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August 22, 2007

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Movie Review – The Last Legion (2007)

by HELEN GEIB

The Last Legion is great fun. It has just about everything one hopes for from an ancient world adventure. There are Romans and Britons and an Indian, and Goths and Angles for good measure. It’s fast-paced and lighthearted and filled with action and warm humor. The heroes are sympathetic and the villains evil.

The mostly British actors (in a good cast headed by a very appealing Colin Firth) and Indian actress (Indian cinema superstar Aishwarya Rai, putting her talents as a dancer to excellent use in the fight scenes) are charismatic and play their roles at exactly the right pitch between taking the material seriously and not taking it seriously.

There’s romance. There’s sword fighting. There’s a Roman legionary battle formation.

The story of The Last Legion is an amusing amalgam of fact and fancy about the final days of the western empire and immediate post-Roman era Britain. I never expected the kernel of fact to be so substantial as it is, initiated by the sack of Rome by the Goths c. 460 (the year in which The Last Legion is purportedly set) and centering on the end of Roman control and Romano-British resistance to Germanic invaders in 5th century England. This is a conventional Hollywood adventure movie that draws on elements of Arthurian legend, but it’s underpinned to an exciting, and unexpected, degree by historical truth.

Events that were separated by years and geography are pushed together for dramatic effect with the end of Roman control in northern England pushed back by a few decades and the Romano-British resistance moved north. But the last Roman military forces along Hadrian’s Wall did merge into the local population when imperial control ended. Major characters are plausibly identified with historical figures of the period. And native Romano-British forces did win a significant military victory in the late 5th century.

The battle wasn’t fought anywhere close to the wall (and in fact there never was any important battle fought on the wall in its centuries as a military fortification), but poetic license justifies the choice. It’s the most exciting and picturesque setting possible for the Hollywood history version.

This is not a movie to wait and see on DVD. It won’t be half so much fun off the big screen. The action, locations, sets, costuming and weaponry make The Last Legion a movie that should be seen in the theater.

Especially the sets, from the decaying imperial fortified villa perched on the seaside cliffs of Capri, complete with crumbling statuary and a mosaic portrait of Julius Caesar, to the re-creation of a fort on Hadrian’s Wall sure to make museum curators along the real wall weep with joy and envy. The realization of late-empire Rome in decay is just great, and that Hadrian’s Wall set! I wanted to jump onto the screen and clamber around those walls myself.

3 stars


1 Comment Post a comment
  1. Miriam
    Aug 23 2007

    Historians are – or should be – hardened to the liberties Hollywood takes with the past and this was a playful reimagining of events that I enjoyed. I’m not sure how the hard-core Arthurian legend folks will take the “origins” elements. It didn’t all work but I absolutely loved the Lady of the Lake bit.

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