men and dislike the idea of certain death – which is what any attack on the Picts will result in. But Agricola has a solution: meet Etain.

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Etain is a mute Brigantian scout. More like a wolf in a human body, Etain is the best scout an army could ask for. She’s played by Olga Kurylenko, who does not speak a word in the film, and yet delivers one of the strongest performances. She also shows she’s not one to be intimidated by the legion’s resident dickhead Thax – giving him a well-placed elbow to the groin. Meanwhile Quintus runs across the Scottish wilderness half-naked in the freezing cold, before he’s eventually caught by Pict soldiers. And I have to say that the appearance of the Picts is a great recreation of what the Romans described in their records.

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The hair presumably comes from reports that Celtic warriors bleached theirs white with lye or chalk water. Other reports say they put white grease in it before battle and spiked it upwards to make themselves appear taller and more intimidating.

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Nonetheless Virilus’s troops come across Quintus and rescue him from the Picts. Once Quintus gets cleaned up, he agrees to go with the legion back into the lion’s den. He also drops a bit of backstory – about how his father was a gladiator and trained him how to fight. This retroactively gives a justification for Quintus’s showy moves in the latter battle scenes. When Quintus gets to meet the rest of the men, they talk up the good general and swear they would all die for him. They get their opportunity soon enough, when Etain abruptly gallops away from the group – and they are ambushed by Picts. The first attack takes the form of flaming boulders (and I’m sure some of the Romans were at least glad of the extra heat) while the second is a full on assault. While the Romans put up a good fight, the Picts overpower them quickly. From the top of the hill we see Etain surveying the carnage, side by side with Gorlacon.

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“Checkmate.”

Quintus survives the battle, albeit by getting dogpiled by a bunch of corpses. He meets the survivors – Bothos, Brick, Macros, Tarak, Leonidas and the aforementioned Thax. It’s a pretty diverse group of young men, accurately reflecting that the Roman forces were made up of men from the various countries they conquered. When Leonidas reveals that the general is still alive, Quintus rallies the survivors to rescue him. We get a pretty cool scene where they hide from the Picts by lying on the ground and covering themselves with fallen leaves. But when they’re by the river, they’re forced to hide and watch as Aeron, Vortix and Etain cruelly murder two Roman survivors. Although Etain senses their presence, the Picts move out. Quintus realises the general must have been taken back to Gorlacon. But first we must get a nice quiet scene in a cave where we get to know the group of men who will undoubtedly get slaughtered by the Picts. The personal details are as follows:

  • Tarak – a cook from Syria. Also helps identify the poisonous plants so none of our guys will die mundanely.
  • Macros – a marathon runner from Africa. Remember that detail.
  • Leonidas – a Greek.
  • Bothos – a veteran who can’t remember where he’s really from.
  • Brick – suffering from a good old case of ‘retirony’, with a “fucking comedienne” for a mother (his name is short of Ubriculius).

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This scene is actually quite important in establishing the characters of these men. While most of them are admittedly very flat, it does help prop up Quintus’s character. The scene shows him as a good-hearted compassionate man who treats all fellow soldiers with respect and decency. And besides Thax, all of them are sympathetic in some way. They’re also part of an invading army. Their enemies – the ones defending their home – they’re the antagonists. But the Pict warriors are shown to be especially ruthless and cruel towards their enemies, in spite of any sympathetic motivations. Thus this creates a nice shade of grey that you actually don’t see in too many films. Our sympathetic protagonists are part of an invading army, while our similarly sympathetic antagonists are defending their home by slaughtering anyone in sight. I’ll get into greater detail about this later, but it’s one of the things that really makes me enjoy this movie.

Virilus is brought before Gorlacon. Etain has also arrived at the camp, now with white grease in her hair to show her true allegiance. Virilus tries to play the traitor card at her, but we hear her backstory. But from Gorlacon, not her. The reason is that her tongue was cut out by Roman soldiers. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Her village resisted Roman rule – so the soldiers burned her out father’s eyes, raped her mother until she begged for death and then raped her too. Then they cut the tongue out. As such, Etain was raised to become a mole for the Romans so that she could betray them one day and take revenge. Before moving onto the rest of the movie, we’re going to talk about the uncomfortable subject of rape. So by all accounts, feel free to skip the next paragraph.

