I must admit that I had Centurion on my TBW (to be watched) stack for quite some time now and had I not been impressed by Michael Fassbender’s performance in X-Men: First Class, it would have stayed there. I should say I was pleasantly surprised by this take on the mysterious disappearance of the Ninth Legion of the Roman army in AD 117.
The movie starts from the first person perspective of Centurion Quintus Diaz (Fassbender), the sole survivor of a raid on his outpost by the ruthless Picts, inhabitants of the Scottish Highlands who are the only clan still resisting Roman rule after 20 years. Because he knows the language of the Picts, Diaz is taken prisoner and is tortured by the Picts under the leadership of their king Gorlacon. Diaz manages to flee from his captors and is saved by soldiers of the Ninth Legion, who are under orders to launch an attack on the Pict camp, despite the reservations of their general, Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West, Punisher Warzone). They are guided on their quest by a Pict mute, a tracker by the name of Etain (Olga Kurylenko, Hitman, Quantum of Solace), who unbeknownst to them is leading them to an ambush. 3,000 soldiers are massacred mercilessly while Virilus is taken captive. Seven remaining survivors, armed with only a few weapons and their wits, decide to enter the enemy camp to save their general. Pretty soon, they find themselves the target of a group of Pict assassins after Gorlacon’s son is killed in the failed rescue attempt.
Movies in the like of Centurion often find themselves compared with blockbusters like Gladiator or 300, but the movie holds its own against its predecessors by ensuring that the execution of the battle scenes are done well. Writer and director Neil Marshall found the right balance between scenes that depict the bloodbath, which was indeed bloody to satisfy the male audiences and those that focus on the more poignant moments where the lead character Quintus helplessly tries to save his comrades as they are being killed by the Picts — his utter despondency in realizing the possibility that he will yet be the survivor of another wipeout of his legion. The movie spares the audiences nothing as it illustrates war in all its glory — the blood, the maiming, the honor of the Roman soldiers and their senseless deaths, what compelled the Picts to fight back against the Romans.
The cinematography served the film well as the hunt for the remaining survivors of the Ninth Legion is magnified by long shots of the vast landscape which they should traverse to get home — their smallness compared to the backdrop of forest and ice — magnificent on any other occasion had it not been the center of the hunt.
The film appealed to me not because of the glorified battle scenes but because it also depicts the vulnerabilities of the lead characters — their doubts and flashes of hopelessness as they realize that they are outnumbered by the Picts and their supplies and weapons are getting low –and the utter sense of disregard of Roman politicians who ordered the attack and easily buried the truth behind the 3,000-strong legion’s disappearance in order to suppress uprisings from other fronts. The casting was great in the sense that none of these actors were truly A-listers when they filmed the movie but still proved that big names only help to boost the popularity of a film but are not necessary to come up with an epic masterpiece. The emotions that they were able to convey with a single look — Quintus as he is tortured by the Picts, Virilus as he orders Quintus to abort the rescue, Etain as Gorlacon tells the tale leading to her betrayal — pushes the audience to empathize with their characters, no matter what side they are on.
Centurion bears similarities with Gladiator and 300, but more than the type of music or the editing, all these films are well written and manages to mingle emotion with courage, strength with weakness and tempers hard core action with touches of drama.