Hello and welcome to this month’s bonus content; this time, we’re going to be looking purely at those films which fit the Space Marine Legion lists of the Horus Heresy.
So, without further ado, let’s go through the list!
Alpha Legion – ‘Girl, Interrupted’.
The Alphas have a gimmick which manages to be both effortlessly cool, but also quite frustrating. As the enigmatic Legion, they get to have the same kind of brooding mystery that made Wolverine into the top superhero of the 90s. Because we don’t know anything, we’re free to imagine everything about them and their goals.
But what if, underneath all that mystery, there isn’t actually anything?
‘Girl, Interrupted’ is a film about young women in an asylum, dealing with a variety of mental illnesses. The chief ‘villain’ of the piece is Lisa Rowe, a charismatic sociopath who pulls everyone in with her dark glamour. Over the course of the narrative, Lisa’s Machiavellian scheming and plotting – all of which is both relentless and never fully explained – are eventually revealed to be a mask for the person underneath… Only for it turn out that there’s no-one really there. The film ultimately suggests that when you’re always presenting a persona to the world, hiding who you are in the name of playing games, it might mean there’s nothing actually to you… And that’s kind of pathetic.
Death Guard – ’Jacob’s Ladder’.
This was another tough one, as I’ve always found the Death Guard to be a fairly bland sort of Legion. However, in the end, I’ve plumped for this film.
‘Jacob’s Ladder’ is about a Vietnam veteran, plagued by visions of demons after his return from war. It turns out that during Vietnam, a variety of chemical tests were done, and this is what may have left him so deranged. While it’s a tenuous link, the Death Guard are well known for their use of chemical weapons, and this film manages to get in both that, as well as demons which eventually turn out to be ‘friendly’… Albeit not in a friendly way.
Emperor’s Children – ’Black Swan’.
This is a Legion almost literally consumed by the search for perfection. An army of aesthetes and artists, they work tirelessly to perfect themselves and their skills… And of course, we know exactly where that path leads: almost directly into madness.
‘Black Swan’ is a very tight narrative of personal horror, as a highly talented ballet dancer refuses to settle for simply being good at her art. Told to make herself into the unrestrained, unfettered Black Swan of ‘Swan Lake’, as the film progresses, that need to be better than perhaps she is capable of being drives her into ever-increasingly extremes of behaviour. Unable to keep a grip on herself or reality, by then end, the borderline demonic Swan has taken almost complete possession of her, making her perfect, but destroying her in the process.
Aside from being a brilliant look at the kind of minds that make up the Emperor’s Children, this also works brilliantly as a look at what it might have been like for Fulgrim himself, constantly berated and undermined by the daemon inside the Laer blade talking to him. Well worth your time.
Imperial Fists – ’The Bridge On The River Kwai’.
The Imperial Fists are a Legion whose gimmick could be summarised by the word ‘determination’. They simply don’t give up ever, and that kind of thinking is both admirable, but also fatally flawed, leaving one capable of falling into blinkered thinking and actions while never questioning them.
In this film, captured British POWs are made to build the titular bridge, which sounds terribly dull… But it’s actually an incredibly focused character study, looking at how relentless dedication to both duty and excellence can leave a person blind to the terrible mistakes they are making. It’s not long until the British have lost themselves completely in their task, their commander determined to create something permanent – a legacy – no longer seeming to even care that his single-mindedness is leading him into outright collaboration with the enemy.
Iron Hands – ’Lawrence of Arabia’.
After the Dropsite Massacre, the Iron Hands become a chapter lost in their emotions. Following the death of their Primarch, to a man, they essentially go mad. While they remain loyal, their rage at their mistreatment sends them screaming into the arms of their own brutal nature, and leads them into calamity and madness.