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Rape is one of those things that appears a lot in fiction. Especially when it comes to women. It’s a rather cheap go-to subject for writers to add angst to a female character. You’ll find it a lot in fan fiction as an easy way to try and make the character sympathetic. Other works disturbingly use it as a way to punish an arrogant character and bring about their redemption – American History X, True Blood. Rape is a highly terrifying and traumatic experience that’s unfortunately been trivialised by how often fiction uses it. While still portrayed as an evil thing, it can verge on exploitative. Few works are willing to show just how deeply such a trauma can affect a person. This movie gives Etain rape as a backstory. But rather than exploiting it as a way to give her a token motivation (*cough* Maleficent), the movie does not gloss over the ramifications of such a trauma. Etain was once an innocent child forced to experience the horror of such an experience. And the severe psychological after-effects are not ignored. So there’s yet another shade of grey in this movie.

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Quintus and the Romans are able to sneak into the Pict camp and get to Virilus. However, they’re unable to free him – and he orders them to get to safety. Thax meanwhile accidentally bumps into Gorlacon’s young son – and strangles him to prevent him from crying out. The boy is buried the next morning – and the film presents it as a very tragic scene. Gorlacon frees Virilus and gives him a sword. He’s to fight Etain. Although he puts up a great fight for someone who’s been chained up for several hours, she runs him through with a spear. It might just be my imagination, but the way Dominic West plays Virilus’s final moments seems to suggest that he views Etain as a worthy opponent. And that his dying glance to the eagle in the camp is not having dignity for his death at the hands of a traitor – but expressing pity for a poor soul whose innocence was taken from her. Likewise, even though Etain has gotten her revenge, she clearly feels no joy or satisfaction. All she can do is scream.

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Quintus tells the men that they’ll have to head north, even though their forces are in the south. The Picts will undoubtedly head for the obvious locations, so the most the Romans can hope to do is outsmart them. Just before they leave, Quintus tenderly puts Virilus’s helmet against a rock as a small tribute to the fallen general. Etain then sets out with an army to hunt them down. The Romans keep running but Leonidas collapses during a particularly violent blizzard. Macros suggests putting him out of his misery, and Thax is receptive to the idea. But Quintus isn’t, and they rest for a while. His inner monologue reaffirms that he is a man of duty and honour – and he will get the men home because he promised their general. After a few more seconds of running, we get an incredibly icky scene where they kill a deer for food – and proceed to eat its half-digested dinner from inside its stomach.

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“Nicely done, boys.”

Unsurprisingly the dead deer tips off Etain and the Picts. But things really get complicated when Tarak completely wipes out his lower leg. An arrow from Aeron lets them know that yes they heard the screaming. A second arrow kills Tarak, but the rest of the men jump into the river to escape. Thax and Macros end up separated from the others but they make it to the shore unharmed. Too bad for one small thing…

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And no that is not just a dog that’s in need of grooming.

The Picts slip up in a display of overconfidence: not bothering to hide their camp. So Quintus and Bothos sneak in to even the odds. Quintus questions a Pict soldier – who tells him that one of his own murdered Gorlacon’s son. But Etain and her soldiers have crossed the river and killed Leonidas. Bothos is still alive however, albeit with an arrow in his leg. We then follow Macros and Thax, who are still running from the wolves. Macros, the marathon runner is doing fine – but Thax trips. When Macros helps him, Thax slashes his feet and leaves him to the wolves. Quintus, Brick and Bothos come across a creepy looking – yet completely historically accurate – crannog, and bump into…

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Arianne (Imogen Poots) is a Scottish girl, branded an outcast by her people. She’s got a scar on her face for apparently being a witch – but the scarrer was generous enough to not let it detract from her beauty. Once Arianne is convinced the men only want to get home, she helps heal Bothos and cooks for them. And since she and Quintus are the youngest and prettiest people in the movie, they hit it off quite a bit. But it’s not long before Etain’s group comes along. Arianne hides the men in the grain store and actually manages to throw Etain off the scent. Just in case anyone needed reminding that Etain is the *villain* of this film, notice how she treats Arianne. She’s perfectly willing to kill her, and only doesn’t out of fear of what ‘the witch’ might do in retaliation. So for all the audience sympathy Etain has, she doesn’t treat her own people much better than her enemies.

