The Ninth Roman Legion is legendary. Their bravery. Their brutality. Their superiority. A true fighting machine with cunning and strength. Centurions all. Raised in 65 BC in Spain, Julius Caesar first commanded the Legion in 61BC, bringing them to Gaul in several years later when they were a commanding presence during the Gallic Wars. Although Caesar disbanded the Legion after his final victory during an African campaign in 46 BC, after his death, Octavian recalled the veterans and they once again took their place as a vital force in Rome’s conquest of the world, fighting in Macedonia, Actium, Spain, Germany and ultimately Britain. But the 9th Legion “fell off the map” in the 1st Century AD after beginning to suffer some staggering battle losses...losses which never sat well in Rome. During this time there were also people known as the Picts who lived above Hadrian’s wall in Northern Britain in what is now Scotland. Equally as brave and brutal as the Romans, they were outside the domain of Rome and intended to stay that way, something that displeased the Empire. Although no written recordation, stories have long been told about what happened to the 9th Legion when it suddenly “disappeared” after venturing north into the Caledonian mountains in its efforts to gain a stronghold over the Picts.
For writer/director Neil Marshall, this is the stuff that dreams are made of - especially when growing up at Hadrian’s Wall, and having a lifetime to play “war” in his mind, wondering “what if” the Picts ambushed the Legion and one lone man survived. The result is CENTURION. Epic, exhilarating, thrilling. Comminus certamen (grab those Latin dictionaries boys & girls). Magnificent expansiveness. Man against man. Man against nature. The will to survive. Bloodletting and some of the finest battle sequences you will ever see on film. Oh yeah, and a very buff Michael Fassbender and Dominic West. What is not to love about this film???
General Virilius has the daunting task of leading the 9th Legion deep into the north, exterminating and eliminating anything and anyone that tries to stop them. This is the final foothold, the crowing glory for Rome should he succeed in his mission. Fresh off a strong of victories, Virilius and his men are ready to finish conquering the world and go head to head with the Picts. Deemed as nothing but savages, Virilius sees this as a relatively easy battle, especially when he is given Etain, a Pict huntress with tracking skills of a wolf. Although Pict, she seeks to serve Rome and has done so in the past.
As the Legion marches toward the Pict village intent on executing one of their patented surprise attacks, the tables turn when the Picts attack the Romans. Someone has betrayed the Empire! Emerging from the darkness and the wooded region like thieves in the night, the Picts are relentless in their slaughter of the Romans. Using precision military tactics, the Legion tries to hold its line, but is over-powered by the elements of surprise, tact, cunning, superior geographic position and the shear brutality of the Picts. Fireballs roll from the forest, breaking the line, allowing for Picts to flood in. With madness in their eyes and blood in their hearts, the Picts slice, dice, pierce, decapitate in hand to hand combat and on horseback. The bloodletting is endless. The resulting carnage unfathomable.
But surviving this slaughter is Centurion Quintus Dais and a few other lone soldiers - some a bit braver than others - and a captured General. Determined to free Virilius, Dais and company launch a rescue mission, a mission that backfires, sending the Centurions on a flight for their lives. Realizing they must find a way south to return to other Legions, Centurion Dais must first lead his rag tag band of warriors into the northernmost regions of the Inverness and backtrack, hoping against hope to elude the Picts who are hot on their trail with huntress Etain in the lead. Who will survive? Who will avenge?
For most of you, your first introduction to Michael Fassbender was probably in “Brothers in Arms” or “Inglorious Bastards.” Seems that being a man in uniform suits Fassbender and here as Centurion Quintus Dais, he never looked better. Dynamic, forceful, powerful, he brings a confident life-threatening urgency and emotion to the performance that keeps you on the edge of your seat, making you hold your breath in fear for Dais. Brilliantly done. When I talked to Fassbender right after filming, he raved about the experience. “This was the hardest I have ever worked in a film, but the most fun I’ve ever had.” And although he “got to ride horses and play with swords”, Fassbender was very disgruntled that there were many stunts that director Marshall (and the insurance company) wouldn’t let him do. “He gets a bit carried away sometime. He’s very enthusiastic. He wanted to jump off the cliff into the river. We literally had to hold him back because I’m sure he would have done it. He did everything else himself. He did go in the river and he was running topless through the snow. But we couldn’t let him jump off the cliff.” Axelle Carolyn, who plays Pict warrior Aeron, regales that “Fassbender wasn’t allowed to go any faster than trotting and he spent so much time complaining that ‘I need to gallop, I just need to gallop, I can do it’ that at the end of it they managed to get one day of insurance for him, just for him to go and gallop.” A love fest for Fassbender, Marshall does say, “He is also incredibly annoying because he is so good at everything.”
The real casting gem is Olga Kurylenko as Etain. She is incredible. For a character who does not speak, Kurylenko spoke enough words with her physical performance to fill the terrain from Rome to Northern Scotland and the farthest western reaches of the Roman Empire. She gives Etain a ferocity that explodes on screen beyond anything I have ever seen, be it with a male or female actor. Ferocious and barbarous.
