My husband Jim happened to find The Last Legion showing on IFC the other day and asked whether I knew about a movie starring Colin Firth as a Roman soldier, and I answered that I didn’t, even though I had already added it to our Netflix queue, which shows how little success this film must have enjoyed. For me to have not known about a film with Colin Firth running around with a sword and wearing (admittedly anachronistic) Roman armor seems scarcely creditable.
Note: There are spoilers below; I will mark the most egregious one. If you watch the trailer above, however, the spoiler warnings are superfluous.
Unfortunately it was late at night and the movie was half over but it was scheduled to show again, so we set the DVR and promptly forgot about it for two weeks. So I was pleasantly surprised when I saw it on our list of recorded shows and also amused that again I had forgotten about its existence. We watched it last night and while I can’t claim it’s a great movie, it was very enjoyable, both for seeing Firth running around with a sword but also because it made Jim splutter about the historical inanities.
The Last Legion is set during the very short reign of the last Western Roman Emperor Romulus Augustus, who was deposed and possibly killed when a teenager, by Goths who sacked what was then the capital of the western empire, Ravenna (although I believe in the movie it was still Rome). In the movie, however, the general of the Nova Invicta Legion, Aurelianus Caius Antonius called Aurelius (Firth), rescues the young Caesar (played by Thomas Sangster/Love, Actually) after the boy is taken to the “island fortress” of Capri.
The boy’s mentor, Ambrosinus (Ben Kingsley), had convinced the Goth usurper, Odoacer, not to kill the young Caesar by arguing that it might make Odoacer look weak to have killed a young boy, even if the boy has “the blood line of Julius Caesar” and thus might be perceived as a martyr.
The “blood line of the Caesars” had Jim complaining that in no way could the young Caesar be related to that Caesar. Later comments about a wise Tiberius (the second Roman emperor after Augustus, who created for himself the role of emperor) also made Jim fume, because few people have good things to say about Tiberius.
Aurelius rescues the boy from Capri with the help of some of his legionnaires (most were killed in the initial Goth attack) and the female warrior Mira (Aishwarya Rai), sent to aid them by the duplicitous envoy (Deep Space Nine’s Alexander Siddig) of the Eastern Roman emperor. During the rescue, the young Caesar happens across a sword made in Britannia for Julius Caesar, presumably during his abortive attempts to conquer the island. For some reason, there’s also an inscription implying that the sword is destined for one who would rule Britannia.
But after the escape, the envoy’s treachery is unveiled—the eastern emperor has agreed to turn over the boy to the Goth warlord–and so Aurelius, his remaining legionnaires, the boy, Ambrosinus and Mira head for Britain where Aurelius hopes the Ninth Legion might be found and that it might prove loyal to Caesar. This really beggars the imagination, of course, because it means traveling over the Alps and crossing the channel, hoping to find a legion that in historical terms disappeared hundreds of years previous, all while being pursued by the Goths.
Despite the historical inaccuracies (of which I was frankly ignorant or ignored), I found the movie enjoyable in a de Laurentis (yes, it’s one of their films) sort of way and the director Doug Lefler kept the story moving and cohesive, even though it’s in two parts, divided between Rome/Capri and Britain. Apparently four hours of film was shot, but a lot of the Alps and the channel crossing ended up on the cutting room floor. Unfortunately the remnants of their travails feels rushed as a consequence.
It’s kind of a chaste film: we never get to see Firth in a wet shirt but we do see Mira in a (not too translucent) wet shift, which is a nice in joke, especially as Aishwarya Rai starred in the Bollywood Bride and Prejudice. Their later sparring scene also made me think of Darcy and Elizabeth dancing in Pride and Prejudice.
I couldn’t help but think that in most action films of this sort, you’d expect to see the leading man shirtless at least once with bulging muscles and clearly defined abs, but although Firth appears in great shape and reasonably believable as a man of action, he remains fully clothed. This is not your old school de Laurentis swords and sandals picture with men in short shorts.
I did appreciate that Mira had the best fighting sequences, highlighting her training as a Keralite warrior and the unpronounceable Indian martial art Kalarippayattu.
OK, I’ll now pick up the story in Britannia, although you could stop here if you want to avoid potential spoilers. Aurelius and the rest of the brotherhood (sorry, wrong movie, but some of the Rome scenes and crossing the Alps suggest the Lord of the Rings franchise) reach one of the mile castles spaced along Hadrian’s Wall, but it is deserted. However they’re soon contacted by remnants of the Ninth Legion, who are laying low after Rome’s abandonment of Britain and also to escape the notice of the local warlord Vortgyn (or Vortigern). It also turns out Ambrosinus and Vortgyn have a history and when the pursuing Goths turn to Vortgyn for help, the knowledge that Ambrosinus is the young Caesar‘s mentor persuades Vortgyn to attack. Vortgyn also wants the sword, of which he’s apparently knows.
Aurelius persuades some of the former Ninth legionnaires to his cause and they fortify the mile castle. Firth gets to do his St. Crispin’s Day speech, pledges his fealty to Caesar and finally gets the girl. Despite initial success (and some skilled stagecraft by Ambrosinus that makes Vortgyn’s troops worried that the mentor is a wizard), things look bleak for the Romans until the rest of the Ninth Legion decides to join the fight. The contest is finally settled after Ambrosinus defeats Vortgyn after pushing the warlord into a burning (probably sacred, Druidy) tree.
BIG SPOILER: At the end of the film, the film makes obvious what has been inferred all along: this is an Arthur story. You’ve got the last gasp of the Roman empire in Britain, a skilled general, a nearly magical sword and a wise man who acts as a mentor and who may or may not be a wizard. The final scene of the movie is practically bludgeoning you with a sword if you’ve haven’t figured out the connection.
The movie apparently didn’t do that well, according to the very thorough entry at wikipedia, but I enjoyed it and even Jim enjoyed it, despite the weird attempt to promote Tiberius and the ridiculous blood line of Caesar. After all, historically it’s far superior to films like 300. And since we knew almost nothing about the film before we started watching it, the whole Arthur ending was a bonus instead of something to be dreaded the whole film. If you’ve made it this far in this review, I apologize in spoiling it for you, but the movie trailer is pretty blatant about the Arthurian foreshadowing.
Ultimately, I confessed I watched it for Colin Firth and the novelty of seeing him in an action role. He brought his own style to the role, however, including the look he gives when he realizes he’s outnumbered. And in his interaction with Mira, there’s an unmistakable air of Darcy, and that made any imperfections in the film inconsequential.