There’s very little difference between cinephiles and sports fans. We both idolize the greats. We both find beauty and meaning in something many people see as nothing more than a distraction. And we argue. Boy howdy, do we argue. Kobe or Lebron? Is Wes Anderson a lyrical poet of upper class disaffection or a sheltered hack peddling one percenter whining? Can Christopher Walken dunk? One question preoccupies both camps: Who is the next [awesome luminary]? Michael Jordan has been the owner of that particular shadow in NBA circles, prompting endless debates over who the “next” version of him is. With movies, it’s less possible to come up with a consensus Greatest Of All Time (abbreviated, confusingly as GOAT, and no, I’m not making that up). Instead, we pick our favorites, and my particular group is most concerned over the legacy of John Carpenter.
This is because he’s awesome. More to the point, he made the movies of our collective youth, the ones that inspired us to become the fitfully successful adults we are on better days. Two candidates for the title of Next John Carpenter have emerged from a secretly crowded field. Erik and Clint both back Robert Rodriguez. I am firmly in the Neil Marshall camp. Probably obvious, since he’s the only director with two previous Now Fear This entries.
The next Carpenter needs several films on his CV to draw the comparison: least one horror masterpiece (to match with Halloween and The Thing), a re-imagined western (Assault on Precinct 13), and something with an offbeat sense of humor (Big Trouble in Little China). Centurion, Marshall’s latest film, covers that middle one. Yes, it’s a western without guns, Texas accents, and only a few horses. The western genre isn’t actually defined by that sort of thing, sort of the equivalent of calling something a romance because it features boobs. What makes a true western are its symbols and themes. Can humanity tame anything without destroying part of it? Are change and death synonymous? And does the frontier actively want your lily white ass dead or does it just seem like that?
In 117 AD, Rome stretched all the way into Britain. Two tribes of people, the Picts and the Celts, united by a penchant for headbutts, painting themselves blue, and not giving a fuck, stopped the Empire in its tracks. In a garrison somewhere in Scotland, centurion Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) does some handsome guy musing about this endless war. The Picts have a new king, Gorlacon, a devotee of guerrilla hit-and-fade tactics, i.e. the best way to get a large and unwieldy army the fuck off your lawn. The Pict King’s ears must be burning, because his men sack the fort, butcher the guards, and take Quintus prisoner.
What Gorlacon doesn’t realize is that Quintus is played by Michael Fassbender, so imprisoning him is a good way to get all your guards killed and your wife pregnant. Quintus escapes, returning to the 9th Legion, commanded by walking testicle Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic “McNulty” West). Virilus is going north to kill Gorlacon and crush all this resistance bullshit once and for all. Quintus, having escaped the camp, is in a unique position to assist. Betrayed by their Pictish guide Etain (Olga Kurylenko), the legion is slaughtered, and Quintus has to make it home with the few survivors.
This is a highly truncated version of what happens, mostly because I can’t do a proper synopsis without waving a stick and making sword sounds with my mouth. Centurion is roughly fifty percent arterial spray. Neil Marshall made the film by asking a battle axe to draw a picture of its daddy. The whole thing is a delirious throwback, a structural oddity to the days when films felt less like a premeditated story and more a collection of awesome shit that happened one time. At turns, Centurion is a prison drama, a war movie, a rescue film, and a chase picture. Anything is possible, as long as it involves extremely attractive people and Iron Age weaponry.
The film isn’t all awesome ownage and shirtless Fassbender. There’s a lot going on in Centurion. First, it gives itself relevancy in Quintus’s opening speech about “a war without honor, without end” and the new way this Pictish king fights draws comparison to any similar war, such as the two the United States was involved in when Centurion was released in 2010. Rome is the blueprint for arrogant overreach, as well as the long term futility of the same. People tend to forget the empire lasted six hundred years, or three times as long as the US has been a thing.
A persistent theme within the story is that Rome manufactures its villains. Both Gorlacon and Etain have damn good reasons for hating Romans, and could easily have been the heroes of a Braveheart-style action film. The savagery of the Picts is directly proportional to the brutality of the Romans. In attempting to tame the wild lands of Northern Britain, Rome has royally pissed off people whose idea of formal wear is a little blue paint and the flayed skins of the fallen. At several points in the film, explicitly and implicitly, the Picts are compared to wolves. When the Romans cut Etain’s tongue out of her head, they were robbing her of a key component of humanity, and in essence turning her into an animal. The Romans came to civilize, but it’s impossible to civilize at swordpoint. Or dickpoint. That’s tough too.
Substitute sword for guns, and dicks for trains, and you have the crux of the Western. As America fell under romantic notions about the endless lands stretching to the Pacific, we descended on them, turning wild areas into farms, stitching up the plains with train tracks and killing Indians. By virtue of being there, we were destroying the land we loved with the civilization that would supposedly prove it. Those who were already there would be wiped out or assimiliated. They were not allowed to remain as they were.
Which brings us back to Iraq and Afghanistan. The imperial adventures of the Bush Administration were based on the idea that we could bring occidental democracies to the Middle East by the barrel of a gun. Though there is little romanticism about Iraq and Afghanistan (a shame really, since one is the cradle of civilization and the other is the grave of empires), there was the principle of creation via destruction. The unintended consequence of any invasion is the radicalization of the population. If Abu Ghraib didn’t make some anti-American wolves, I don’t know what did. Yes, I am in fact suggesting the Bush years were an ill-conceived revisionist western. And for those who insist on ten gallon hats and Texas accents, we had those too.
Centurion is fundamentally a throwback film. Shot entirely on location, it feels more real than any amount of green screen can duplicate. It’s the spiritual successor to The Warriors, the other side of Assault on Precinct 13. It’s Neil Marshall’s sincere desire to make films to stand alongside those cult classics. And he succeeded. Again.