The last time we saw the Romans in ancient “Britannia” was in The Last Legion or the better known King Arthur. The Last Legion played with King Arthurian legends, as well as the myth of the 9th legion, which is where Centurion comes in.
In the film, the Roman Empire is trying to finish its campaign to conquer northern Britannia, but the local farmers, the Picts, have dropped their plows and picked up their swords to meet the invading forces. Roman soldier Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender), is captured after his outpost is ambushed, but escapes from the Picts to report back to the Roman Governor. Dias and the 9th Legion are sent into the North to crush the Picts once and for all. However, when the 3,000 are reduced to 7, the men are pursued by Pict trackers. The men struggle to out-maneuver their hunters, while also battling the elements as they try to get home.
The first 1/3 of the film plays out like most historical epics, tons of men going to battle, lots of shiny armor, but the film becomes lively when it’s 7 men trying to get home. By whittling down the characters, director Neil Marshall can do some character building and focus on individual fight sequences over the blur of large skirmishes – all of which are pouring blood.
The best part of Centurion is when it plays with audience sympathies. Comparisons have often been made between the “empires” of Rome and the U.S., with both invading countries and being met with guerilla fighters – which is the exact setting for the Romans in Centurion and the U.S. in Afghanistan/Iraq.
So when we learn in Centurion that the Pict king assumes his title because the invading Romans have killed his wife (akin to civilians in Iraq taking up arms after purposeful or accidental killings of friends and family by U.S. military), the present is nagging us in this fictional past. These complexities are not avoided (the film makes these points explicit), but they aren’t directly engaged after being presented either. Marshall is obviously trying to do something different with his historic epic, but the subtext is never allowed to take center stage, as frequent battles and an ad hoc romantic sub-plot hog the limelight.
The Descent is the film that has emblazoned Neil Marshall into the hearts of film nerds; we’re always wanting him to repeat that amazing experience. Centurion isn’t as good as The Descent, but where Marshall’s last film, Doomsday, was a mess, Centurion sits comfortably as a good action film.
And compared to other historic epics, it’s well above Troy and near Gladiator* quality. Go see it expecting a bloody war flick and you’ll be alright.
*although I would recommend Gladiator‘s inspiration, Spartacus, before anything else