by HELEN GEIB
The “lost Ninth” has fired imaginations for centuries. Legion IX Hispana was a Roman legion (an infantry unit of several thousand men) stationed in Britain after the successful Claudian invasion of 43 AD. The legion is known to have constructed a fortress at what became York, a city in northern England, around 70 AD. Geographically speaking, York is not far south of the northern limit of Roman conquest of the island, symbolized- although not literally defined- by Hadrian’s Wall. Legend plausibly places the Ninth at the outermost frontier of the Roman Empire, in the area that would become the borderlands between England and Scotland, and was then Pictland.
The legion disappears from the historical record after c. 117 AD, which gave rise to the long-held supposition that the Ninth was destroyed in battle with the Picts or other Celtic tribal enemies of Rome. Competing scholarship holds that the Ninth was transferred out of Britain and lost in battle somewhere in the Eastern empire, but all that is known with certainty is that the legion was no longer around to be included in a list of legions compiled some 50 years after its likely destruction somewhere. Barring the unlikely discovery of a dispositive stone inscription, scholars and artists alike may continue to allow their creativity to be stoked by the mythos of a great Roman legion defeated in battle by blue-faced Pictish warriors in the cold, dark forests of Scotland. After all, the Picts never were conquered by Rome.
The British film Centurion posits a small band of survivors trying to make it back to Roman lines through hostile country and pursued by vengeful Picts. Their de facto leader is Centurion Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender). Sole survivor of a massacre at his remote frontier outpost, he escaped his Pict captors just in time to join up with the main expeditionary force before it was slaughtered in turn. The Pict pursuers are led by master tracker Etain (Olga Kurylenko), a brutalized refugee from a southern Celtic tribe. She is driven by a pathological need to kill Romans in return for their massacre of her own people. Near the end of the journey, Quintus and what’s left of his little band encounter Arianne (Imogen Poots), a young Pict woman who risks her life to help them; it is her return to her tribe for being exiled under the false accusation of witchcraft.
Centurion is the fourth feature film by writer-director Neil Marshall, who made his reputation with the low-budget, stylish horror films Dog Soldiers and The Descent. On the face of it, the historical adventure Centurion is a considerable departure. In fact, however, it shares a familiar plot with its predecessors: a small group riven by internal dissension is stranded in a forbidding natural landscape and picked off one by one as it struggles to make it back to the safety of civilization. The film also has strongly horrific elements like the seemingly unstoppable, bloodthirsty, mute Etain, a literally man-made monster whose tongue was cut off by rapacious Roman soldiers.
Since the horrors of the conquest-occupation are heavily stressed, one might ask why the film has a Roman hero and invites us to sympathize with its behind-enemy-lines Roman soldiers instead of with its local resistance fighters. The ultimate answer is almost certainly the simplest, namely that the formula requires us to be “with” the pursued, not the pursuers. But there’s also a host of extra-formula reasons why we shouldn’t be surprised by the identification with the legionnaires.
For one thing, even if we’re rooting for the Picts during the big battle, once the outcome is determined our sympathies naturally switch to the beleaguered survivors. At least, they do when the survivors are grunts who only want to get home and would just as soon give the whole stinking island back to the natives anyway, and when the victors hunt down the losers like animals for the pleasure of hacking their bodies to pieces. There’s also the fact that while the Celts are a mysterious, unknowable people, we know those old Romans well (from history, from cultural continuity, from movies and TV). We understand their thinking and we like the proto-multiculturalism of Roman society, represented in the movie by Quintus and his multi-ethnic band, who collectively hail from all over the empire and even- quite unnecessarily, given the scope of the real thing- beyond its borders. And last but hardly least is the enduring fascination of the lost legion. If the narrative focus was on the Picts, the movie would have no excuse to offer its surprisingly credible conspiracy theory for the Ninth’s disappearance from official history.
Although the Roman-era Britain backdrop can’t disguise the fact the film is highly formulaic, it does provide a marvelous setting for the survival-adventure story. This is one fine-looking movie as the camera tracks Quintus and the others through a series of beautiful, if often forbidding landscapes. Quintus’s strong sense of duty- he desperately wants to lead these men to safety- and Etain and Arianne’s pain give the thrill-ride unexpected emotional heft. Finally, the film is well cast with actors who are up to the challenge of imbuing types with personalities.
2 1/2 stars
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The Last Legion merged the “lost Ninth” with the legions serving in Britain at the time of the fall of the western empire for a fanciful pre-Arthurian tale. Like Centurion, The Eagle returns to the second century for its story of a quest to recover the legion’s standard from hostile Pictish territory.