This film forms a group of ‘recent films on Roman Britain’, the others being King Arthur (2004), The Last Legion (2007) and The Eagle (2011). There are some interesting resonances starting to develop between these films, but each of them uses the Roman frame to do something rather different as well.
This is the first film I have watched for a while where I have felt the hand of the director shaping the material quite as heavily as I did here. The director in question is Neil Marshall, whose work was summed up by mrph2 on Twitter as “visit Scotland, die horribly”. I hadn’t realised that this was a Neil Marshall piece, but watching it, I felt that it had resonances with two particular films – Valhalla Rising (2009), a particularly dreadful Scandewegian piece with Mads Mikkelsen which tries to be Aguirre but fails, and Dog Soldiers (2002), a Marshall film about squaddies becoming werewolves whilst out on a routine military exercise in Scotland. The parallels with the latter were, unsurprisingly, particularly strong, given that the basic plot elements of squaddies, Scotland and people who don’t play by the rules all feature heavily.
But this brings us to one thing that particularly stood out for me in the film, which was its depiction of the squaddies in the Roman army as – well, squaddies. They drank a lot, pissed up against trees, generally did all sorts of squaddie-esque things. Now, there may be some ways in which this is an anachronistic reading of modern soldierly behaviour back into the past, but on the other hand, chatting to one of my colleagues about his research into the Roman army has made me realise that we have plenty of evidence for the sort of behaviour which Marshall puts on screen. There’s a tenderness to the depiction too – at one point, all the soldiers who have survived a Pict attack are sitting in a cave sharing a bit about their backgrounds, and it’s all a bit male-bond-y and reminding us that trained vicious killers are people too – so there’s a nice balance in representing these people are human rather than as either scum of the earth or alternatively as systematically heroic and noble. I can’t think of an example which has bothered to fill in the characters of the average soldier, as opposed to the commanders, as well as this film does.
The other Marshall trait, obviously, is the great emphasis on atmospheric landscape photography, mainly achieved by distance shots of people running over heaths, with the odd brooding mountain thrown in for good measure. It’s all very evocative (also misty), but rather at odds with the violent battles with which it is interspersed. There’s also the problem of the soundtrack, which also tries to be all wistful and melancholy, but can’t quite pull it off when it’s playing along to people stabbing swords into each other and using up the tomato sauce budget. There’s a more serious point to this, in that there’s an attempt to explore the logic of warfare behind enemy lines where nobody plays according to the established rule of way (pick a current conflict, anyone?), but the geography fetish can mean that you feel like you’re watching two different films.
That’s mainly because of the brutalist approach to battle scenes, which happily strolls down the ultraviolence route – spears going through people, arrows in unfortunate places, hacking and stabbing and slashing – all that good stuff which has the props department cheerfully rubbing its hands and ordering extra fake heads on stakes for background colour. The second half of the film basically feels like a giant game of death tag set in the Scottish highlands. Which is fine, but it does lead to a problem with pacing – there’s only so long that you can care whether or not somebody is going to catch somebody else, and after a while you do start looking forward to the next shot of a scenic bit of Scotland to lighten the monotony. The ultraviolence also makes the battle scenes rather tedious, because they cram in as much slashing and hacking as possible, whilst also making it quite clear which side is winning – and I start to get bored. I appreciate that I’m very much not the target audience for this sort of film, but there does seem to be a real structural issue created by this kind of approach.
The film clearly knows what people watching a Roman film want, however, and make sure that it ticks all the stereotype boxes. There’s a great big wide shot of Hadrian’s wall being built, for instance, not to mention loads of Roman soldiers in Roman armour. Less obviously, the ambush of the Roman legion by the Picts is very much in the model of the Teutoburger Wald template, with looming woods and enemies coming out of nowhere, heralded only by their shouts in the distance. Agricola’s wife, who appears at the very end of the film, fits the ‘scheming female of the Roman aristocracy’ model nicely, so much so that I suspect she was only included so the scriptwriting team could tick the ‘somebody a bit like Livia’ box. They even manage to get in gladiatorial combat by staging a fight to the death between the captured General Virilus and the turncoat tracker Etain in the Pictish camp, after Virilus’ men have tried to rescue him and one of them has accidentally suffocated the Pictish chief’s son.
But there are also the odd things that hint at some proper research. Two examples. One of the characters who survives the massacre ends up being a slave from the kitchens – revealing somebody’s realised that Roman armies travel with quite a lot of hefty infrastructure going along with them, and has thought how to work it into the fabric of the plot in an interesting way. Second, the hero, Quintus Dias, offers the audience commentary on the ways of the Picts from time to time, and the effect is weirdly ethnographic, particularly when he explains the Pictish attitude to woad over various Picts daubing themselves. There’s a particularly Tacitean flavour here – which is, of course, appropriate, as the governor of Britain safe back in the capital is Agricola, Tacitus’ father-in-law (although probably not as the historian would have him remembered).
So, a strange rag-bag of the obvious, the not particularly good, and the interesting twist. I’ll close with one final observation, which is about the Bechdel test. Naturally, the film fails this pretty spectacularly – I’m not entirely sure how it could have ever passed, given the basic plot revolves around a soldier-chasing narrative. However, there was some scope for it, perhaps, just – except. Oh, except. That turncoat Pictish tracker I mentioned, Etain, is a woman. So she could have spoken to the other woman warrior among the Picts, perhaps, or to the woman living in a witchy hut who shelters the soldiers at one stage. But no. She can’t do that, because the Romans cut her tongue out when she was a child. So not only is the plot hindered from passing the Bechdel test by its very construction, but because its most prominent female character is in fact mute. And I think that really is as revealing about the film and its agenda as anything else I might say.