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SYFY WIRE fantasy

Remembering The Last Legion, 2007's Goofy Fun Fantasy Epic That's Now on Peacock

Great Caesar’s ghost — There’s an Excalibur in my Roman villa!

By Benjamin Bullard
Ben Kingsley and Thomas Sangster around a fire in The Last Legion (2007)

In an early-2000s movie landscape already conditioned by award-winning films like Gladiator (2000) and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, a genre spectacle like The Last Legion (now streaming on Peacock!) felt somehow out of place, and, in a way, even out of time.

Releasing in 2007 with a cast that includes Colin Firth, Ben Kingsley, Rupert Friend, Aishwarya Rai, and Peter Mullan, The Last Legion arrived as a tame, fantasy-fueled adventure flick that mined both real history and fantastical legend by tossing both in a toy box and giving it a good shake. The film that resulted doesn’t feel like something that arrived in our relatively recent meta-layered movie age — a period when audiences often get a wink here and there as genre movies attempt to reference the times they’re made in.

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In fact, The Last Legion doesn’t feel like a 2000s film at all. Instead, it plays like the kind of straightforward, family-friendly fantasy epic that could’ve been made not in 2007, but perhaps decades earlier…  and we're talking, like, 1977.

The Last Legion: Seriously silly swords, shields, and sorcery

Earnest and thoroughly conventional in its storytelling, acting, and even in its special effects (which is no bad thing), The Last Legion tells the unapologetically swashbuckling story of Rome’s last Caesar, a pre-teen child (played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster) who’s driven from his home as Goths sack the city, murder his parents, and strike snaky deals with influential Senators seeking to capitalize on the winds of change.

Rescued from exile on the isle of Capri and accompanied by a small band of loyalists including Firth’s imperial protector Aurelianus (plus Rai as a lethally skilled operator out of Constantinople), this fledgling Caesar, who goes by "Romulus Augustulus,” learns there’s only one place left on the planet where he still has a Roman legion to answer his pint-sized commands… and he’s separated from it by what we know today as the English Channel.

Rupert Friend is dragged by men in The Last Legion (2007)

Yep, the last legion of the movie’s title is stationed all the way in Britain, incommunicado from continental strife and, as it turns out, preoccupied with all the local treachery it can handle. A masked warlord named Vortgyn (Harry Van Gorkum) has decimated its ranks, terrorized the rural countryside, and stewed for decades over how to obtain a mysterious sword — the fabled sword of Julius Caesar — which young Romulus just so happens to have snatched, as fate would have it, while exiled back on Capri.

No fantasy movie should throw a fabled sword in the mix if it can’t produce a fabled sorcerer, and Kingsley is there to do just that — at least sort of — as Caesar’s mysterious mentor Ambrosinus. On the run with his pupil and possessive of his own secret backstory that eventually reveals Vortgyn as his lifelong nemesis, he’s a tricky but affectionate sage, who found a second life in Rome after fleeing his home in Britain and leaving unsettled a still-smoldering conflict with Vortygn. As the exiled gang escapes and weighs its survival options, all signs start to point toward a long-delayed return to Britain, where a sneering Vortgyn awaits.

Aishwarya Rai and Colin Firth embrace in The Last Legion (2007)

As you can probably tell from that setup, The Last Legion isn’t a plot-twisty movie; it’s more of an action and adventure ride-along. Critics panned it big-time on its release, mostly for conforming too closely to typical fantasy genre tropes, though it’s exactly those same conventions (as well as a good cast and decently epic effects) that make it a breezy and even endearing watch in these slightly more cynical times.

Think of it as a kid-friendly fantasy flick that takes big stylistic cues from the chariot-film era. Nobody swears, the good guys win in the end, the bloodiest violence is implied more than it’s shown, and the one vaguely romantic pair-off that unfolds takes a decisive back seat to the main story action. For good measure, the field-of-battle spectacles are appropriately spectacular, while scenes of backroom intrigue and whispering politicians share a certain sincere kinship with stone-faced historical epics, like Spartacus (1960) and Cleopatra (1963), from movie decades long past.

Colin Firth speaks to Thomas Brodie-Sangster in The Last Legion (2007)

Storyboard artist Doug Lefler directed The Last Legion, and his early-career diet of traditional stories from Disney and Lucasfilm shines through in the way the movie spins its own tale. Lefler worked at Disney from 1977 into the 1980s, and shared with SYFY WIRE (in this fun 2019 interview) that the old-school process of framing things out in the pre-digital era of animation helped guide his later work.

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Joining Disney in “the year Star Wars came out,” he said, “was a very exciting time to be beginning your career in the film industry. I focused on writing and drawing in the story department, and the great thing about being at Disney was that the animated feature films were written in the storyboard process. So I had good training on how to write with pictures, working on The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron while I was there. Then I did some work on The Little Mermaid after I left Disney in the early ‘80s.”

Watch The Last Legion from that old-school vantage, and its many benign charms — including an ending that connects the whole thing to Excalibur, Merlin, and the legend of King Arthur — aren’t quite as easy to jeer at as its contemporary critics (perhaps spoiled by The Lord of the Rings) might’ve presumed. Check it out on Peacock, and be sure to bring the kids, the popcorn, and a goofy sense of fun. We’re not toppling empires here, after all — we’re just saddling up for a little adventure.