An empire in ruins. A captive boy ruler. A prophetic sword. A pair of nasty villains. A world-weary warrior. A sage mentor. A mysterious beauty. And rumors of a fighting force in a distant land. These make up The Last Legion.
The sun has long since set on the Roman Empire's glory days in 460 A.D. As its stewards ponder the growing potency of the Goths, 12-year-old Romulus Augustus ascends to the throne. His sworn protector: Aurelius, battle-hardened commander of Rome's 4th Legion.
The crown has barely creased Romulus' young hairs when the Goth general Odacer sacks the city. The invasion leaves the boy's parents dead, the government in the clutches of barbarians, and the young emperor and his sagacious tutor, Ambrosinus, exiled to the island fortress of Capri—in the "care" of Odacer's ill-tempered henchman, Wulfila.
Unbeknownst to the conquerors, however, Aurelius and a few of his men have survived. With the help of a beguiling and lethal emissary from the Byzantine Empire named Mira, this band of disenfranchised legionnaires sets off to free their emperor. Their quest will lead them from Capri to Britannia in search of the long-lost 9th Roman Legion, a mythic fighting force that they hope can combat the Goths and liberate Rome.
It puts them in the path of Britannia's mercilessly wicked ruler, Vortgyn, who has joined forces with Wulfila. But it also leads them to Caeser's fabled sword, Excalibur.
A sense of purpose, bravery and sacrifice are frequent themes. Before she's killed, Romulus' mother affirms him, saying, "you will live long and rule wisely." For his part, Romulus bravely faces death when Odacer asks him to relinquish his title. And for his part, Ambrosinus believes that a ruler's vision, not violence, garners respect.
Despite what seems a hopeless battle against superior forces, a soldier says he would follow Aurelius into battle "any time, anywhere." Aurelius and Mira choose to stay behind and fight Wulfila's goons at Capri, knowing their sacrifice will facilitate Romulus' escape. At least two other characters intentionally step into harm's way to spare someone from death.
Aurelius invites remnants of the 9th Legion to fight, but says he's going into battle whether they go with him or not. He delivers a stirring speech, saying that there is "one more battle to be waged against tyranny and the slaughter of innocents."
Perhaps tiring of her violent life, Mira implies that there should be more to life than fighting when she tells Aurelius that she'd be interested in growing "old and fat" with him.
A spiritually tinged prophecy surrounds the legend of Excalibur, which was said to be forged for Julius Caesar but hidden after his death. Only those who are righteous and pursuing truth can use it, we're told. An inscription reads, "One edge to defend, one to defeat. In Britannia I am forged to fit the hand of he who is destined to rule." The sword's pommel has a "pentangle," a pentagram-like symbol that Ambrosinus says represents "faith and truth." The old man also has a pentangle scar on his chest, the same design that is seen engraved in stone in other scenes.
When Ambrosinus catches a stone thrown at him and turns it into a handful of feathers, we know he's no mere tutor. That's one of two obvious uses of magic in the film. The other is more dramatic, when he launches fireballs at Vortgyn's forces. Like Gandalf from J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, his use of magic is limited; most of the time he's content to fight with his gnarled staff.
Also like Gandalf, Ambrosinus helps Romulus focus on the big picture when things look bleak. Romulus asks if prison is their destiny, and Ambrosinus replies, "Have faith. There is a purpose to all things." In a moment of doubt about the fulfillment of the prophecy, the sage tells the boy, "Prophecy is an act of faith, and we are the keepers of the faith." The object of the old man's faith is not spelled out, but it seems to be little more than a belief in a positive outcome. He describes himself as "a seeker after the truth."
Romulus talks repeatedly about his destiny. And it's stated that achieving our life's purpose requires faith and hope. But several passing references are made to "the gods." For example, Ambrosinus tells Aurelius, "The mist may hide what the gods themselves do not look upon." The afterlife is evoked when Ambrosinus says of Romulus' deceased parents, "They are in one room, and you're in the next."
