Swords, sandals, and splatter
Director unleashes horror of war in 'Centurion'
There was a whole list of reasons for English writer-director Neil Marshall to make “Centurion,’’ a brutal adventure set amid the war between Roman soldiers and Pict tribesmen during the second-century conquest of Britain. Marshall was fascinated by the story of the Ninth Legion, a Roman contingent that, according to legend, simply vanished after marching into the mists of Scotland. He also saw an opportunity to again take advantage of the “massive, unexploited back lot’’ that Scotland has offered him as a UK-based filmmaker, from the eerie hinterlands of “Dog Soldiers’’ and “The Descent’’ to the post-apocalyptic dead zone of “Doomsday.’’ And, of course, there were some provocative parallels to be drawn between the Romans’ precarious, dubious presence in Britain and the current climate in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Anyone familiar with cult-favorite Marshall, though, knows that the opportunity to slather a cruel ancient landscape with creatively spilled blood and guts was sufficient lure in itself. There’s a reason the guy has been grouped with neo-grindhouse auteurs like Rob Zombie and Eli Roth as part of a so-called Splat Pack. “By now, the audience does kind of know what to expect from my movies,’’ Marshall laughingly concedes during a Boston publicity stop with his wife, Axelle Carolyn, who appears in the film as a Pict warrior woman. The soft-spoken director, 40, is as unassuming looking as any bloke down at the local pub. But he wears his affinity for gore on his sleeve — and on his chest, in the form of a “Jaws’’-referencing T-shirt that reads “Amity Police.’’ “The main draw of ‘Centurion’ for me was making a historical adventure,’’ he says. “But then I applied my horror sensibilities to that by filming the violence in a more honest way.’’
“Centurion’’ stars Michael Fassbender (“300’’) as Quintus Dias, a soldier who joins a march to finally crush the Picts, then ends up leading ambush-decimated Roman forces in a bid to rescue their captured general (Dominic West). Olga Kurylenko (“Quantum of Solace’’) costars as a mute, war-painted Pict ruthlessly tracking Quintus and his men in their flight to get back from behind enemy lines.
“The Picts didn’t keep any kind of recorded history, so we had to fill in the blanks in imagining some things,’’ Marshall says. Still, even for elements such as a showy set piece in which the Ninth Legion is beset by massive rolling fireballs, plausibility was a mandate. “I had to figure out how the Picts were going to beat the Romans. They couldn’t do it on their own terms — but how could they use the landscape? What if they trapped the Romans in a narrow valley, and used these fireballs as the preliminary method of shattering their wall of shields? I tried to bring a sense of pragmatism to it.’’ (As with the rest of the movie and all of Marshall’s work, digital effects were used sparingly. “I kind of set out to make the anti-‘300,’ ’’ he says.)
The “Braveheart’’-eclipsing battle carnage of the movie’s first act gives way to even gnarlier moments as the Romans’ desperation grows. In one fan-pleasing groan-inducer, Quintus’s group downs an elk, but bypasses the meat in favor of — spoiler alert — the animal’s predigested stomach contents. It’s basic sustenance they can choke down on the run — a bit of survivalism based on historical fact, Marshall notes. At another point, cornered centurion Brick (Liam Cunningham) yanks an arrow out of his back and uses it as a weapon of his own — to stab Carolyn’s Aeron in decidedly grisly fashion. To reiterate: The director has his wife’s character dispatched with an arrow to the eye. And she’s OK with it.
“Oh, I’m such a huge horror fan, that’s almost the first thing I’m going to look for in one of Neil’s scripts,’’ says Carolyn, a one-time journalist who met Marshall when she interviewed him at a Brussels junket for “The Descent.’’ “I think he made a point of giving me the most disgusting death in the whole film.’’
“I suppose any woman who’s going to make a film with me should realize that they’re not necessarily going to look very glamorous,’’ he says with a smile.
After attending film school and breaking into the industry as an editor in the mid-’90s, Marshall shifted to writing and directing with 2002’s “Dog Soldiers,’’ a low-budget shocker about a British army unit stumbling onto a werewolf pack. The movie was a cult hit, masterfully building suspense with buckets of blood and just a few teasing glimpses of its monsters — at least until the audience was sufficiently invested to roll with seeing the old-school creatures in full. Shades of, yes, “Jaws.’’
Next up was 2006’s “The Descent,’’ about a group of women whose gal-pal bond unravels fast when a caving excursion traps them in the dark with steroidal, flesh-chomping Gollum clones. The movie drew raves at Sundance and from critics, and you didn’t even need to get to the horrific bits to be freaked out — Marshall’s claustrophobic, logistically bewildering spelunking shots were plenty creepy themselves.
Despite the atmospheric inventiveness and ambitious girl-power narrative of “The Descent,’’ Marshall subsequently found himself being offered one routine horror project after another — wilderness horror, typically. He instead opted to make 2008’s “Doomsday,’’ a $30 million riff on both “Escape From New York’’ and “The Road Warrior’’ that imagines life in Scotland decades after the region has been walled off to contain a killer virus. (As it happens, the story’s beginnings aren’t so far removed from “Centurion’’ and its depiction of the fortified Roman frontier: “The initial idea for ‘Doomsday’ was: What would ever cause them to rebuild Hadrian’s Wall, and what would happen if they did?’’ Marshall says.)
Marshall delivered an homage sharp enough to make a fanboy wonder why there continues to be industry talk about doing a straight remake of “Escape.’’ Still, “Doomsday’’ was coolly received — one reason, perhaps, that the director had a budget more on the order of $10 million for “Centurion.’’ Could it be that Marshall’s genre predilections, rightly or wrongly, are boxing him in? For all its rousing action and Scottish highlands visual grandeur, “Centurion,’’ which opened on Friday at Kendall Square Cinema, is playing on just a dozen screens nationwide. The movie has also been available for the last month as a video-on-demand title. But one imagines Marshall’s cinematographer weeping at the thought of watching on a small screen as Fassbender’s Quintus stumbles bloodied but unbroken down a pristine, snow-blanketed Scottish peak.
Whatever the case, don’t expect Marshall to make any apologies for his hardcore tastes. He clearly has too much fun cooking up the gross stuff on set — a spinach-and-cheese puree in the case of those elk innards, for any who are curious. And besides, it’s not as if, say, “The Evil Dead’’ kept Sam Raimi from getting his shot at “Spider-Man.’’ (Not coincidentally, Marshall has been developing a closely guarded 3-D project called “Burst’’ for Raimi to produce. He’s also eyeing a World War II adventure.) To date, “Dog Soldiers’’ remains the only film on which Marshall has actually censored himself, dropping one image of a shrieking, bisected squad member — but only because it would have undercut the character’s wickedly defiant parting shot from earlier on. “Great effect,’’ he says admiringly. “But we didn’t need it.’’
Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.