The Last Legion (DVD) - 2006

I really wanted to like this movie. After all, it's got some great actors in it (Colin Firth and Ben Kingsley), is set in an interesting time (the Fall of the Western Roman Empire) and has an Arthurian tie-in. What's not to like? After watching the film, though, on its new DVD release, I found myself monumentally underimpressed. It's not that the movie's bad, just that it's not very good. Uninspired and formulaic are another couple of adjectives that spring to mind.

The movie starts in Rome, where Aurelianus Caius Antonius, called Aurelius, has just returned from fighting somewhere. In the first, fairly unbelievable set piece, young Romulus is caught appearing to steal his sword. After threatening to hack off his hand for thievery, Aurelius lets him go. Naturally, the boy is days away from being crowned "Caesar" and ruler of the Western Roman Empire. Also naturally, Aurelius is appointed to command his bodyguard the next day. Formulaic plot point, follows formulaic plot point as if from the book "Sword and Sorcery Movies for Dummies."

Within a day or so, the Goths attack and take Rome. Of course, both Romulus parents are slain (before his very eyes, naturally) by the same evil Goth. The boy himself is taken prisoner. Aurelius men are slaughtered almost to a man and Aurelius himself is beat up and left for dead (naturally). He makes contact with a friend who is a Senator and a representative of the Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantine, who offers to provide sanctuary for the boy if Aurelius can rescue.

Aurelius and one of the Byzantine's guards, a slight figure whose face is obscured by a mail drape, go to rescue the rest of Aurelius men before they are executed. They do so as the Byzantine impresses everyone by killing five or six Goths. The inter-racial Legionary commando squad is straight out of nearly every World War II movie ever made. They set off for Capri, where Romulus and his tutor, Ambrosinus, a man who is so clearly Merlin from his first appearance that the Romanized name is superfluous, are being held prisoner. On the way they learn (shock, horror) that the Byzantine is a woman! Named Mira, the romance between her and Aurelius is as inevitable as it is annoying.

At Capri, they launch a grapnel high in the air using a break-down belly bow, kill a bunch of Goths, rescue Romulus and Ambrosinus, recover the sword of Julius Caesar - Excalibur, and escape.

They rendezvous with the Senator and the Byzantine emissary, only to learn that the Byzantines will not harbor the young Caesar. Clearly what is needed is an Outlaw Josey Wales style betrayal. Instead of Gatling guns, the baddies use spear-launching scatterguns. Of course, our heroes kill everyone, losing one of their comrades so we won't think it's too easy. Mira kills her commander, the Byzantine emissary, and throws her lot in with the Romans irrevocably.

They choose to flee to Brittania, where the last possibly loyal legion, the 9th, remains. After some obligatory shots of "crossing Europe", including the "crossing the alps in the winter" sequence, they arrive in Brittania only to learn that is crushed beneath the heel of Vortgyn, the King of Anglia. Who wears a Golden Mask and what looks like a leather duster. He would not be out of place in "Masters of the Universe."

The 9th has laid down arms and become farmers, because Rome abandoned them. Vortgyn and the necessary Goth party that has been tracking the Romans this whole time ally to get the sword for Vortgyn and the boy for the Goths. After a stirring speech, the few Romans led by Aurelius are joined by a few of the 9th and go to fight the Anglians. A battle ensues, just as all seems lost, the rest of the 9th shows up like the 7th Cavalry, and the Anglians are routed. Ambrosinus kills Vortgyn, Mira kills the second string Goth baddies, Aurelius is almost killed by the Goth leader but saved at the last moment by Romulus. Romulus declares peace, throws Excalibur away where it lands point first in rock, or should I say Stone. Aurelius marries Mira, Romulus changes his name to Pendragon, marries Ygraine and has a son named Arthur. Everyone lives happily ever after.

Having roundly abused the movie, now let me back off. It's not really all that bad. parts of it are quite fun, and there are moments here and there that are thrilling. The problem, I think, is that the movie can't quite figure out what it wants to do - Is it an historical drama? Is it a fantasy? Is it a love story? The result is that it does none of things well. The history is dodgy, but it's got enough of a historical feel that things like the magic sword and female Indian warriors are jarring. The love story is completely forced, and although Ashwarya Rai, playing Mira, looks great and moves and fights well, the whole subplot just seems wrong.

In its favour, I suppose, the movie did make me wonder about the history involved and I may have to do some research on the last days of the Roman Empire - not my usual period of interest. I also have a passing interest in reading the book on which the movie was based, since perhaps in there some of the incoherence of the film can be more fully explained.

Perhaps that is the real problem: the movie tried to accomplish too much in too short a time and as a result left an unsatisfying and vaguely incomprehensible mess. It's not unwatchable, though, just ... not very good.

Overall Grade: C-


smg58 said...

I remember watching a History Channel special on the historical King Arthur a couple of years ago, around the time when the King Arthur movie came out, and thinking there was great potential for a story based around the legends that managed to incorporate what we know about the history. But I haven't read any reviews of this movie that were any more favorable than yours, and the most favorable thing I heard about the King Arthur movie is that it's a pretty good Medieval action flick as long as you ignore both the history and the legend.

smg58 said...

The script writers appear to have watched the same History Channel special, or at least did five minutes of quality research on wikipedia, because they borrowed a couple of historical names. Romulus Aurelius is the name of a Romano-British general credited with a victory against the Saxons, and considered a possible identity for the historical Arthur. Vortigern was a British (or Welsh) chieftain who allegedly swayed a council of the leaders of the Britons to employ Saxon mercenaries and allow them to settle in Britain -- a deal which (assuming it happened as reported) sealed the fate of Celtic autonomy in Britain.