This film follows a man who’s very similar. A victim of indescribable trauma, Lawrence spends much of the film terrified of his own capacity for violence, and infuriated by the incompetence and bickering of those around him. By the end, he has allowed his fury to take over, and while he’s managed to achieve incredible feats on the battlefield, none of it really counts for anything, especially as he’s lost himself along the way. A tragic film in the truest sense, it neatly shows what it might be like to be a person who allows their anger to make them capable of anything.
Iron Warriors – ‘Redacted’.
The Iron Warriors are, essentially, an object lesson on the nature of soldiery. While we live in a culture that extols and praises the virtues of military service, the truth is that not every soldier is a hero, and not every battlefield is simple. The Iron Warriors are a Legion whose own brutality become their downfall – they serve in the worst, most horrible places without thanks, praise, or even acknowledgement, and eventually, their resentment at this breaks them.
This film is about a group of soldiers, sick of being constantly scared, bored by being reduced to little more than doormen, wishing things were easy and that they had an actual battlefield with an enemy they could face. It looks at how this creates a perfect storm of cruelty and violence, as the men decide that it might be fun to alleviate the grind of their lives with a little fun at the local civilians’ expense. The film takes a hard look at the often-unacknowledged truth that the sheer brutality of military service can twist men into monsters, and gives a good look at what a group of Iron Warriors, lost in their own ennui, might end up capable of, as well as what it might mean to be a Loyalist caught amongst Traitors.
Trigger warning: if you’re the kind of person who can’t stand to see American soldiers presented as less than heroic, this may be a film you’d prefer to avoid. It presents them as both capable of decency and great inhumanity, and as a result, it is not going to be to everyone’s taste.
Night Lords – ’You’re Next’.
The Night Lords have terror tactics as their gimmick; when you’ve got Batman for a Primarch, such a thing is almost guaranteed. They’re an army that revolves around horrifying their opponent into submission, and while that may well work nine times out of ten, in the Heresy, there’s the fact that terror tactics in and of themselves, are insufficient to win a battle. Not to mention that they can, in fact, backfire.
This film is a wonderful little subversion of the slasher genre. A masked maniac shows up to disrupt a family gathering, ready to go like Jason on everyone in the house. And while his early kills are efficient, his desire to scare the family ends up working against him when it turns out that one of them Knows No Fear. From there, it becomes a vicious game of cat and cat, with the killer now in as much danger from one of the family as they are from him.
Raven Guard – ’Leon: The Professional’.
This was a difficult one. In the end, I settled for the obvious; the Raven Guards are the masters of stealth as a combat tactic. I went for a film about that.
Leon is a ‘cleaner’: a professional assassin, and one who is never ever seen. While the film is concerned with his attempts to get justice for a young girl whose family is murdered, the combat scenes are really where this film does something most action films don’t: shows someone using stealth and actually succeeding. Leon is almost always invisible, taking out his enemies without them laying eyes on him, and if you want to see what a Raven Guard must be like in action, you probably won’t find a better film than this.
Salamanders – ’Singham’.
The Salamanders are fairly unique amongst the Astartes, because they don’t keep to their fortress-monasteries. Instead, they move and live amongst those humans of their homeworld, walking amongst them, in many ways the most human of the Legions.
This film takes a good look at how it might be if a Space Marine spent the majority of his down time living amongst regular the people he had sworn to protect. Inspector Singham is, essentially, a ridiculous badass, capable of fighting fifty men on his own. However, this isn’t played for laughs, or with the kind of camp you might expect from an Arnie film. A lot of the film is about Singham’s interactions with the people around him, which are played absolutely straight. As a result, it’s an excellent window into what it might be to be a Salamander: better, stronger, faster, harder, but still deeply human.
Sons of Horus ( Black Legion) – ’There Will Be Blood’.
Of all the Legions, the Sons of Horus are the ones most dedicated to the idea of Chaos itself. Rather than the worship of a single Ruinous Power, like their Primarch, they dedicate themselves to themselves. Chaos is ultimately all about putting yourself ahead of everyone else, and they embrace that.
