“The End of an Empire. The Beginning of a Legend”
Directed by Dough Lefler
Starring Colin Firth, Ashwarya Rai, Ben Kingsley and Thomas Sangster
In the twilight years of the Western Roman Empire, the Goths sack Rome and imprison the young emperor, Romulus Augustus (Sangster). Lead by the renowned General Aurelius (Firth), the last of the Emperor’s personal guard, together with his tutor Ambrosinus (Kingsley) and an Indo-Byzantine warrior woman named Mira (Rai), set out to rescue Romulus from the Goths, then flee the treacherous senate and Eastern Empire to seek sanctuary with the lost Ninth Legion in Britain.
What’s wrong with it?
In terms of historical inaccuracy, this film gives King Arthur a run for its money. The legions are clad in the classic finery seen in the Asterix books, centuries out of date, and Mra is by comparison about seven centuries ahead of her time in terms of weapons and martial arts development. The reverence shown for Romulus Augustulus, in reality the teenage son of a usurper, is matched only by that given to Julius Caesar and the Emperor Tiberius (who died in disgrace, painted by his own people as the worst kind of tyrant and child-molester). The Ninth Hispana are renamed ‘the dragon legion’ and portrayed in a way that makes The Eagle look like a triumph of speculative fiction.
What’s right with it?
So, firstly, dat cast. All the leads are good, and ably supported by Alexander Siddig and all the big, grim blokes who would later find such profitable employment filming Game of Thrones for HBO (apart from the ones who were too busy being in Rome). More importantly, the film may be bollocks, but it’s fun.
How bad is it really?
Well, actually it’s pretty good. The film is basically here for its woeful depiction of a historical period which, although no-one knows what it actually looked like, can pretty soundly be said not to have looked like this. Outside of that and few hilarious bits of philosophising, it’s a good watch of a quiet afternoon.
Best bit (if such there is)?
Ambrosinus stands on the walls and hurls fireballs at Vortygn’s horde. A second shot shows that he is actually just waving his arms while onagers fire from behind him.
What’s up with…?
- The Byzantine machine guns? Having decided to betray Romulus, the Byzantine ambassador lures the guard into a trap with rapid-firing bolt throwers in some sort of misguided nod to The Godfather or possibly The Great Escape.
- The porta-ballista? During the assault on Capri, Aurelius uses a stockless ballista held with his feet, despite the fact that large catapults of a more modern kind would be available by then, and that any kind of bow would be more practical than a folding ballista.
- The counter-Darcy? Mira emerges from the river like Mr Darcy, in front of the man who made the moment famous. Was that deliberate, or just a way to get the actress in a wet shirt?
Production values – I’m in two minds about this. It’s well-shot and nicely put together, but when push comes to shove, almost every detail of the costume, props and buildings is wrong. 11
Dialogue and performances – The dialogue is nothing special, with a few gems matched against some bits of clunky philosophy, but the acting is so good you barely notice. 8
Plot and execution – The plot is basically silly. ‘We must flee to Britain to meet up with the 9th Legion’ is a poor reason to go all that way at that time, especially when a teenage emperor would be unidentifiable anywhere outside the heart of Rome. It’s fun though, and rattles along without ever getting gratuitous. 12
Randomness – Caesar’s sword = Excalibur, the ‘Dragon Legion’, Ben Kingsley does kung fu. 10
Waste of potential – One of the best pseudo-Arthurian Romano-British romps of recent years, if far from the only one. 4