Movie Review – Centurion (2010)


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


Possibly Related Posts: (Commentary Track generated)

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.

5 responses to “Movie Review – Centurion (2010)

  1. Helen, seeing that you’re a huge Roman history buff how angry were you at the film”King Arthur”, the one starring Clive Owen? I mean, why would anyone take the legend of King Arthur, c 6th century and place him half a millenia back in time? And then have the gall to slap the line “based on the actual story/legend”. *sigh* I could have sworn that, much like Robin Hood, King Arthur was just a legend based on a much less interesting story… no?

    But Centurion I liked. The violence is terrific, as expected from the director of The Descent (one of the only good horror films in the last decade) and it’s a good chase movie. :O)

    • Not so much angry as depressed at how bad a movie it was. Even taken solely as an action movie, the confrontation on the ice was the only good part. And I’d had such high hopes for it too, because I really liked the casting of Clive Owen as Arthur and a good amount of money went into the production design. It should have been so great, and instead it was so terrible!

      My thinking about any new version of a myth, epic poem, legend, what-have-you is that if the filmmakers can’t come up with a better story than the original- or for that matter, any of the many variations already out there, then they ought to stick with the original. “King Arthur” was no one’s idea of an improvement on the Arthurian legends. It wasn’t a serious attempt to reconstruct the historical person* and his times either, despite marketing claims to the contrary.

      (*About whom nothing is known with any certainty, including whether he really existed or was an invention of folklore. The movie’s dating isn’t _absurdly_ far off as the real Arthur- assuming there was a real Arthur- lived a century or so after the end of the Roman era in Britain, but the idea that he was actually a Roman officer stationed on Hadrian’s Wall who married a Pict is ludicrous.)

      • I can work myself up to a good rant on the Arthur debacle, but I’ll save my energy for chopping ice. The ice battle is the best part of the movie, and would still be exciting even if the rest of the movie wasn’t so phenomenally stupid and boring as contrast. I don’t mind taking liberties with legends or fragmentary history in the cause of literature, broadly defined, but this was just a mess. What a wasted opportunity – some good ideas, talented people, production money all dragged down by a lousy script.

        Re The Descent, what do either of you think about the two endings? Do both work?


          Re The Descent, the original ending showcases that people who enter an uncharted cave and get trapped inside and lost will die. They all die and it makes sense. Especially the shot of the protagonist sulking in the darkness, accepting her fate. The American ending is not only superfluous but makes no sense. And to think that there was a straight to DVD sequel where 2 of the main characters (that die in the original) return… All I know is that director Neil Marshall had nothing to do with the sequel. He wisely walked away from it quickly.

          Also, in King Arthur, the ice battle made me shake my head because not only will the enemies be treading over thin ice but so would the protagonists so the tactic is entirely pathetic and ridiculous. I liked the performances in it and the fact that the characters were all “tired” of war and simply wanted to go home, but all that director Antoine Fuqua had to do was replace the characters’ names with fictitious names and then it’d be a far superior film.

  2. Part of the reason that Centurion works where Arthur does not, is that only the former makes good use of the geography of Roman Britain. The story of the lost 9th fits nicely with the questions that surround the abandonment of the Antonine Wall in what is today southern Scotland — a wall surrendered in the face of northern Celtic resistance. The story of Arthur fits badly with Hadrian’s Wall in what is now northern England — far north of the invasions along the southeastern Saxon Shore that most interpreters offer as an explanation for a warrior such as Arthur to appear in defense of Roman-British civilization.


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