If you’re anything like me, first of all, please accept my sincere condolences — but it means that you also love epic period films with boatloads of swordplay. Not to generalize too terribly, but it seems as though films like Gladiator, Braveheart, and Return of the King have a powerful male-centric appeal. Perhaps it has something to do with innate, primal tendencies within our gender, but, at least as far as I’m concerned, there are few things better than watching a legendary alpha male slash, cut and maim enemies with bloody abandon. But the problem we run into is that for every Braveheart or Gladiator, films that are as artistically adept as they are savage and entertaining, there are a slew of imitators that count themselves lucky if they are even half as competent in either aspect. It is for that reason that many of the lesser releases go entirely unnoticed even if they did receive a major, albeit limited, release in theaters.
This verbose segue leads me to the subject of this week’s Under the Radar column: Centurion. The film, which was released on limited screens in August 2010 and has just been added to Netflix’s Watch Instantly section, is based on the “true” story of the 9th Roman legion that was stationed in the northernmost reaches of the leviathan Roman Empire. This area, modern-day Britain, was one of the most volatile and besieged tentacles of the empire, and chief among Rome’s problems in the region was the Pict tribe. These champions of war would attack during the night and employ guerrilla tactics to cause colossal headaches for the garrisoned soldiers. This film focuses on a particularly nasty ambush upon the 9th Legion by the Picts that leaves them all but annihilated. The few who manage to survive struggle to make it back to friendlier ground.
I saw this film at the SXSW film festival back in March, and it was one of the biggest surprises of the fest for me. The film is directed by horror auteur Neil Marshall, whose films have consistently failed to connect with me. I harbored no love for Dog Soldiers, thought the ending of The Descent was laughable, and could not get into Doomsday no matter how hard I tried. This is no slight against Marshall, but rather fuel for my eventual shock at how much I enjoyed Centurion. It’s not every day that a horror director tackles a period war film — but I sincerely hope it becomes a trend.
The film stars Michael Fassbender as Quintus Dias, who not only suffers the film’s pivotal ambush, but early on is taken prisoner by the Picts and tortured. You may recognize Fassbender from his exceptional performance as British lieutenant Archie Hicox from Inglourious Basterds. I loved Fassbender in that film and have since sought out his other work (I highly recommend Blood Creek). In Centurion, he is poised and cool under pressure but not afraid to spill blood with fury. As a movie star, he always seems to exude an old-world presence that adds a bit of class and grandeur to the proceedings, which works to Centurion‘s advantage.
The film also stars Dominic West, who, as much as I loved him for all the wrong reasons in Punisher: War Zone, is shockingly strong in this film, proving that he is in fact a real actor with his rough-around-the-edges but admirably honorable Titus Virilus. Rounding out the cast is Olga Kurylenko as Pict warrior woman Etain; fiercely strong female characters are a trademark of Marshall’s career. She is as intimidating in Centurion as she is stunning, even under mountains of makeup.
I could go on and on about the beautiful cinematography and gorgeous production design of Centurion. I could lavish praise upon it for the compelling story of soldiers doing everything they can to make it home from hostile territory, which reminds me of another of my favorite films: The Warriors. But what really sets Centurion head-and-shoulders above the rest is its tenacity for, well, severing heads from shoulders. This thing is six different kinds of bloody and, should your stomach be fortified enough, makes for a raucously amusing experience. It may seem exploitative, but in actuality, Marshall draws from the well of his horror experience to lend a purpose to the gore. Every blow from every sword is felt with such grisly force as to emphasize the brutality and shocking truth of warfare, a message that transcends time and applies to any choice of weaponry. All in all, this is a fantastic film that deserves far more attention than it got upon initial release. If your curiosity has been piqued, take a stab at Centurion on Netflix.