In the 2000’s and early 2010’s, there appeared to be something of an obsession in the movie world with the ancient Roman defensive barrier Hadrian’s Wall. In 2004 we had the frankly mediocre King Arthur, followed by the even worse (and also Arthurian-themed) The Last Legion in 2007.
Both pictures boasted strong casting, but the plots were lame and the historical inaccuracies cringe-inducing to anyone with a cursory knowledge of the period. Costuming especially, as the legionnaires in the two movies were kitted out in armor that’s around two hundred years out of date.
But things took a turn for the better in 2010 with Neil (The Descent, Dog Soldiers) Marshall’s Centurion. An all-action rescue mission “North of the Wall,” the picture has a great cast, which includes Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, Olga Kurylenko, Ulrich Thomsen (Banshee), Riz Ahmed, Liam Cunningham and others.
It’s a rollicking ride to start to finish, my only qualm being how the supposedly great general Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West) is so easily fooled and defeated. You’d think he would have protected his flanks from envelopment and sent a few more scouts out.
Marching your troops four abreast down a steep wooded valley appears a pretty basic tactical error.
The following year’s The Eagle is a Roman heist picture, with Channing Tatum’s invalided centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila teaming up with Celtic slave Esca (Jamie Bell) to retrieve his father’s Eagle standard captured when the Picts defeated the Ninth Legion in their ill-fated incursion into the Scottish Highlands.
Director Kevin McDonald (The Last King of Scotland) presumably tries to draw an Iraq War II analogy, as the Roman occupiers (even UK actors such as Mark Strong) have American accents. Not quite as good as Centurion, The Eagle is nonetheless a solid actioner and Anthony Dod Mantle’s (127 Hours, Dredd) cinematography is superb. The end of the picture set up the prospect of a possible sequel, with Tatum and Bell (now free) teaming up Batman & Robin/Green Hornet & Kato-style for further adventures.
Back in 1977 the BBC covered the same story in the kids series The Eagle of the Ninth:
And, of course Neil Marshall imagined a newly built Wall in his unhinged 2008 sci-fi actioner Doomsday – prescient?
‘Frui movere imaginibus’