Tormented since childhood by Flavius’ ambiguous legacy – did Dad fight to the end or show cowardice by abandoning this gilded emblem of Rome’s honor? – Marcus hopes to restore both national and familial pride by returning the totem to imperial custody.
But to achieve this, he will have to journey beyond Hadrian’s Wall, the northern limit of the Empire, an undertaking considered impossibly reckless by the cautious uncle (Donald Sutherland) at whose villa Marcus has been recuperating from the battle wounds that put an end to his active military career.
In fact, once he enters this alien world populated by hostile Britons, Marcus will be wholly dependent on Esca as interpreter and guide. Yet, Esca himself is unsure of his loyalties.
As the enslaved son of a local chieftain killed by the occupier, Esca detests Rome and everything it represents. But his first encounter with his master ended with Marcus saving the lad’s life, an act Esca – no stranger to the concept of honor himself – feels duty-bound to repay with faithful service.
Their arduous journey sees the fraught relationship between these representatives of competing civilizations veer from friendship to hostility to mutual understanding, and displays the moral shadings present in both their communities.
Director Kevin Macdonald keeps the pace lively and the battles mostly gore-free while a sense of conflict-transcending human solidarity helps leaven the macho atmosphere that permeates Jeremy Brock’s screenplay. (Not only is there no “love angle” in the story, there’s nary a female character to be seen.)
Despite the elements listed below, the moral lessons awaiting attentive viewers of this historical expedition make it probably acceptable for older adolescents.
The film contains considerable but largely bloodless combat violence, brief distant images of unclothed corpses, a single use of the S-word and a couple of crass terms. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III – adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 – parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service. More reviews are available online.