Saturday, December 10, 2011

What the Fuss Was All About

After reading several reviews of The Eagle that compared it unfavorably to Neil Marshall's Centurion (2010), I decided to see what I thought. Centurion was in at the public library, so I checked it out and put it in the player.

The two movies are very similar: not only are they set in the same period and place (the early second century CE, Scotland), they're different approaches to the same basic story: the disappearance of Rome's Ninth Legion in Britain, massacred by British tribal armies. Rome's inability to control Britain was so traumatic that the Emperor Hadrian visited the island himself to look around, and decided to build a wall to keep the barbarians away from the Romans. (Hadrian is the subject of another famous historical novel, Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar, which was published in French in 1951, in English in 1954.) The story was popularized by Rosemary Sutcliff's 1954 novel The Eagle of the Ninth. A bestseller in its day and still in print, it was the basis for The Eagle. It describes the efforts of the son of the Ninth Legion's commander to find out what happened to his father and recover the brass eagle that was the legion's standard.

Centurion is set a few years earlier: it describes -- or rather, like The Eagle, invents -- the story of the Ninth Legion's misadventures and downfall. You could think of it as a prequel to The Eagle, albeit set in a parallel universe: there's no connection between them except their common subject. The main difference between them is the level of onscreen violence. As I wrote in my earlier post on The Eagle, many reviewers objected to its lack of violence, which was a ploy to win the film a PG-13 rating. Even the unrated DVD version, which interpolated many quick shots of blood and mutilation, was too tame for the fanboys.

Having seen Centurion, I now can see why The Eagle fell short in their eyes. Neil Marshall has previously made action/horror films, and Centurion handles its violence like a mid-budget slasher film: lots of screams, groans, blood geysers, amputated limbs and heads, spears driven through bodies, pointed objects in eyes, and so on. The thing is, all of this could as easily be cut from Centurion as the milder gore was cut from The Eagle, without affecting the story or the movie itself. The fanboys, of course, would prefer to have it the other way around: as in a porn film or movie musical, the plot and characters are just there to fill the space between the battles and fights. And truth be told, the violence looks like a mid-budget horror film: it's easy to spot the prosthetics and mannequins, and most of the blood is patently CGI. The filmmakers would have done better to save their limited funds -- in my opinion, anyway; this weakness obviously didn't bother the fans.

The Eagle was criticized for the thinness of its story and the weakness of its character development, but Centurion is about on the same level in those areas. Both films are well-acted and well-photographed, with some gorgeous locations, and I suppose it's a point in its favor that Centurion has three female characters with speaking parts against The Eagle's none, but the women in Centurion aren't really characters: two are evil killers, and the other is the lady of succour, who hides the fleeing survivors of the massacre from their pursuers. (Speaking of speaking, the Romans in Centurion speak British English, like God intended; a sympathetic Pict character speaks English with a Scottish accent.) In both films lip service is paid to the suffering of the natives at the hands and penises of the Roman invaders, but that's all backstory. The audience is positioned to identify with the Romans, not their opponents: we see the frightened Roman soldiers overrun by the barbarian hordes, who take delight in maiming and killing them; we don't see a Pict farmer being forced to watch his entire family being raped and cut to pieces by the Romans. The Eagle does slightly better by making a Briton one of the protagonists, but that's not the same as telling the story from the Britons' point of view.

Both of these movies are entertaining enough, but neither is in any danger of being taken for great cinema anyway, except by those viewers who judge cinematic greatness by the special-effects budget. The Eagle has the edge in my book, precisely because of its relative restraint.