Centurion: fact vs fiction
On Saturday 10 April, Dundee's DCA cinema opened its doors for a very special preview screening of Neil Marshall's new historical blockbuster, Centurion. Hosted by Pictavia Visitor Centre in Angus, the evening included appearances by real-life Roman actors and a Q&A session with some of the extras and historical consultants who worked on the film.
For the 220 fans who won free tickets, it was an exciting opportunity for an advance viewing of a gripping action thriller which is surely destined for great success. As Pictavia staff member Jenny Sharp writes, it was a chance to see how this latest historical epic dealt with the myths surrounding its subject matter.
Centurion follows the legendary Ninth Legion as they battle for survival north of Hadrian's Wall. Quintus Dias “ the eponymous Centurion, portrayed by Hunger's Michael Fassbender - is the sole survivor of a savage Pictish raid on a Roman frontier fort.
He joins the legendary Ninth Legion, led by General Virilus (Dominic West) to march north and wipe out the Picts, but when the Legion is attacked and Virilus is captured, Quintus and his fellow survivors are caught up in a race to save the General and to evade capture, torture and certain death at the hands of the Picts.
Stunning cinematography and fast-paced action sequences have resulted in a breath-taking film. However, as always with historical genre films, the question remains: how accurate is it? Perhaps more importantly, since movies like Centurion are intended as escapism and entertainment, does it really matter?
One of the major draws of Centurion is that it portrays the Picts, the tribes who inhabited the North and East of Scotland during the first millennium AD. Despite remaining an enigmatic and fascinating people, to date the Picts have been surprisingly under-represented in cinematic terms. Keira Knightley's leather-clad Guinevere in 2004's King Arthur is one of very few examples of Picts appearing on the big screen, and “ unfortunately - probably the best-known.
Happily, Centurion offers a much more comprehensive “ and less romanticised - exploration of Scotland's ancestors. Although the sympathies of Centurion's audience are very obviously supposed to lie with the Romans, the film successfully avoids portraying the Picts as simply the bad guys.
The atrocities committed against them by the Romans are clearly explained, helping to justify the Picts' views of the Romans and their actions; and they show off an exciting and unparalleled mastery of hunting and tracking, guerilla tactics and fighting skills.
The filmmakers also deserve credit for the extensive background research they carried out, which is made obvious through the detailed depictions of Pictish weapons and dwellings, and their use of Pictish symbols in the film.
The film also subtly references the importance of family to the Picts, and the evidence which suggests women played an important role in Pictish society, both as leaders and as warriors.
In reality, however, there was a lot more to the Picts than is shown in the film. There's no doubting the importance of warfare in their culture, but this developed largely because of the numerous military threats posed to them “ starting with the Romans in the first century AD.
There is very limited reference to other, equally important, elements of Pictish life, such as their ideas about religion and art, and skills including hunting, weaving, fishing, story-telling, intricate metalwork and complex stone-carving. It is also likely that the Picts were more tolerant than is suggested by Arianne's banishment to the forest “ especially since, before the arrival of Christianity in the sixth century, the Picts' religious beliefs were pagan.
The legend of the Ninth Legion is equally mysterious and fascinating, and Neil Marshall's interpretation - however impressive it is cinematically - is only one possible explanation of their fate. Certainly, there is no concrete evidence to show that the Ninth was ever taken out of Britain and it appears to simply disappear in the early second century.
The idea that the Ninth disappeared somewhere in the British Isles has been popularised by a number of well-known books, such as Rosemary Sutcliffe's Eagle of the Ninth, and this is a view which is still popular among historians. However, it may also have ended up abroad, with some sources suggesting it re-appeared in what is now continental Europe or the Middle East.
While Centurion may not give a fully rounded or balanced view of the Picts “ or, indeed, the Romans “ it succeeds where other films have failed in offering a fairly sympathetic and realistic interpretation of this period in history. The research carried out by the filmmakers and their attention to detail are obvious, even if a few liberties have been taken.
Ultimately, the role of a film like this is as entertainment rather than information, and it will never be able to represent its subject matter accurately. However, anything which can engage people's interest in their history and encourage them to learn more is a very positive thing, and hopefully Centurion will raise awareness of the role of the Picts and the Romans in shaping Scotland's history.
Jenny Sharp Pictavia Visitor Centre
Pictavia is the centre for Pictish heritage in Angus, a modern and interactive attraction which engages visitors of all ages through touch screen computers, tactile surfaces, audiovisual presentations and a variety of activities. Check out the Pictavia website for more information.
ReelScotland Centurion coverage:
We interview director Neil Marshall and stars Axelle Carolyn and David Morrissey.