Since I’ll be in London in a few days I thought I’d see a right old British-made movie and caught a matinee of CENTURION, Neil Marshall’s film about a Roman legion that vanished in what is now Scotland. I enjoyed it on many levels. For one thing, it is quite similar to an idea I’ve been cooking for years, and I’ve gotten over my ego enough now that I wasn’t crushed to see someone else realize it. Eventually all my projects will get made by Other People Productions, and I am almost as happy about that as if I had produced them myself.
For another, they got it right on those things that matter to fans of (more or less) accurate historical and military subjects. The armor, weapons, and fortifications were all convincing enough, and the depictions of Roman camps and forts were particularly realistic-looking.
I was pleased that Marshall was content to tell his story without benefit of Jerry Bruckheimer-style over-the-top athletics, supernatural embellishments, and egregious special effects. Just good old-fashioned action. No one was flying through the air or doing impossible somersaults like in PRINCE OF PERSIA, and there were no fantastic, digital gimmicks like the skeletal pirates and monsters in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Nothing wrong with those elements in their places; it’s just refreshing to see a movie that doesn’t depend on them. To do a period piece “straight up” these days without the crutches of heavy CGI or fantastic elements is an act of courage. The female Pictish hunters who pursue the Romans so doggedly seem almost supernatural with their keen senses and quick reaction times, but it’s all quite believable and within the bounds of movie “reality”, whatever that is.
I took pleasure in watching good actors working and in seeing all the other arts of cinema being exercised by pros who should be working more. I want to live in a universe where more movies like this can get made and seen. CENTURION is getting art house distribution in the U.S. and it will be a long march through hostile economic territory before it makes back its reported budget of US$ 12 million. But it might get there, through the long tail of selling rights to DVD, cable, download, etc. It will make a good companion to my GLADIATOR DVD.
I liked the way Marshall “bookended” the story with identical statements made by the main character (Michael Fassbender’s eponymous hero, Centurion Quintus Dias) at beginning and end, to the effect that “This is neither the beginning nor the end of my story.” We first see Quintus running bare-chested through a frozen Highland landscape, being pursued by vengeful Picts. This is a flash-forward, tossing the audience some information from the middle of the story’s actual temporal order. It has the effect of putting us in immediate sympathy with the hero, a determined survivor, and in fear for his safety. Marshall is then able to reel back his story to a chronological beginning, when Quintus’ boss, General Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West) is sent north to put down unruly Pictish tribes. It was important and necessary, I think, to establish an emotional bond with Quintus in this flash-forward, or else the audience might easily be confused, perhaps thinking the movie is going to be about General Titus, a larger-than-life character played by a charismatic actor who eats up the screen in the early scenes.
At the end, Quintus has bested all his enemies and overcome every obstacle, and instead of rejoining the Roman army he returns to a now somewhat safer Scotland, falling exhausted from his horse into the arms of a Celtic maiden with a bit of intuition and healing power.
The line “This is neither the beginning nor the end of my story” is repeated, suggesting that this apparent happy ending may not go on happily ever after, and that in the mostly realistic world the movie presents, there may be other opponents and obstacles to face. And maybe a sequel.
One little thing amused me — the word “Okay” has now crept in as an acceptable expression in movies depicting long-ago times. Marshall used it a couple of times in short succession — once in subtitles translating a bit of Pictish dialogue, and then again a few seconds later in dialogue among the Roman characters. I guess “okay” is such a useful expression that it has become part of a standard English or international vocabulary, and no longer connotes a contemporary or American idiom. (The true origin and meaning of O.K. or okay is much disputed but it originated in the U.S. in the early 19th century and has a particularly Yankee ring to it.) In a movie like CENTURION it still jars my ear and distracts me, taking me out of the illusion that I am watching a story taking place in another time. It reminds me a bit too much of my own time, like seeing a jet plane cross the sky or noticing that a Roman soldier is using a mobile phone. I found it amusing because I had just chastised a writer for using “Okay” in a script that took place in the 4th century A.D. I accept that historical dialogue needs to be a bit contemporary so that characters don’t sound stilted, as if they were reading from an antique translation of the Bible. We want the characters to sound a bit like we do, but to my taste “Okay” is a bridge too far.
I also felt a small sense of impatience with the structure of the film, which seemed to have one or two extra loops or sequences. My sense of a satisfying structure called for the movie to end a bit sooner than it actually did, and I couldn’t quite figure out where the act breaks were falling. Several times I thought “Ah, this must be the end of Act Two, and now we will be accelerating towards the climax,” but found that these turning point events were actually marking smaller increments of the story, and the real end of Act Two was still to come, several scenes further along. It was a fairly complex story in which Marshall had to track different groups of the fugitive Romans who had gotten separated as they fled from their relentless Pictish pursuers, so that may have accounted for the structural intricacy.
It may not be a movie for everyone — my wife wouldn’t have enjoyed it because of the intensity (or honesty) with which violence is depicted. Almost every stroke of the sword or thrust of the spear is a lethal blow, with bodies transfixed and heads lopped in half or sawed off with some difficulty. But that’s how it was, folks!
The film delivered an extra treat for me because I followed my usual practice of sitting all the way through the end credits, something I learned to do in film school, out of respect for all the people who worked on the film. It’s also a good source of information about what skills were required to make the movie, what music was used, and where the movie was shot. In this case, the extra reward was one of the last lines in the credits, something like “Thanks to Walter Hill and Zenophon (sic) for all the inspiration.” I hadn’t consciously realized the Hill-Xenophon connection until then, but instantly recognized that Marshall was acknowledging his debt to two storytellers whose work had influenced and inspired his own. Walter Hill’s film THE WARRIORS (1979) about gangs in New York bears a plot similarity to CENTURION, in that both films describe the escape of a small band through hostile territory after the death of a charismatic leader. Hill’s film, a cult classic that has spawned a video game, a TV series, a comic book series and an upcoming Tony Scott remake, was based on a novel by Sol Yurick that was based in turn on an ancient work, the “Anabasis” of Xenophon, a Greek soldier in the service of Cyrus the Great of Persia. When Cyrus was assassinated, Xenophon and about 10,000 Greek mercenaries had to fight their back to Greek lands through thousands of miles of rough terrain, peopled by hostile tribes. The exploits of the gang members in THE WARRIORS, and of the Roman survivors of a massacre in CENTURION, mirror those of Xenophon’s companions in the Anabasis (“Up Country” or “The Journey Upcountry”).
All this goes to support my belief that there is treasure in the stories of the past, and that the classics can be mined again and again for contemporary stories, for science fiction, or in this case, to provide some plot points and inspiration for a story taking place in a different time period from the original source. I had an interesting discussion about that with a group of film writing students in New Zealand, at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington. I talked about a chapter in my new book on how A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM is the lineal descendant of a pamphlet on character flaws written by a follower of Aristotle. I love to find examples of new stories based on old ones, and CENTURION is a good one.
CENTURION is also notable for being partially financed by the UKFC (United Kingdom Film Council), a funding body which supported many worthy films that might never have reached the screen otherwise. The world economic flinching has brought about some changes and I understand the UKFC has been cut back severely, which is a shame, because other CENTURIONS may now never get made or be seen.