Director brings pre-Celtic clash alive

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The Roman legions who manned Hadrian’s Wall faced a warrior tribe they never managed to conquer. That much we know. But who were the mysterious people they confronted, and how did they manage to hold off the might of imperial Rome?

That is the challenge that the film director Kevin Macdonald has set himself in his latest film, The Eagle of the Ninth, to be shot in Hungary and Scotland later this year. After award-winning films such as Touching the Void, The Last King of Scotland and, more recently, State of Play with Russell Crowe, Macdonald is exploring the story of the Roman Ninth Legion, which mounted an expedition north in 117 AD, and which, allegedly, never returned.

Whether the event — based on a 1950s’ novel by Rosemary Sutcliffe — is true or not (most historians have debunked it), the Pictish or Celtic tribes that inhabited the lands north of the wall were not only real, they were a formidable warrior race.

“The tribes that the Romans met were Celtic, as described by the historian Tacitus in his biography of the Emperor Agricola,” Macdonald says. “They may have been Picts, of course, but most of the tribes were also Celtic.”

Since the history of the Picts has been described by the historian Michael Lynch as “a mystery story with few clues and no satisfactory ending”, Macdonald has a fairly free rein in recreating his ancient tribe; but he is determined to be as authentic as possible, with the tribesmen in the movie all speaking Gaelic. In order to achieve a little contemporary symbolism, the Romans will be played by American actors...

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