This came out at around about the same time as Kevin MacDonald’s “The Eagle”, based on the same historic incident, the disappearance of Rome’s 9th Legion in what is now Scotland. Nothing is known of the circumstances of their demise, so Director Neil Marshall has free rein to interpret the event. Yet the plot elements bear some similarities with MacDonald’s interpretation. Marshall is best known for his horror films “Dog Soldiers” and “The Descent”, so unsurprisingly the rawness and gore of ancient living and battle is of particular interest to him. No battle scene is complete without graphic gouging, decapitation and limb severance.
The Scottish countryside provides a magnificent visual backcloth to the film and the opening Pict assault on the Roman outpost is visceral and sets the standard for the subsequent battle scenes. The sole survivor, Quintus Dias(Michael Fassbender) then joins the 9th Legion to put down the Pict Rebellion only to suffer the Legion itself being all but wiped out in the stand-out scene of the film, a Pict ambush in a wooded valley. They are led into the ambush by a treacherous female Pict scout, Etain. However the dramatic impact of her role is limited by the fact that she is mute, having had her tongue ripped out by the Romans .
A handful of Romans survive the ambush and learn that their General has been captured by the Picts which provides the pretext for an attack on the Pict camp. But they fail to free the general, murdering the Pict leaders son in the process which unsurprisingly has the Picts hunting them down with Etain in the lead. Two elements hinder this film, as they did “The Eagle”. The Pictish language is sub-titled which restricts how much you can include for character development (which is negligible on the Pict side) and secondly an open landscape with overwhelming odds in favour of the Picts restrict dramatic tension considerably.
The film is almost entirely plot driven, with very little characterisation. This is a shame because when it does draw breath, when Dias and his men find shelter and support from a Witch, the story takes on a welcome extra dimension and it provides a satisfying coda to the plot. Overall, “Centurion” was not that well received by the critics. Apart from the ambush scene, it lacks the grand epic quality of “Gladiator” and the story is scarcely enough for 97 minutes. Michael Mann’s interpretation of “Last of the Mohicans” set a modern day standard of “heroes on the run in the wilderness” which all subsequent pretenders find hard to beat. But what it does do, it does well, bloody combat scenes. And these are sufficiently well done, and frequent enough to make it enjoyable enough .
The head to head comparisons with “The Eagle” are interesting. “The Eagle’s” opening scene and fort assault are better, and the use of a local slave as a guide whose loyalties are in doubt far better handled as a story. But once it gets going “Centurion” is far stronger as the legion marches north, and the set piece battle wins hands down. “The Eagle” is stronger in the Pictsish camp, but the “Centurion” wins in the final pursuit with a more satisfying ending.
Because so little is known about British history other than from Roman sources historical accuracy is not an important factor, but a plot problem is. The Romans are the invaders and when the heroes are the ruthless aggressors an audiences sympathy, especially in the united Kingdom, will be at best divided. Combine this with sketchy character development and you have a story which should be enough to satisfy the “blood and splat” enthusiasts, but disappoint those hoping for a little more.