There are some complaints about how Etain isn’t able to detect the Romans hiding underground. While it does require some suspension of disbelief, there is a reasonable justification for it. Etain doesn’t exactly have some kind of superpower that can detect anyone. She’s just very good at spotting little disturbances in the wild – which indicate that a human has passed through. But try detecting that someone has been in a house – where there’s bound to be human disturbance. And there’s no reason to suggest anyone other than Arianne herself has been there. As for scents, Arianne has just cooked for the men – and there are animal carcasses hanging all around her home. Both very strong smells that could mask any scents the men have left, and enough to confuse Etain. Once they’re gone, Quintus expresses surprise that her own people would treat her that way. Arianne responds that they are not her people – and that Gorlacon personally scarred her. Apparently a planned subplot would have had Arianne as Etain’s half-sister, and she would have been the one who scarred her. Thankfully the director found that a bit too convoluted. More heart-warmingly, Brick apologises to Arianne for misjudging her. And we get a couple more scenes showing off some surprising chemistry between Fassbender and Poots. I can appreciate that Neil Marshall did a lot to make this part of the film feel like more than a token romance subplot.

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But once they leave Arianne’s hut, it’s back to the harshness of nature. There’s a Roman garrison not too far from them – but they find it empty. There’s a note informing them that the governor has ordered all forces to retreat. Conversely Etain’s army is heading for the garrison – and the men are tired of running. Thus we get the best battle sequence in the film. The first casualty is Aeron – who gets stabbed in the eye with her own arrow. Etain however finishes off Brick and goes straight for Quintus. But through the power of teamwork, Quintus and Bothos are able to kill Vortix and Etain. As expected, the latter’s death is treated as something tragic rather than satisfying.

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Quintus and Bothos meet up with Thax, who is at first quite chipper that the governor’s given his marching orders. But then the realisation hits all of the men that they’ve fought for nothing. Quintus likewise guesses that Thax was the one who murdered Gorlacon’s son. And when they get to the outskirts of Hadrian’s Wall, he takes special time to call him out for it. Bothos ignores the fight going on behind him and gallops towards the wall – not realising he’s still wearing Pict furs – and gets shot by Neil Marshall’s cameo as an archer. Quintus strangles Thax, effectively leaving himself as the sole survivor. This is followed by a sombre sequence of Quintus hoisting Bothos on his horse, so that he can at least cross the threshold and die in safety.

Quintus gives his report to the governor, who doesn’t like the idea of other nations finding out about their failure in Britain. As such they decide to strike the IX Legion’s fate from the records. They attempt to tie up loose ends with Quintus – but he needs to add a couple more notches to his kill list before the movie ends. Cut to him stumbling into Arianne’s crannog and sharing a kiss with her. They mutually agree to live together as outcasts while the movie reverses Quintus’s opening narration.

“My name is Quintus Dias. I am a fugitive of Rome. And this is neither the beginning nor the end of my story.”

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The film didn’t make as much of a headway as Neil Marshall’s other more famous works – Dog Soldiers and The Descent. It only made half its budget back and got mixed reviews. But I enjoyed it however. And there’s something to it that makes it feel like more than a generic action thriller. I love the shades of grey in the story, and the emphasis on the actions of the individual rather than the group. Both our protagonists and antagonists are quite compelling. It’s not Claudian drama or anything like that, but the little bits of character depth kept me very interested. The romance with Arianne – despite being a small part of the film – was one of the stronger parts of it. Most of it is down to the talent of the actors, but it’s also written quite well. The romance has an actual effect on the plot – again showing the shades of grey in the world, and giving Quintus the opportunity to find a happy ending – as opposed to the movie just saying ‘look, the hero isn’t gay’. More superficially, some really greatly put-together battle scenes and nice attention to historical detail just add to my enjoyment. The movie was on the short side and admittedly I feel it could have been at least ten minutes longer to better develop the side characters. But it didn’t hurt the experience for me. It’s definitely worth checking out at least.

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This is neither the beginning nor the end of the grading process.

*Story? A nice imagining of a historical legend, with a good attempt at showing the greyer side of war. B+

*Characters? It’s mostly Quintus and Etain who get any kind of character development. But Virilus, Arianne and Gorlacon have potential too. Quintus and Etain are at least good enough to carry the film. Too bad the supporting cast are little better than cannon fodder. B

*Performances? Want to see Michael Fassbender as an unambiguously heroic presence? You get your wish here. Olga Kurylenko turns in an underrated performance as Etain. But Dominic West is the one who comes close to stealing the show. Imogen Poots too. A

*Visuals? Some brilliantly used helicopter shots show off the Scottish scenery. For a film set in such a harsh winter, it sure looks appealing. Bonus points for being filmed almost completely on location. A

*Special Effects? Neil Marshall’s gore was used well here, and props to the SFX team for achieving effects like decapitations and severed limbs without resorting to CGI. B+

*Anything Else? Some good writing from the cast, good music and excellently done action scenes. Film could have been a bit longer but I still enjoyed it immensely. A-

We move into the terrifying world of horror, with The Skeleton Key next.

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