There’s a special place in my heart for period pieces involving excessive swordplay. There’s a natural romance to films where men write sonnets with swords, debating with the edge of a blade.
But such films can quickly slip down the bloody slope of excessive gore, as slicing becomes dicing and bloody forays overwhelm the storyline. “Centurion,” now in theatres and available on demand in the U.S., wades knee-deep through the valley of pointlessly disgusting detail, as less a sonnet and more an overload of cluttered synonyms that weigh down the poetry of what could be a good movie.
“Centurion” chronicles writer/director Neil Marshall‘s theory behind the mystery of Rome’s lost Ninth Legion. In a final attempt to conquer Britain, the rugged Ninth marches into the heart of enemy territory to find the violent Pict tribe and destroy it. With Pict turncoat Etain (Olga Kurylenko) leading the way, the army falls into a trap and all but seven are slaughtered. After failing to rescue their captured general, the seven must fight their way back to Roman territory, even as the elements and the pursuing Picts target them one by one.
It is a gritty survival tale infusing elements of bloody horror and unsubstantiated humanity. To fly it needed less of the former and a basis for the latter.
The film’s cinematic style evolved over the course of the film. Initially Marshall’s team filmed battles with nice slower pans, showing a Roman fortress fall. But by the end, a series of half-second quick-cuts rendered the final skirmish unwatchable.
The violence did not evolve however. It is the gratuitous quality of the violence, not the quantity, that easily earns the film’s R-rating. At one point a Roman plunges an arrow into an enemy’s eye, and then wiggles it around to do the most damage. The fact that the Roman served as moderate comic relief throughout and the Pict is a savage doesn’t detract from the scene’s excessive nature, or that the Pict is a woman. Violence is easier digested when men slay men, but the violence involving women leaves me queasy, especially in scenarios like this.
The film boasts strong acting, and a decent script that avoids excess dialogue, but the film lacks the emotional depth necessary to give the audience relatable characters. The Romans are portrayed as a brutal conquering army, making the protagonist, Centurion Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender), and his band of Roman brothers, a less than lovable crew. With minimal time spent developing them into likable warriors, it begs the question: Who do we root for?
The dialogue is snappy, especially in group scenes where the actors play well off each other, but the delicate scenes are cliché. Quintus falls for a banished Pict beauty and carves her a wooden horse before he leaves to thank her for her kindness. But his talent, and the horse imagery, weren’t established beforehand, so the scene appears to be stolen from “Troy,” much like the Pict surprise attack. It’s details like this that Marshall should have obsessed over and established, which could flavor the story, rather than ones that simply disgust the viewer, like a soldier smashing a tick as he runs, or Romans eating half-digested moss from the stomach of a dead deer. Interesting elements, but they don’t further the story.
Modern swearwords pilfer the Romans’ vocabulary as well, jarring instead of coloring, and eroding the authenticity of the dialogue. This is unfortunate, because to his credit, Marshall and his team created a very authentic atmosphere otherwise, from the wooden palisade fortresses of the Romans to the sod housing and blue war paint of the Picts, which draw viewers into the unforgiving world of the northern Roman campaign.
They may seem nitpicky, but such elements add up, and together they detract from what otherwise should have been an A-movie, with a strong cast and a unique twist on a survival plotline.
There’s a section in the production notes dedicated to the politics of the film. Since this film is all about a trained occupying force fighting a guerrilla army, there’s no way it can avoid at least some commentary on today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Of the Picts Marshall said, “I’m not playing the Picts as being cold-hearted villains. They are fully rounded people with good reason to want the Romans out of their country. Some of the atrocities that we indicate the Romans have committed against them totally justify their actions.”
In addition, Quintus is a character who becomes disillusioned with the Roman Empire’s drive to control everything: “He is someone who starts as a very pro-Roman patriotic kind of soldier, and ends up completely disillusioned with what his own country has done to him,” says producer Robert Jones.
In the end though, what stands out, intentionally or not, is that the Roman soldiers are most upset about the pointless massacre of their legion. When Rome abandons its northernmost fortresses, the remnants of the Ninth see their sacrifices as meaningless. Thus, to me, the film is less a commentary on why the U.S. shouldn’t be in Iraq or Afghanistan and more one on why we owe it to our troops in uniform to stick out these efforts until the mission is accomplished.