What happened to the Roman Ninth Legion has inspired three films in recent years:
- The Eagle (2011) starring Tatum Channing – see my previous blog on this film: https://childrenofarthur.wordpress.com/2011/02/27/the-eagle-a-peak-into-pre-arthurian-roman-britain/
- The Last Legion (2007) starring Colin Firth, which ties the legion to the Arthurian Legend and Julius Caesar (I’ll write about this film in an upcoming post)
- The Centurion (2010) starring Michael Fassbender
Of these three films, I’m afraid The Centurion is the one I find the least interesting. Like the other films, The Centurion is about what happened to the Ninth Legion that seemingly disappeared – although historians now think they were transferred and later destroyed on the continent. How they were destroyed remains lost to history, but authors like Rosemary Sutcliff, whose novel The Eagle of the Ninth, which the film The Eagle is based upon, have been writing books about it for many years, surmising what may have occurred. Usually the stories suggest the legion went north of the area where Hadrian’s Wall separated the “uncivilized” Britons from the territory the Romans had conquered.
The problem I have with The Centurion is not the suggestions of what may have happened to the Ninth (an interesting historical mystery) but the film’s lack of character development as well as my difficulty with identifying with the main characters. In this film, the Roman legion is led north with the aid of a Brigantes woman who is apparently going to lead them to where they can attack the Picts. Instead, she tricks the Romans and leads them into an ambush (big surprise). The sad thing is that while I just watched this film a few days ago, I can’t even remember any of the characters’ names and I can barely remember the actors’ faces. I know there was a main character Roman, the deceitful native Briton woman, and a bad guy who caused treachery, and a couple of other survivors. Eventually, the Romans who survive the attack and enslavement manage to escape from the Picts who have captured them, and the rest of the film shows their attempts not to be recaptured or killed and to get back to the Roman outposts. The villainy by a fellow Roman is almost a subplot and the overall plot is loose and not in any way complicated. Perhaps the best part of the film (SPOILER ALERT) is the end when the surviving Roman returns, only to have his fellow Romans try to cover up what happened to the legion so its defeat will not make Rome look bad.
What makes this film additionally difficult for me is that because none of the characters were strong enough for me to identify with one of them, I wasn’t sure what to think of it. When the film started, although I knew the Romans would be “the good guys,” I wanted the Picts to win. Why? Because I know I am descended from the Picts through Scottish royalty, while I do not know of any Roman ancestors in my family tree, though I do not doubt I have them, and also because the Picts and other Britons were conquered people whom Rome just felt it was their job and right to conquer and civilize or eliminate. While I did not agree with this philosophy in either The Eagle or The Centurion, at least in The Eagle, the main character played by Tatum Channing is well portrayed as a very loyal Roman who believes in his Roman traditions and duties. I may not agree with what makes him tick, but I understood his motives. The Eagle also raised interesting questions of right and wrong and Channing’s character has a slave who makes it clear that Rome is not in the right, leaving a world of questions for viewers to consider, even while Channing’s character is left staying staunch to what he believes in, too brainwashed into the Roman way to consider what he may have done wrong as a Roman, although I think the film’s viewers realize the film questions who he really is. The Eagle is still somewhat weak in this respect, but far superior to The Centurion.
By comparison, the native Britons are given almost no sympathy in The Centurion. The Brigantes woman who deceives the Romans is insulted by them as being a “she-wolf.” She seems merciless in her desire to destroy the Romans, but her behavior is completely understandable to me despite the Romans thinking ill of her. We are told that she watched the Romans destroy her family, then rape her and cut out her tongue. Despite this information, she is impossible to identify with because she is unable to speak her pain, and similarly, except for one of the Picts telling the Romans what the other Romans did to her, equally the film is unable to speak about who is right and who wrong in this film. In short, it is unfocused and uncertain if it has any agenda or message to share. I know life isn’t always possible to tie into a neat message but the woman becomes so focused on her mission and so unable to display any emotion or human characteristics we can identify with, that while she is the character I felt most sympathy for in the film, she is unable to make a real connection with the viewer, she is unable to speak her pain, and therefore, unable to make the viewer form a bond with her or anyone in the film. And I think the film itself, or its creators, were unsure themselves what if any point the film was supposed to make.
I don’t want to say this film is a mess, but it is a disappointment. It kept my attention due to some of the action as the Picts chased after the Romans, but I had a hard time knowing what to think at the end. Ultimately, I have to say that if the Roman Ninth was slaughtered by the people it was trying to conquer, well, who can blame the Britons for protecting their homeland? I don’t condone killing, but the Romans started the killing in Briton and they got what they deserved.
The film also raises questions for me about King Arthur himself, often depicted as heir to the Romans and of Roman descent, yet considering himself a Briton–and fighting against the Saxons who would conquer him. If he’s of Roman descent, is Arthur a good guy? If he is of Briton descent, then Arthur must see the Saxons as equal to the earlier Roman invaders. More likely, Arthur’s bloodline would have been a mix of Briton and Roman. In the end, did the two races not blend? Were they not allied at the least in their fight against the incoming Saxon invaders?
Eventually in all cultures, the conquerors and the conquered’s great-grandchildren intermingle and hatreds are put aside and forgotten as time marches on. Too bad the great-grandparents couldn’t learn to do that themselves to save a great deal of bloodshed.
I encourage lovers of Arthurian literature interested in the prehistory of the Arthurian legend to watch both The Eagle and The Centurion to understand what Briton would have been like in the Romans’ early years in Britain and how those events shaped the world a historical King Arthur would have been born into. And I’d welcome comments from other viewers.
And if you are interested in reading more about Roman Britain in novel form, I highly recommend Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel series, including The Eagle of the Ninth and Sword at Sunset (the first novel to create a historical King Arthur), and especially, I recommend for great reading pleasure Jack Whyte’s novel series The Camulod Chronicles, about Arthur’s Roman ancestors and how they established Camelot as a way to maintain peace in the years when Rome was pulling out of Britain.
Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com