The fall of the Roman Empire has always fascinated us in part as all disasters do, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, floods, tidal waves, collapsing buildings, because of the sheer concept of something so seemingly massive and indestructible as the world’s mightiest empire coming apart at the seams. But to a larger degree, the Roman Empire resonates with American and British fears of the collapse of their own “empires”. The Roman Empire was once upon a time the greatest world civilization of its day, much as we are today and despite the many horrors and atrocities of the Roman Empire, America and England have traditionally felt a certain sympathy with it. And that brings us to The Last Legion.
The Last Legion is an attempt to form a historical bridge between the end of the Roman Empire to the British Empire via Excalibur, the legendary sword of King Arthur and in The Last Legion, also the sword of Ceaser hidden away in a fortress where the Emperor Tiberius once resided and to which the young Western Emperor Romulus is exiled.
The mythology of The Last Legion attempts to create a direct link between the Roman Empire and the British Empire and as dubious as the history is in this regard, it’s interesting to examine the underlying need for that kind of imperial continuity.
The Last Legion begins in a decaying Roman Empire as Aurelius (Colin Firth) has returned to lead the new Emperor’s guard. The new Emperor is a young boy named Romulus (14 years old in real life but his age remains unstated in the movie and though the actor is older, he appears much younger) whose first encounter with Aurelius comes when he draws the commander’s sword and is mistaken for a street thieft and nearly loses his hand.
Romulus’ father, Orestes, was in real life the commander of an army who overthrew the former Emperor to put his son on the throne. The movie however plays up the nobility of Romulus and Orestes’ line and avoids any mention of the series of coups that had preceded the last Emperor’s ascension aside from a brief throwaway line about “Five emperors in as many years”. The movie also insists that Romulus has Caeaser’s blood flowing through his veins. This may be somewhat true but Orestes was certainly not a descendant of Caeaser and Romulus’ only possible biological connections to Caeaser would have been through his mother’s side and even that is doubtful. By this point in time the Roman Empire had long since degraded and the Western Roman Emperors were little more than warlords coming to power and being overthrown culminating in the Gothic overthrow of Rome that is at the heart of The Last Legion.
The Last Legion obviously does not have the budget or the resources to show off Rome in the grand manner that Gladiator did but director Doug Lefler, a TV director who came out of the Hercules and Xena shows, manages a surprisingly decent job of compensating for the low budget by showcasing some gorgeous shots of vast landscapes and the occasional statue. A particularly striking shot has Aurelius waking up beneath the massive outhrust hand of a buried statue. Still the overrun of Rome is reduced to a brief battle in a palace courtyard reserving the attempt to stage a final battle for the movie’s climax.
As Aurelius, Colin Firth is better suited for playing a Roman than he ever was for playing a British Nobleman. He projects concentration and a preoccupation with honor along with the casual brutality of a Roman officer. Unfortunately The Last Legion also attempts to shove a romance into the movie and that is where it goes wrong. Colin Firth may be a romantic icon to the corsets and lace crowd but he projects almost negative warmth on screen. Intensity, yes. Remoteness, yes. Warmth, no.
The Last Legion got much of its publicity for bringing Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai to the movie as Mira, a martial arts enabled female warrior who works for the Byzantine Empire under Star Trek Deep Space Nine’s Alexander Siddig’s Theodorus. And Aishwarya Rai really eliminates any credibility The Last Legion can summon, both historical and dramatic. Aishwarya Rai’s Mira is basically Wonder Woman who can defeat a dozen heavily armed soldiers and do anything and everything. From a historical standpoint an Indian female martial arts warrior overturns any realism The Last Legion had managed to feebly gather up. And while she’s pretty enough, Rai’s casual breeze performance completely clashes with the intensity all the other actors are bringing to the table.
Meanwhile Ben Kingsley continues making his completely inconceivable movie choices with his appearance as a mysterious Celtic shaman slash tutor for Romulus who turns out to be a rather major mythical figure. Part of the problem is that in one the utterly terrible wigs much of the cast is forced to wear, Ben Kingsley looks more like a discount actor hired to do a Ben Kingsley imitation. Ben Kingsley does his best with a role that primarily requires him to be vaguely mysterious and yet spiritual but even he can’t redeem the ridiculousness of a scene that has him tossing CGI fireballs at an attacking army.
Thomas Sangster as Romulus by contrast turns in a fine performance, focused and prematurely mature, in a way that suggests what The Phantom Menace might have been had a genuinely talented actor been cast in the Anakin part. The role of Romulus could have very easily been handed over to a teen idol or some random 12 year old who can do an upper class British accent but Thomas Sangster along with Colin Firth is really all that The Last Legion has going for it.
At the end of the day, The Last Legion can’t decide if it wants to be Gladiator with its tales of Roman grandeur and warrior virtue or a footloose jog through a wacky mix and match of history for pure entertainment like Hercules or Xena. The Last Legion instead tries to be both and does neither well. The result isn’t a lot of fun and it’s hard to take seriously. Colin Firth and Thomas Sangster are in their own movie while Rai and Ben Kingsley are in their own movie and the two movies only meet occasionally.
Despite his background, Doug Lefler does a good job directing The Last Legion but he needs a better script and better discipline.