Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Centurion - 'B' Movie Fun

When I first started “Sword and Sandal Gaming”, one of my first posts concerned the anticipated release of “Centurion” - the British produced film about the disappearance of the Roman Ninth Legion in 117 AD, when it ventured north into what would one day become Scotland in order to subdue the warlike Pictish tribes.  Although the film opened in England last spring, it did not appear in the States until last weekend.  I finally did get a chance to see it, although not in a theater, but on my own home TV during a special, On-Demand, "before opening in theaters" showing provided by my local cable provider.  Now that I have seen it, what do I think?  Let's see....

If nothing else, Centurion is a ton of fun – a rousing, action packed, period piece that is combination war, adventure, and chase film.  Is it historically accurate?  I think more so than most movies supposedly inspired by historical events, but it also has the advantage that its limited, non-Hollywood scale budget gives it a more focused concentration than that of a major production studio film trying to be epic in scope.  Most of the armor and equipment are reasonably accurate, with the exception  of a battle scene where the Romans are spear, instead of pilum armed.  And at one point, the construction of Hadrian's Wall is seen commencing, which didn't actually happen until 5 years later in 122 AD.  The Picts are shown as woad adorned Scots, but given the paucity of sources about these tribes from this era, well ... why not?  Finally, there are now scholars who contest whether or not the Ninth Legion was actually lost in Britain in the first place, but if not completely factual, the tale of the lost legion and its eagle is an iconic and almost mythological one for Ancient History enthusiasts.  So, these are all minor quibbles really, and the bottom line is that there was nothing in Centurion that made me seriously wince at its complete disregard for “what really happened”.

But is Centurion a great film?  Or a bad film?  It has gotten mixed reviews from the professionals, and in a sense I agree with that evaluation. Expecting so much more, I was just a little bit disappointed with the final product.  The film is very weak on character depth, and there are several less than satisfactory, mile wide  plot holes.  More than a bit derivative, despite its original subject matter, it is in essence mainly an extended chase film, whose plot line could be easily substituted into a 1960's era Western with the Romans as the American frontier cavalry and the Picts as Plains Indians.

Despite the above criticisms though, if you are a fan of movies set in the Ancient world, then Centurion is still good enough that it is a must-see.  Although the characters are all rather one-dimensional, they are very well acted – particularly the roles of the son of a gladiator Centurion, played by Michael Fassbender (last seen in “Inglorious Basterds”),  and of Etain the Tracker, as played by Olga Kurylenko, who manages to be sensuous, mysterious, and frightening, all at the same time.  Neil Marshall, the British director more well-known for his cult-classic type horror films, sets a break neck pace from beginning to end, filming the battles, ambushes, and combats just as if Centurion was itself of that film genre.  There really is something to be said for that approach – although brutally and unflinchingly violent, all the on screen mayhem, blood splattering, and chopped off body parts, even if a bit hyper-realistic, is probably a more honest portrayal of what up close and personal hand-to-hand combat with edged weapons was like  rather than that shown in most mainstream movies.  The film has some really nice small touches too, like for instance, the distinctly visible scars on the grizzled faces of the veteran Legionaries when viewed in closeup.  And the cinematography is simply beautiful - the film is just flat out good looking in almost every frame.

All in all, if you are a fan of well-made B-movies, and you are not expecting an Oscar quality film, then Centurion is quite the thrilling ride.  Fans of Ancient History, Ancient Wargaming, and Sword and Sandal films should definitely rush out to see Centurion.  I don't think you will be disappointed, and you will most definitely not be bored.

For a brief sampling, the clips below show the scenes of the Ninth Legion being ambushed in the Pictish woods.  From an Ancients gaming perspective, it looks like the Romans were caught marching in column through disordering terrain, then were disrupted by a rolling fireball stratagem, before finally being fragmented by a medium foot impact charge starting from a higher elevation.


Part I - Great Balls of Fire:




Part II - Impact Foot Charge:



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