Mira emerges from the sea, and the clothing she's wearing clings revealingly to her. The female warrior's cleavage is often visible—and she uses it to her advantage in one scene to distract a man.
Mira and Aurelius end up in one another's arms scaling a rock wall. And it's implied that they sleep together before the film's final battle. (We see her in a nightgown as she climbs into bed with him.) Ambrosinus' epilogue informs us that the pair eventually marries.
Battle scenes throughout the film feel much like the ones found in swords-and-sandals epics of yesteryear, such as Ben Hur, Spartacus or Jason and the Argonauts. Still, they pack quite a visceral punch, and lots of men on both sides meet their end via sword thrusts, arrows, spears and axes. A number of camera shots show wounded warriors with weapons stuck in their bodies, but we're rarely confronted with images of close-up impacts.
Mostly, we see swords flash and men fall over dead. (As well as several battlefields littered with corpses.) Among the most intense of these scenes is one in which Romulus witnesses his parents being killed. Of note: Mira is a fierce warrior who probably kills more enemies than anyone else. (She's hit in the mouth once and has a bloody lip.)
More personal and therefore somehow more menacing is a scene in which Ambrosinus shoves Vortgyn into a fire, saying, "For all you have done to my country, burn in hell!" Similarly, Romulus runs Wulfila through with a sword as the two face each other at the end of the battle, saying, "That's for my mother." He then twists the sword and says, "That's for my father." Odacer cuts off Wulfila's right index finger as punishment when his subordinate questions a decision. (The knife flicks up onscreen after the finger's been removed offscreen.)
Other violence involves a man being set on fire, another being hurled over a cliff and Romulus stabbing Wulfila in the leg. That enemy captain also receives a wicked wound across his face that gets crudely stitched up. Both Ambrosinus and Romulus have swords put to their necks threateningly. We glimpse bloodied soldiers (who are apparently dead) chained to a wall. Several men get tossed from horses.
Ambrosinus is tied up and dangled by his wrists over a cliff, and Romulus falls through several flights of rotted stairwells. It's implied that Vortgyn murders a girl's family in front of her eyes to send a message to her people. (We see their bodies.)
Drug and Alcohol Content
Two soldiers arm wrestle for the right to sip from a flagon containing an unnamed drink.
Other Negative Elements
Mira and Aurelius' men cavalierly toss a man into the sea and take his boat. In a blatant act of betrayal, a Roman senator and a Byzantine official switch allegiances. Aurelius is initially depicted as a cynical soldier who thinks philosophers, poets and politicians shouldn't be trusted.
When Wulfila spits in Romulus' drinking water, the boy throws it at his captor, who, in turn, threateningly suspends Romulus over a cliff.
The movie poster for The Last Legion bears a striking resemblance to one from 300, the blood-drenched epic that made a surprising $200-plus million at the box office. But the two films are not cut from the same cloth.
As violent as this film is—and there is plenty of killing—the camera's tendency to duck away from graphic moments feels like a deliberate choice to tone things down. And it turns the film into something of a Gladiator-lite. Another choice worth noticing—and applauding—is the filmmakers' resolve to leave out raw sexual situations and foul language.
It's likewise impossible to miss the film's Lord of the Rings echoes. Ambrosinus could be Gandalf's slightly younger brother, both in terms of his demeanor and his overall approach to life. Even in dark moments, he's encouraging his faltering young emperor to hold fast to faith and pursue truth. This is one of the film's strongest elements, along with the noble sacrifices many characters make as they resist evil.
But Ambrosinus' magical power, while never attributed to occult sources, presents problems. As does the presence of the pentangles. And the fact that there's little sense of connection between humans and any kind of real deity.
And just as the film blurs spiritual lines, it also smudges the division between vengeance and justice. Ambrosinus practically delights in sending Vortgyn into eternal torment. And Romulus—who eventually renounces bloodshed and war—does no better than Ambrosinus when he has Wulfila at sword-point.
Compare those executions to Gandalf's counsel to Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring: "Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends."