Centurion (2010) will be the first of my notes on the series of Strong women in “medieval” films. In this case my analysis will focus on the Pictish female warrior Etain but I will also explore the positions other female figures inhabit in this rewriting of the Roman military presence in the Roman limes in Britannia.
No, wait, I was the whole film more than horrified and this is the main reason why I honestly detest watching this type of films when I saw what were clearly Germanic helmets that were being worn by the Picts (did Picts wear this type of helmets, too? I really appreciate if anyone could comment on this…)
First I got a glimpse of it and thought, na, it cannot be… Yes it was. I saw different versions of this very helmet type with the boar on top.
I’ve seen the particular helmet in question in books but I cannot now find it on google because I do not remember its name and the Sutton Hoo helmet keeps popping up in my google search.
I guess Picts could wear any type of helmet and weapons they could take from the Romans (together with the heads, I kind of like that detail) But in 117 AD this particular helmet was around? I mean… It looked like the very Germanic example that I’ve seen dated together with some Vendel type helmets…To make sure of the exact helmet that is used in the film I’ll try to take screen shots later but yeah, you get the idea. Gah…
Oh, well, onwards…
Based on the “legend” of what happened to the 9th Roman legion, this film loosely takes on the possible historical setting for the disappearance of the legion in Caledonia and elaborates precisely on its fate against the Picts in the uncertain Roman limes.
I will not get down to historical detail (apart from that particular case of the helmet!) and I am so bad writing summaries that here is the wikipedia page for the film: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centurion_(film)
This film tickles (haven’t found a better word, sorry!) me because it shows an array of female figures with a very prominent and exceptionally strong woman (there is another female warrior who is very prominent but we do not get her background story or the expression of her inner tumult by means of her gaze or her physical proximity without mediating physical violence on her part with the Roman soldiers), who starts as an avenging woman but ends up portrayed as an evil, relentless woman who is so focus on her vengeance that she loses any hint of humanity.
This film is another example of how this role of the strong woman is handled when looking “back” into ancient culture that is, indeed, a reflection of how problematic portrayals of strong women are still within the collective fantasy and the environment of film that can be catalogued as “epic” (historical or fantasy) (I always wonder when watching this type of films: does a film profit from the presence of a strong woman? Has any presence of a strong woman to be balanced with the presence of a soft woman so that femininity is divided into positive and negative? Does the strong woman end up as a vilified form of femininity? How/ Is the strong woman “restored” into weakness?…). This film offers a narrative with a series of portrayals of women that articulate themselves in different positions in respect to male authorities (for/against/in between), but following, somehow a kind of universal interest for self-preservation and expression in either violence (Etain, her warrior partner whose name I couldn’t catch, the Roman lady who tries to kill Quintus Dias who is, according to wikipedia Agricola’s daughter), Status (Agricola’s daughter), or in a self-acceptance of their roles as outcast of what the community represents and can’t identify themselves with (Arianne).
The fact that one of the main male figures is called General Titus Flavius Virilus, a name resembling “virile” chanted throurough a fist competition and a show of testosterone that ends in a fight, seems to set the scene for the whole film in this regard,even though other male figures type cast different types of masculinity, with Centurion Quintus Dias’ not so extreme or ruthless masculinity, and some even capable of apologising and readdressing their behaviour, changing their minds when it comes to female figures and accept that Arianne may be a witch, and a woman, but they were wrong to distrust her. Masculinity is portrayed in this film as problematic when it is in power because it is driven by a desire for more power back in Rome as in the case of Agricola that will lead to the loss of thousand of soldiers that will be wiped out from records and memory.
Even though on the whole, there are diverse masculinities depicted within the Roman army, the presence of steadfast treacherous people who will make other tumble at their weakest (Thax is the very extreme example, ready to betray everyone around, except for his own general we are led to believe) Shows again a pervasive corruption of masculinity within the Roman Empire, together with a compulsive impulse to hide corruption, treason and failure.
Etain is a fascinating figure in herself, garbed with furskins and weapons that brand her as an exotic foreigner—and female—among the Roman soldiers, she is clearly still part of an uncivilized corner of the Roman Empire. Apparently, the only female among so many soldiers (a legion would be between 1,000 to 1,500 soldiers?) and she may be (apparently) under Agricola’s orders to track Gorlacon and among the Roman soldiers of the columns, but she is, in herself, the very embodiment of the wild nature she is sent to help to suppress in the combat between civilization (Roman Empire) and wild nature (Picts) that are also revealed to be stark opposites in more than just this semantic field but in a broader sense when debased behaviours of the Roman legions are revealed when Etain’s treason is revealed.
The nature vs civilization fight that is established by male speakers (even the climate is adverse for Roman conditions) is superseded by Etain’s silent reproach whenever she glances over her shoulder to the 9th Legion she is guiding towards annihilation: it is a seemingly battle between strength and weakness that she (together with Gorlacon and his community) is willing to win at all costs by helping take down such a strong enemy as a whole legion (!) at its weakest, to revenge her own loss and the forced presence/absence in her body and representation of the very weakness that sets her apart, notwithstanding her ferocity: no voice to speak ill of the Romans, to reveal what they did to her and her family when they were at their weakest (that’s it, defenceless) and depends on others’ voice to make her plight be known.
Her enemies will fear her but she will need the interpretation of other Picts’ voices to get pass through her own silence and communicate and make her violence intelligible for her very own victims (Would otherwise count as revenge?). She is silent but enraged as her only vocalization (?) is one of release when she kills Virilus (!) after fighting against him (proving she is the fighting arm of the community) by decapitating him after vanquishing his masculinity: she wins, he loses, but her revenge must go on.
She is then taken by Gorlacon as his own avenging warrior after his son’s body is discovered (no hint of a motherly figure in the community?).
In relation to this aspect of the strong woman, her very entrance into the film when we and Quintus Dias get a first look at her makes not only the centurion, but also the spectatorship aware that she is lethal too physically. She is not weak, she is not vulnerable, and she is not friendly to Roman men, she is shown as having no friendly relationship with any man except for Gorlacon who says they admitted her as one of their own (and we are led to believe that they admitted her into the warrior band). Shrouded in mystery, she is presented as an ambivalent figure with no voice, but understanding. She is settled, albeit momentarily, in an in-between position, between two male power figures in this landscape of wild (and beautiful) desolation. She will help one to get the other, in an unmatched competition where she is a linking element—hostile and ambivalent as it is later proved in the film—associated with the wolf due to her uncanny abilities precisely to track down warriors, any Picts Quintus is told (and also Roman soldiers as it is later discovered) she is relentless in her pursuit, embodying the fiery ideal of the Pict warrior according to Quintus Dias. She does not need her tongue, as it is proved when facing rude and lewd behaviour from the Roman soldiers who want to “fill” her mouth with their (physical) masculinity while they also fill as it were, her embodiment as a presence among them with several epithets and comments, trying to define her behaviour and identify her (within the spectre of femininity they may know/accept…), proving they have no clear way to pinpoint the silent woman unless they focus on her very materiality as a female.
There is no maternal side, no soft point or apparent weaknesses in this female warrior. She is unintelligible except for her relentless wish for vengeance unless someone else voices what she cannot speak. She represents vengeance and loyalty (to Gorlacon and to the blood feud itself).
But there are more positions for women, not only as Positions of alterity and total confrontation in respect to masculine Roman behaviour
[Arianne’s position] [TO BE CONTINUED…]
As Arianne’s position shows, she has been branded an outcast by a male power within her own community and by a male power figure.
There is also a position for femininity working for male power in the Roman side, with Agricola’s daughter
The film ends with [centurion’s] decision to go back to the wilderness that seems more appealing than civilization and be, himself, also an outcast.
Letting himself be at the hands of the witch.
Possible links for further research in this topic (not much written on this particular film it seems)
Paul, Joanna, “Subverting Sex and Love in Alejandro Amenábar’s Agora” (2009) > http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/9781137299604_17 >
The soundtrack is awesome, I have to admit it: spotify:album:2YIHdw5mnIbnZpSCch7d2G