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February 17, 2011


Movie Review – The Eagle (2011)


White letters resolve out of gray mist, form a few words to set the stage, and return to the mist. Obscuring mist will be a recurring visual motif, evocative not only of the northern Britain setting, but of the film’s “out of the mists of time” storytelling ethos as well.

[This review contains minor spoilers.]

The plot is straightforward. Twenty years after the fabled Ninth Legion marched north to destruction, the son of the legion’s commander is posted to Britain in his turn. Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum) has long dreamed of restoring his family’s honor through military service. When he is unwillingly mustered out because of a debilitating leg wound, he fixes instead on a seemingly impossible task: go north, far beyond Hadrian’s Wall to the land of the bloodthirsty Picts, to recover the eagle that was the standard of the lost legion. His only companion will be his new slave, a Briton named Esca (Jamie Bell) who owes Marcus his life.

This is a workable scenario, but the film’s considerable interest lies mostly elsewhere: in the character drama, visuals, and themes.

Jeremy Brock’s script is adapted from English novelist Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth (1954), the first of her loosely related series of historical novels set in Roman-era Britain. Male friendship and an exploration of the demands of duty, loyalty, and honor are central to Sutcliff’s writing, and are carried over into the adaptation. The film further emphasizes Marcus and Esca’s shared character arc of coming to terms with their fathers’ legacies- including death in battle on opposing sides of the prolonged Roman-Celtic military conflict. The quest to recover the eagle ultimately becomes the vehicle for the friendship storyline, which traces the relationship’s evolution from reluctant comrades thrown together by circumstance to blood brothers who consign their fathers’ war to the past and walk forward together into a different future. This may sound overly grand for a “sword and sandals” historical adventure, but while the film wears its subtextual theme of Romano-Celtic culture-building lightly, the subtext is there for the taking.

The film is well directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play) and well written. Consider the short opening sequence that serves as preamble to the main story. It efficiently and adroitly establishes the setting, introduces Marcus (personality, professionalism, family background), and deftly works in details that bring place, character, and culture to life. The sequence culminates in a thrilling action set-piece that further illuminates the hero’s character and not incidentally demonstrates the Britons’ fury and Rome’s military advantage.

The Eagle was filmed in Scotland and Hungary. If I read the credits and the scenery correctly, the opening sequence at the fort was the part shot in Hungary, while the “beyond the Wall” adventure- the bulk of the running time- was shot in Scotland. The cinematography captures the fearsome beauty of the Highlands; it’s a scenic tour of the geography and climate that contributed to Rome’s incapacity to conquer the north.

The period re-creation is historically accurate to an impressive degree. The buildings are right: the Roman stockade fort, Celtic round huts, Uncle Aquila’s villa in the settled south. So are the Roman costume and military formations. Tribal costume, hairstyles, and so on, for which there is far less of a record to go by, are plausible. Marcus and Esca pass through a gate in an excellent Wall. Even the more abstruse elements like the sociopolitical situation in 140 AD Britain and Marcus’s Mithraic prayers are remarkably respectful of fact.

Finally, the use of language contributes to the impression of verisimilitude. American English is the stand-in for the Roman characters’ Latin, Bell’s light English accent stands in for Latin as a second language, and Scots Gaelic represents the lost languages of the Britons.

3 stars


Possibly Related Posts: (Commentary Track generated)

I took a look at the historical basis behind the myth of the “lost Ninth” in my review of Centurion, an otherwise completely different film that also takes the legion’s destruction as its starting point.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken
    Feb 17 2011

    With so much of the “sword n sandals” genre coming out lately being low grade cheese, I was leery of this when I saw it was coming out. Now it looks like I’ll have something to check out this weekend.

  2. miriam
    Feb 27 2011

    I really enjoyed The Eagle and urge anyone with an interest to hurry and see it in a theater to appreciate fully the wonderful landscape. I have been to Hadrian’s Wall and seen many of the period artifacts in the several fort museums along its length. The physical look of the film is great. Kudos to the historical advisers and to Director Macdonald for creating a very convincing blend of known and imagined history.

  3. Helen
    Mar 1 2011

    “The Eagle” made me want to drive straight to the airport- not that it takes much to stir my longing for the landscapes of Scotland and northern England. I have several photos on my desk at work from walking tours in the north. My favorite is of the last remaining in situ altar on Hadrian’s Wall. It now stands in the front yard of an old, isolated farmhouse built on the site of one of the central section mileforts, recognizable today only by some scattered foundation stones. There were chickens pecking around the altar and the yard was filled with nettles (appropriately enough, a Roman agricultural import). The altars in the museums are far better preserved of course, but it was wonderfully evocative to touch the real thing in the place where it’s stood for nearly two millennia.

    Ken’s comment got me thinking about why I enjoyed “The Eagle” so much more than other recent historical adventures (the wretched “King Arthur” for pertinent example). A big reason is the sympathetic period re-creation, not just of the material culture- although that’s a huge part of it- but of the values and way of thinking. I like it when the filmmakers trust me enough to assume I’m capable of empathizing with the characters without having them written as people just like us who happen to wear funny clothes.

  4. Jun 20 2011

    This is a beautifully shot, well directed, and well acted film and the story is well told. I like that it takes its time developing the atmosphere and characters over the action scenes, in which there barely are any. And when there are, they’re good.

    I greatly enojyed watching the film, simply watching what was shot, and the locations were simply gorgeous.

  5. Helen
    Jun 20 2011

    Ditto. :-D

    I’m really pleased you enjoyed this too.