Centurion (2010) Centurion (2010) ****

     The truth is, no one really knows what happened to Legio IX Hispana. The legion enjoyed a storied history throughout the two pivotal centuries during which the Roman Republic gave way to the Roman Empire, but there’s no mention of it in lists of active imperial forces from the late 2nd century AD on. Maybe nothing happened to the Ninth Legion, strictly speaking. Perhaps it was simply disbanded after the focus of Roman military policy shifted from expansion to consolidation behind the limes lines along the Rhine, Danube, and Euphrates Rivers. But the circumstances under which it was last heard from unquestionably lend themselves to lurid speculation. That final mention came in AD 108, when Legio IX Hispana marched, 3000 men strong, into what is now Scotland to take on the Picts. That was during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, and although the surviving sources for what went on in Britain in those days are sparser than we might like, it’s suggestive to say the least that Hadrian ordered the construction of his eponymous wall shortly after the Ninth Legion’s last reported campaign. That doesn’t sound like the follow-up to a decisive victory, you know? Could it be that the legion disappears from history because it never came back from the Pictish wilderness? Or because it came back in such tatters that it was easier to demobilize the survivors into retirement and start anew than to attempt reconstituting the ravaged unit? Archeological discoveries since the 1950’s have cast doubt on that hypothesis, but not enough to put it out of the running altogether. Besides, the notion of a legion once commanded by Julius Caesar himself being annihilated by a rabble of savages clad mainly in blue paint and tattoos is too romantic to be laid to rest in the imagination by a few ambiguous inscriptions in the Netherlands. It’s the kind of story that could obviously make a terrific movie, too, but you might be a bit surprised by the film that Neil Marshall actually did make from it. Neither a war picture nor a neo-peplum— nor still less the 300 cash-in that was probably the most likely outcome in 2010— Centurion is something very close to an Iron Age backwoods horror flick, like a lorica-clad Deliverance or The Hills Wear Woad.

     Centurion Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender, of Prometheus and Blood Creek) is having a bad day— the latest in quite a streak of them, in point of fact. The frontier fort of which he was second in command was overrun a couple weeks ago by Pictish raiders claiming allegiance to the chieftain Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen, from The Broken and Season of the Witch), and Dias was taken captive. The Picts interrogated him under torture for a time, but most of what Gorlacon wanted to know was above a centurion’s pay grade anyway, even if Dias had felt inclined to talk. (A note on terminology: although pop culture teaches us to think of “centurion” as a generic word for Roman soldiers, it was actually a specific rank. A centurion commanded 100 men, making him roughly equivalent to a captain in modern English-speaking armies.) Dias escaped before Gorlacon grew sufficiently annoyed with him to order his death, but all that’s bought him so far is miles and leagues of desperate flight through the forbidding Scottish countryside. Dias is hungry, hurt, and exhausted; he has no weapons, no shelter, nor even adequate clothing to cope with the high-altitude cold; and although he hasn’t actually seen the Picts hunting him, he’s rightly certain that they’re uncomfortably close behind.

     But help— or at least the possibility of help— is on its way. Julius Agricola, the governor of Britannia (Paul Freeman, from Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Sender), has hatched a plan to put Gorlacon in his place, and to end the Pictish menace just as decisively as Julius Caesar subdued the Gauls 70 years before. Agricola is going to send the mighty Ninth Legion into Pictish territory, pitting the barbarians against such battle-hardened veterans as they’ve never faced before. The Ninth Legion’s commander, Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West, of John Carter and The Awakening), is a dirty fighter, a skilled tactician, and a warrior of rare personal courage, whose soldiers would follow him into Tartarus itself, but Agricola has contrived to stack the deck yet further against the barbarians. He has a defector, you see— a young woman called Etain (Olga Kurylenko, from Vampire Academy and Oblivion), whose tribe is hostile to Gorlacon’s, common blood notwithstanding. Etain is a tracker of unrivaled skill, and she knows the land beyond the frontier as only someone born to it can. And as Agricola is happy to demonstrate, Virilus needn’t fear her getting in his way on the battlefield. Pictish women fight side by side with their men, and Etain herself is a fair match for even one of Virilus’s elite legionnaires.

     It is Dias’s good fortune that the first Picts encountered by the Ninth Legion are the ones hunting him. As soon as Virilus realizes whom his men have inadvertently rescued, he makes a place for the fugitive centurion within his own officer corps. After all, that gives him a second advisor who has personally crossed gladii with Gorlacon’s tribesmen. Dias’s respite is short-lived, however, because Etain turns out to be a double agent. She leads the Ninth Legion into an ambush that seems at first glance to leave not a single man alive save Virilus himself— and he gets hauled off in chains to become a living trophy for Gorlacon. In fact, though, there are seven other survivors of the Picts’ attack: a pair of middle-aged noncoms called Brick (Liam Cunningham, from Dog Soldiers and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor) and Bothos (David Morrissey, of Water Horse and Basic Instinct 2), the spearmen Thax (Blood: The Last Vampire’s J.J. Field) and Macros (Noel Clarke, of Doghouse and Star Trek: Into Darkness), a slinger by the name of Leonidas (Tormented’s Dimitri Leonidas), Tarak the regimental cook (Riz Ahmed, of Rogue One), and the seemingly indestructible Quintus Dias.

