By Dr. Craig D. Reid
As the summer cinema season draws to a close, which for all intents and purposes has not been a banner summer for Hollywood, the limited release Centurion will catch many people off guard. On the surface, some filmgoers may assume it’s a low budgeted 300 (2006) meets the Gladiator (2000) ala Naked Prey (1966), and in sense it is, but that’s a positive attribute. And similar to Avatar (2009), there’s a hidden, obvious message in regard to the state of the wars in the Middle East and Great Britain’s involvement. Yet there is also something very honestly biting about the movie that at the end of the day is unsettlingly pongniant.
Centurion’s director, Neil Marshall, grew up at one end of Britain’s famous landmark, Hadrian’s Wall, in Newcastle upon Tyne, and worked for many years at the other, in Cumbria County.
Marshall recalls, “I used to spend many hours driving on the old Roman roads, which still runs parallel to the wall. Over time is when I began constructing a story about this extraordinary man-made structure. Somebody told me about the legend of the Ninth Legion, this Roman legion that marched into the mists of Scotland and vanished without a trace – leaving this great mystery. This idea of an entire Roman army marching into Scotland and just vanishing, it immediately conjures up images of supernatural elements. But I didn’t really want to go down that road. I wanted to find out what might have actually happened, if they did disappear.”
Under the direction of Roman Emperor Publius Aelius Hadrianus (A.D. 76-138; emperor from A.D. 117-138), Hadrian’s Wall, which was the Northern most reaching part of the Roman empire in England (Britannia at the time), began construction in A.D. 122 and was completed in six years. A whopping 73.5 miles long that stretched from the North Sea to the Irish Sea, it was 16-20 feet high and 9.7 feet wide.
Which brings up an interesting question. Why would the Romans, back then the most powerful empire in the known world, construct such a huge wall to be so vast and impenetrable? What did the Romans fear and what were they protecting themselves from?
Marshall imagined that this legendary and powerful tribe, believed to have populated the Caledonian mountains around the 1st Century, might have ambushed this Ninth Legion. Thus, he began to plot the concept around this premise. Marshall then centered the story around a lone member of the Roman army who might have survived the initial attack, and had to fight his way back home through enemy territory.
From there the story was flushed out and focused on Roman centurion (professional soldier of the Roman army) Quintas Dias (Michael Fassbender) who leads a group of soldiers on a raid of a Pict camp to rescue a captured general (Dominic West). The son of the Pict leader is murdered during the raid, and then the seven remaining Romans find themselves being hunted by a seemingly unstoppable group of the Pict’s most vicious and skilled warriors. Led by a beautiful and deadly tracker (Olga Kurylenko), she is hell bent on revenge that goes much deeper than just the child’s death. Dias, the son of a legendary gladiator who fought many vicious battles to gain his own freedom, must now tap into his father’s combative pedigree as he fights to get back to Roman lines, a line that to him translates into freedom.
With all the backstabbing and philosphical tenets that are touched upon in the film, Marshall was certainly reflecting the conservative nature of his politics in regard to Britain’s involvement in the war in Iraq, as Dias, a faithful follower of Hadrian about faces and bluntly avers that the war against the Picts is all for nothing.
The Al-Qaeda message is also rather obvious where the Picts are a terrorist, guerilla army that holds no respect for their Roman warrior counterparts and did not uphold a warrior’s code of honor, morality or ethics. Basically, the only good Roman is a dead Roman. (Hmm, that creepily sounds familiar doesn’t it?) In similar films where our heroes are being chased by vicious enemies like in Naked Prey and Too Late a Hero (1970), at the end of the film the enemy salutes the runners for their bravery and will to survive as the hero against all odds makes it back to safety. Yet similar to Al-Qaeda, the Picts hold no such reverance for bravery of the enemy.
The action is not for the faint hearted as the fights are basically short, quick edits of overly bloody decapitations, limb severings and disembowelments, with enough draining blood to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Watch out for those 2012 London Summer Games. Yet the action is not about the shock value for the sake of doing a manly-man, violent period piece, but is there to match the kind of brutality that Steven Spielberg tried to equate in the reality of war as seen in Saving Private Ryan (1998).
Although historically Hadrian is considered to be the third of the Five Good Emperors, Marshall portrays Hadrian as a man of dishonor. So is it a coincidence that Centurion opens during the same week that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair goes on his book tour defending his stance on getting involved in the war in Iraq?
One major or minor error of the film (depending on who you are), is when Dias tells his fellow soldiers that he and them are but pawns in a game of chess for the powerful politicians. The earliest forms of chess appeared in 6th century India and didn’t reach England until 1066, when during the Battle of Hasting, the French Normans successfully defeated the English army and began the Norman Conquest of England.
I guess one could say to Marshall, “You should have checked…mate.”