Movie Review – The Eagle (2011)
by HELEN GEIB
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.
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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.