     Now the smart thing to do at this point would be to turn around and go home. Soldiers don’t always get to do the smart thing, though. No, soldiers are trained and conditioned to do the honorable thing, and the honorable thing in this case is clearly to rescue Virilus from captivity. Fortunately, armies are relatively easy to track even in the forest, and it doesn’t take the Ninth Legion’s survivors long to find the Picts’ encampment. Gorlacon is there in person, too, presiding over the effort to extract actionable intelligence from the prisoner. Dias’s rescue attempt goes poorly, however. The Picts are too numerous within the encampment, and too active even in the dead of night. The Romans realize almost immediately upon finding their commander that there’s no realistic way to spring him except at the cost of all their lives, and Virilus himself forbids them to do anything so stupid.

     Even without Virilus, the getaway is less clean than Dias and his men might have hoped. Thax is forced to kill a young boy (Ryan Atkinson) in order to prevent him from raising an alarm, and that boy turns out to be Gorlacon’s own son. Up to now, the legionnaires have been fighting a war, whether they were getting the better of it or the worse. But with the death of Gorlacon’s child and heir, they’ll be facing a blood feud going forward— and blood feuds are an enterprise in which no civilized man can hope to equal a barbarian. To make matters still worse for what’s left of the Ninth Legion, Gorlacon entrusts the prosecution of his vendetta to Etain. Who better to hunt Romans than someone who has lived and fought among them? It’s a hundred miles, from the looks of things, back to the border and the safety of Roman rule. The intervening countryside is cold, bleak, and inhospitable in ways uniquely unforgiving to Mediterranean constitutions. The woods are full of wolves that have not yet learned the fear of man that gunpowder weapons would instill in later centuries. And the closest thing to a friendly face that the fugitives will encounter in all that territory is a hermit woman (Imogen Poots, of Green Room and 28 Weeks Later) whom the local tribespeople shun as a witch.

     Fond as I am of backwoods horror, I nevertheless must concede that survivalist slashers and redneck cannibals get old after a while. So when I learned that there was a backwoods horror movie set in Roman times, with a Pictish war party standing in for Papa Jupiter and his brood, it became for me an instant must-see— and that was before I found out that Centurion was written and directed by Neil Marshall. Marshall’s The Descent was one of my favorite films of 2005 (and had more than a touch of backwoods horror sensibility to it as well), so naturally his involvement made Centurion look even more attractive. It pleases me to say that it amply lived up to my expectations.

     This movie’s most obvious virtue is that it makes the familiar seem new again by shifting the setting to one not conventionally associated with its genre. Although the challenges facing Dias and his men are fundamentally the same as those confronted by the protagonists of Deliverance, The Hills Have Eyes, Southern Comfort, or Hunter’s Blood, coping with them under the conditions of the 2nd century is a rather different matter. Safety for the legionnaires is functionally much farther away, and the forces arrayed against them are far more powerful. Gorlacon, after all, isn’t just the patriarch of a maniac family or a corrupt local VIP. He’s a barbarian king, with an army at his command and an entire culture paying him allegiance. At the same time, though, the protagonists here are Roman soldiers, veterans of who knows how many wars of conquest, and no slouches themselves when it comes to capacity for viciousness.

     The latter point is important for one of Centurion’s less immediately evident strengths as well. Most backwoods horror films leave little ambiguity as to who the bad guys are, even if, like Deliverance, they’re susceptible to a quasi-Marxist reading that muddies the waters a little. Centurion, however, gives us plenty of reason to side with the Picts if we’re so inclined. Gorlacon may be a savage who tortures prisoners, but his twin motivations— to defend his people and his land against would-be conquerors, and to avenge the murder of his child— are both things that we would normally read as heroic. That much is a point in the Picts’ favor even if you don’t know a thing about the Roman Empire or the soldiers who propagated it across Europe, North Africa, and Southwest Asia. And if you are acquainted with the sorts of atrocities the Roman legions were wont to inflict on the people they brought under the yoke, then the barbarians become downright sympathetic. Furthermore, Agricola’s behavior when he reenters the story in the final act shows that Neil Marshall is aware of the ruthless rat-bastardry that made the Empire (and the Republic before it) tick. Nevertheless, Centurion unapologetically takes a Roman point of view with regard to the survivors of the Ninth Legion and their struggle to remain survivors. Sympathetic or not, the Picts (the implacable Etain especially) are figures of absolute terror.

     Speaking of Etain, she seems to be the breakout character in this film, to the extent that it makes any sense to speak of a Centurion fandom. At any rate, she’s the one who inspired pretty much all the Centurion fan art and cosplay I’ve spotted here or there on the internet since 2010. That appreciation is richly deserved, too— and not just because of the Pictish huntress’s evocative and instantly memorable look. Etain is rather like Wez in The Road Warrior. She’s the main villain’s more hands-on lieutenant, obviously, but she also resembles Wez in being a lightly sketched character who nevertheless sticks in the mind like no one else in the film, even despite getting only a modest amount of screen time and no dialogue of any significance. (Indeed, Etain’s tongue was cut out at some point in the past, leaving her incapable of any utterance more articulate than animalistic grunts and screams.) Furthermore, a large part of what makes Etain stand out so is that she’s portrayed as the protagonists’ deadliest foe, with a matter-of-factness that one sees only rarely with regard to physically dangerous young women. Etain isn’t Black Widow or Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Alice from Resident Evil. Except during her introductory scene, we’re not invited to contemplate any incongruity between her appearance and her capabilities, and we’re never invited to congratulate her for defying any stereotypes. Much as The Road Warrior doesn’t make an issue of the Lord Humungus’s right-hand man being gay, Centurion just barely makes an issue of Gorlacon’s fiercest follower being female. Rather than being a bad-ass girl, Etain is granted the dignity of being simply a bad-ass. And that’s the perfect way to handle her, especially in light of what we know about the place of women in barbarian Celtic society.



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