Dominic West is everything that a Roman general should be. As Virilius, he is strong, rugged, handsome, commanding. I can easily see him standing shoulder to shoulder with Julius Caeser himself. And Marshall looked no further than wife Axelle Carolyn to play Pict warrior Aeron. “ I loved the fact that it was something so unusual to do as an actress, to get the opportunity to play something so outrageously brutal and physical.”
“When you grow up in the Northeast of England, your school trips are to Roman forts and Hadrian’s Wall. Roman history all around you.” Add to this a father who is a history nut and a movie buff, and for Marshall, “I guess watching all of that meld into one idea. Finally I heard about the myth of the 9th Legion.” The authenticity of this film is unbelievable, especially given the low budget. “We did what we could with what we had. We made sure that if the facts were there, we used them, and in other cases, especially where the Picts were involved having to fill in all the blanks because there’s no recorded history for them.” Axelle Carolyn expounds “there’s no recorded history for them. They didn’t write or if they did, they wrote on something that hasn’t survived. So all we have is what the Romans told us.” Marshall’s script and the interloping of dialogue and dialect between the archaic and mannered and profane 21st century is genius, evoking the strength and emotion of the time, but adding some light comedic moments when appropriate. Characters are dynamic and true to history and myth but humanized with flaws.
Instrumental in bringing the epic vastness of CENTURION to life is the cinematography of Sam McCurdy and editing of Chris Gill. Having worked with McCurdy on “The Descent”, “Sam and I were discussing how we were going to shoot this film for at least 2 years before we ever got near making it. We got into discussions should we shoot it on Super 8 or 16mm or digital or whatever and how we were going to make it look. I insisted that we would shoot in the rain, in the snow. This is as a far from filming in a green screen studio as you can get.” Working with intimate introspective moments of characters, McCurdy is then given the freedom of unparalleled expansiveness of shooting in 18 degree weather in the Inverness Mountains to help tell this majestic story resulting in a grandeur and vastness that mirrors Caesar’s own words. The imagery is powerful, fueling the energy and survivalist instinct of our Centurions. Like a perfectly blended cup of coffee, Marshall and crew actually conveyed COLD to the point that the visual stirs the physical effect within one, keeping the film grounded and adding a touch to the "mythological" lore of the Roman 9th legion and the Picts. “I didn’t want them to have to pretend to shiver. It’s going to distract them from giving me the performance I need. I really wanted them to be cold.”
Although not working prior with Gill, “he has a real feel for this. His editing is so extensive. He nailed it.” High praise coming from a director who marks this as the first time he hasn’t edited his own work. Editing battle sequences as here is not an easy job and Gill just goes for the jugular, hitting the nail on the head (in more ways than one) every time. A true master of his craft.
Surprisingly, battle choreography was not that difficult. “What we struggled against was time and money to have thousands of extras that we would have liked to have had. We only had a couple hundred extras. It was a matter of placing them to fill the frame and make it look like the rest were off camera.”
One has to wonder what Neil Marshall dreams about at night. Several years ago he gave us the wonderfully inventive and frightening “The Descent” and now with CENTURION he has found more ways of decapitation and blood-letting than you can shake a stick out. PHENOMENAL. For Marshall, “It’s a challenge to come up with new ways of dispatching people. And when I was filming, I was out to make it more interesting. I have a lot of fun with that.” What most don’t know is that the Romans themselves were very brutal killers, something that Marshall “wanted to be very honest about with this film. I didn’t want to hold back. And I like the idea that the Romans and the Picts were about as brutal as the other but were also capable of heroic deeds as well. Some it was constructing it as you go along. I think the first kill that I make is the guy ringing the bell, and I had this idea that I’d like to see the guy get shot in the back of the head with the arrow while ringing the bell. That came out organically as we were shooting it.” Another favorite idea of Marshall’s emerged during the editing process. “Because it was at night, we could have flaming arrows and all these sparks fly off and it looks great.” According to wife Carolyn, “I’m sure he would have had some human torches if he could have.” One of my personal faves is a sequence involving a row of decapitated heads on spears which, as it turns out, are heads of actors in Marshall’s previous films.
Kudos to prosthetic designer Paul Hyett who went through 200 liters of blood during filming and countless “heads and body parts”. “[He] has this truck full of bits and body parts and heads that he cast for previous films.” And as for make-up, that of the Picts is stunning. Just think Klingons on Earth. And with the intention of the make-up was to make the Picts look fierce, according to Carolyn, “I felt like the Predator. I loved it.”
The icing on the cake, Ilan Eshkeri's score catapults the film to an even higher level of excellence.
CENTURION. Riveting. Pulsating. An action packed Roman thrill ride from start to finish.
Quintais Dais - Michael Fassbender
General Virilius - Dominic West
Etain - Olga Kurylenko
Written and directed by Neil Marshall