There’s something of a legend around the Ninth Legion of the Roman Empire. More properly called the Legio IX Hispania, or the Spanish Legion — not because they were from Spain, but because they helped beat that area into submission in the 40’s B.C.E. — the story says that they were wiped out in the Scottish Highlands by fierce Celtic warriors in about 120 A.D. Five thousand men were lost, and after that humiliating defeat the emperor Hadrian built the wall that now bears his name, to keep those scary Picts out of the civilized world.
There’s something of a legend around the Ninth Legion of the Roman Empire. More properly called the Legio IX Hispania, or the Spanish Legion — not because they were from Spain, but because they helped beat that area into submission in the 40’s B.C.E. — the story says that they were wiped out in the Scottish Highlands by fierce Celtic warriors in about 120 A.D. Five thousand men were lost, and after that humiliating defeat the emperor Hadrian built the wall that now bears his name, to keep those scary Picts out of the civilized world. In 1954, Rosemary Sutcliff wrote a novel for teens on the subject, focusing on the quest to reclaim the legion’s lost standard, the glorious eagle of Rome.
It’s a thrilling legend, but like so many, it isn’t really true. The standard of the Ninth Legion was probably a bull, not an eagle; and while it’s true that the legion disappears from the records after the mid-second century, the names of some of its officers appear elsewhere, and these days, most scholars think the legion was simply disbanded and its members reassigned elsewhere. There’s not much proof, but the proof that they were slaughtered by painted warriors is even less.
Naturally, though, the truth never stopped anyone from writing a good action thriller, or from making said action thriller into a movie. Channing Tatum (who was, very briefly, Pretty Boy Floyd in Public Enemies), here plays soldier Marcus Aquilas, son of the commander of the Ninth Legion when it was lost. He’s focused on regaining the eagle, and with it, his family’s lost honor. Okay, he’s extremely focused. All right, Obsessed.
When he gets his own garrison command, he asks to be sent to Britain — basically the ends of the earth as far as your average Roman was concerned. Everyone thinks he’s too by the book, and too naive about the way things work out in the boondocks, but he manages to win his troops’ respect, and also the ancient Roman equivalent of a Medal of Valor. He also gets himself mostly killed, but that’s the sort of thing that happens when you’re Obsessed. He’s a little impulsive, too. If he was also curious, he wouldn’t have survived the first ten minutes of the film.
Enter Esca (Jamie Bell, Defiance and Jumper). He’s a slave, and also a Briton, and he ends up owing Marcus his life; so when Marcus decides to go off searching for the eagle, Esca is the logical choice to come along, since he speaks the language. I’m not sure what was up with the language stuff, actually. It’s supposed to be set in Scotland, of course, but there was only an Irish language consultant listed in the credits.
Marcus’ uncle Aquila (Donald Sutherland, of half the movies and TV shows made since 1962) warns his nephew that he can’t possibly trust a slave, but Marcus insists that since Esca has given him his word to serve him faithfully, it’s all good. Esca mostly stands around looking like he’s about to ask everyone, “What are you looking at?” but that’s the sort of thing that happens when you’re a slave.
After that, it’s all north of the Wall, where no Roman can survive, thanks in large part to the scary warriors of the Seal Tribe, which are nothing to do with Navy SEALs — they paint themselves with mud and wear the hides of the seals they’ve killed. Master and slave chase rumors over hill and dale, exchange stories over the campfire, and regard each other with deep suspicion. They meet Guern (Mark Strong, Sir Godfrey of Robin Hood), witness a really weird Seal Tribe coming of age ceremony, and absolutely wear out their poor horses. And it was actually a pretty decent movie.
Jamie Bell is great, for one thing. He always seems to be looking for a way out, or maybe for the next thing that he’ll need to do, and the interaction between Esca and Marcus is wonderful. It really only skates over the surface of things for the most part, though, which is kind of a shame. There are tantalizing little hints of Roman politics and little glimpses of the traditions of the ancient Scots, but no one ever delves into things like that.
Still, it’s a good action movie (the fight scenes aren’t spectacular like they should have been, but they’re not bad) and though the ending, like a Roman legion on the move, can be seen coming from miles away, overall it was an enjoyable watch. They get the whole thumbs up, thumbs down thing wrong — down actually meant “swords down,” and the defeated person in the gladiatorial games got to live — but everyone gets that wrong. So, summa summarum (all in all) it just squeaks into getting three out of five. Hail, Caesar!