This film is a three-hour character study of just such a person. It’s not got a story as such, instead choosing to just show the price of living a life entirely dedicated to yourself. Daniel Plainview is a monstrous man, presenting himself as a larger than life hero, when the truth is something else entirely. The brilliance of the film lies in Plainview’s ambiguity. While there’s much about him that is monstrous, he has moments of deep and painful vulnerability, and so he ends up being much more than the simple psychopath he could have been presented as. An excellent look at the kind of razor-edge that the Sons of Horus must dance down in their daily lives.
Thousand Sons – ’Twelve Monkeys’.
Possibly the most tragic of the Legions, their Primarch was, to all intents and purposes, a genuine hero. Able to use tools his brothers couldn’t even understand, Magnus The Red remained loyal for far longer than perhaps he should… But, of course, that’s his tragedy: the foolishness of believing that just because you’re telling the truth, people will listen, and the hubris born of an inability to let that truth go.
This film features someone in an almost identical situation: holding imperfect – but irrefutable – knowledge of a future event, James Cole has been sent back in time to stop the apocalypse. The film explores what the actual ramifications of such knowledge might have on a person, as well as showing that without a system of structures set in place to support change, any efforts to bring change are doomed to fail, because one man will never be as powerful as many.
White Scars – ’Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’.
The White Scars are known for their bikes, and I was tempted to include ‘BMX Bandits’ on this list, but I didn’t. That’s because what the White Scars really are, is cultured. Yes, their culture may appear savage on the outside, what with the haircuts, the moustaches and the Mongol imagery, but the truth is, that this is a Legion of poets, thinkers and literate individuals, not just a bunch of power-sword wielding Hell’s Angels.
A film with stunning visuals, ’Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ looks in details at what it might mean to be such a cultured warrior. The fights are pure fantasy, and the characters stylised to the point where they can’t be called realistic, but as a myth which looks at the ways people pursue various ideas of what heroism means, this is a dreamy, lyrical look at the kinds of worldview the White Scars must embrace.
Word Bearers – ’Excision’.
The Word Bearers are all about hubris. Erebus is so convinced he’s found the path to ultimate knowledge, he’s ready to unleash Chaos on the Imperium because he’s so sure he can control it. Of course, as the Heresy and later events categorically shows, while Chaos may be a useful weapon, it’s one that’s utterly beyond control, no matter how clever you fancy yourself to be.
‘Excision’ starts off as a typical ‘angry teen sees the world as it really is’ black comedy. As it progresses, it slowly and brilliantly goes off the rails, when it turns out that while angry teen in question certainly sees the problems with the world, that doesn’t mean she’s actually any cleverer than the people around her. While she likes to think she is, her viewpoint is just as limited, and her inability to see that is a terrible flaw. The film becomes a deconstruction of the whole genre of ‘snarky teen’ films, showing how foolish – and dangerous – it can be to think you’re better than others, when all you have a different perspective, not superior knowledge.
World Eaters – ’Beyond The Mat’.
I didn’t feel sorry for the World Eaters until I read about them in the Heresy era, where the background makes it clear: they’re not monsters because they like it. They just wanted to make their daddy happy. Angron’s head is full of the Butcher’s Nails, driving him to ever-more-lunatic acts of violence, and leaving him incapable of caring about the men the Emperor has left under his command. In a desperate desire to get closer to their father figure, the World Eaters start to inflict the Butcher’s Nails upon themselves, and from there it all ends in madness.
‘Beyond the Mat’ is a documentary about what goes on backstage in pro wrestling. It’s very old and outdated now, but it’s a fascinating window into a time that was. The reason it’s here is because of the wrestler Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts. Like the World Eaters, he wanted to impress his father, a famous wrestler, so he set out to be just like him. In the process, he became, bigger, more successful, and a legitimate wrestling legend. And just like the World Eaters, his father didn’t care. Be warned: it’s a hard film to watch at times, largely because Roberts is such a dysfunctional figure.