Centurion & The Eagle ★★★☆☆ A pair of 2011 films about the 9th Legion

The destruction of the 9th legion in Scotland, somewhere on the wild side of Hadrian’s wall, is no more than a simple, tantalizing bullet point in Rome’s sprawling history: we know that it happened and about when, but not much else. It can be no more than a premise for these two films, every dramatic detail of which is pure speculation. For some reason, 2011 produced two remarkably similar films inspired by the 9th legion story, both depicting Picts chasing desperately isolated Romans through a spectacular ancient Scottish landscape. But there are many differences.

The Eagle is a pretty, earnest, simple and surprisingly quiet film, but perhaps a little too simple: not all that much happens. The son of the commander of the 9th legion goes to Scotland to restore his family’s honour, and — rather implausibly — finds and retrieves the lost 9th Legion’s eagle, a needle in the haystack of the vast Scottish wilderness, with a little help from a loyal local slave, and some grizzled old survivors of his father’s disaster who have gone native — but not too native to slaughter a few natives in defense of Rome’s honour one more time. The Eagle is neither particularly good, nor all that bad, but it has more soul than Centurion, with many strangely meditative moments.

Centurion is more blatantly a star-powered action movie — Escape from Ancient Scotland! It features the massacre of the 9th legion itself, and then the rest of film revolves around a handful of survivors trying to escape from badass foes, particularly the hot hot hot but absurd lady Pict super-soldier, played by Olga Kurylenko. It’s a role she can hardly get wrong, because the character lacks a tongue, so all Kurylenko has to do is look sexy and deadly serious (which she does as well as anyone ever has). This film fails to either offend or satisfy; it’s just a bit of entertaining silliness, with beautiful scenery.