Feb 14 2011 11:36am

Review: The Eagle

The Eagle

The Eagle, based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s children’s adventure novel The Eagle of the Ninth (retitled, presumably, so non-Classics scholars would know it wasn’t about golf), tells the story of how Roman soldier Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum) redeems his father’s honor by recovering the standard of his father’s legion. Since that legion was lost in Scotland—which, we are frequently reminded, is the end of the known world—Marcus has quite the quest on his hands, which he boldly undertakes with only one companion, his slave Esca (Jamie Bell).

Director Kevin MacDonald clearly wants The Eagle to be more than a standard sword-and-sandal picture, but these ambitions are frequently thwarted by Jeremy Brock’s script, which apes Gladiator’s structure so closely that until Marcus and Esca get to Hadrian’s Wall, it’s practically a remake. From there, there is the minor logical problem of how two guys on horses—one of whom is a hated enemy who’d be killed on sight the second he opens up his mouth and starts speaking Latin—can find one golden eagle that had been lost twenty years before in a big wide-open country. Conveniently, Esca knows more than he’s letting on, which makes the quest easier. This, though, makes the fact that he just happened to be trying to commit suicide in a gladiator fight that Marcus just happened to have been taken to by Donald Sutherland, and that Marcus just happened to convince the crowd to spare Esca’s life with a thumbs-up, and that it just happened to work into one of the greatest chains of coincidences yet captured in cinema.

The script also skips a couple steps in the developing relationship between Marcus and Esca. After the above-mentioned gladiator fight, Donald Sutherland (Marcus’s uncle) buys Esca to be Marcus’s slave. Marcus doesn’t want a slave and Esca hates Rome and everything it stands for since Roman soldiers were responsible for his parents’ deaths. But he is beholden to Marcus now for having spared his life; a source of bitterness, as he was trying to get himself killed in the gladiator fight. So far, so good; in the right hands all those contradictory impulses could potentially lead to a nice, nuanced journey to mutual respect based on a shared belief in honor and so forth. This is where they ultimately end up at the end of the picture, but the journey is a bit muddy, as are Esca’s motivations: it’s all fine and good that he isn’t a devious revenge seeker, but we’re never shown exactly what it is about Marcus that makes Esca decide he’s okay: Marcus is certainly a brave soldier, but he’s a bit cold-blooded about killing and extremely condescending, until all of a sudden he isn’t and they’re best buddies.

Aside from the writing, the rest of the movie is executed quite well. Academy Award winning (for Slumdog Millionaire) cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle does a nice job selling the opening scenes of Roman garrison life as credible with some subtly-executed hand-held camerawork. It’s done well enough that it’s not that distracting, jittery grab-some-Dramamine stuff, it’s actual cinema-verite style. Then, by contrast, the bits in Scotland are lit and shot like it’s Middle-earth; this is cinema technique mirroring Marcus’ journey, as he’s at home amidst Roman culture, and the frontier is strange and magically sinister.

Audiences who are not excitedly wondering what exposure Mantle was using to get the glowy sunset shot of Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell on horseback, though, may get hung up on historical inaccuracies, like the Scottish people speaking Gaelic a few centuries before anyone actually did, or that the “seal people” look like they’re wearing Prada (which I didn’t mind at all).

Ultimately one has to decide whether The Eagle is a good enough movie to bother poking holes in. I think it’s a movie about an interesting subject, made in a sincere attempt to make a good movie, rather than being product of an assembly line. This is the reason why I hesitate to bash Channing Tatum’s acting too much, because he’s trying very hard, and with the exception of one mildly ridiculous scene where he gets all emotional on Donald Sutherland he doesn’t exceed the modest boundaries of his talent. The role doesn’t require him to do much other than look intense and cut people up with swords every half hour or so, and he does that well. Jamie Bell does a nice job as Esca considering his motivation is so cloudy. Donald Sutherland basically plays Donald Sutherland in a toga, which is to say he’s fun. And, once our heroes get to Scotland, they run into a wild-haired, American-accented Mark Strong, which proved the thesis I’d developed in some of the earlier scenes where all the Romans have American accents: all the Romans having American accents means we have ourselves a parallel between Roman and American imperial ambitions, and the side effects thereof. This is another reason why Channing Tatum does a secretly good job in this movie by not doing much: in merely existing, he’s extremely American.

The Eagle doesn’t quite live up to its ambitions, but is neither good or bad enough to get truly excited about. It’s not as dumb as its trailers make it out to be, though its slowish pace and relatively sparse action will disappoint those looking for an action movie. Once it’s available on DVD it might make for a relatively interesting evening, but it can probably wait until then.

Danny Bowes is a playwright, filmmaker and blogger. He is also a contributor to and

Matt in PA
1. Matt in PA
As I was reading the review, I kept having the most powerful feeling that I have seen this movie before.

I was close. I had seen last year's Centurian. It's also known as The Ninth Legion, so it's probably based on the same book.

That was a strange feeling.
Gabriele Campbell
2. G-Campbell
I'm not much into movies and TV series in the first place and one of the few who had issues with Rome, so I'm very wary about that new one. What I've heard about the movie so far convinced me that I'll wait for the DVD (if I'm going to watch it at all). The Eagle of the Ninth is one of my favourite books, and Sutcliff's novels are one of the reasons I write about the Romans myself, and I don't want to spoil the experience.
Steven Halter
3. stevenhalter
I saw the movie on Saturday. I thought it was a fun film with some nice fights that didn't do too badly. At least I didn't notice anyone wearing watches and the legioneers sandles looked right.
I haven't read the book so I can't sasy if it follows it very closely or not.
That's a nice catch on the speaking Gaelic. I had no idea what they were actually speaking.
I'm not sure if the standard American accents are really meant as a parallel Roman/American imperial metaphore or just that the actors were American and we were assuming that they were actually speaking Latin. Since we don't really know what an actual Roman Latin accent sounds like, American seems as good as any.
Danny Bowes
4. DannyBowes
@Matt in PA---Centurion is based on the same story, but this movie's a direct, credited adaptation of that particular book.

@shalter Re: accents---the only reason I mentioned it is that Mark Strong is British and speaks with an American accent in the movie.
Steven Halter
5. stevenhalter
Mark Strong using an American accent is actually a good thing then. I hadn't known he was British. So, they were nicely consistent with the Roman/American voice.
Contrast this with Robin Hood, Prince of theives where some people had British accents and some didn't (Kevin Costner).
As an aside, I'm always amused when I normally hear a British actor (Hugh Laurie in House for example) use an American accent and then hear them give an interview in thier natural voice.
Matt in PA
6. Jazzlet
According to my teacher latin is spoken with a Geordie accent, how she knew this I have no idea.
Ranjan Asrani
7. Allchaos
I thought Centurion was about the 9th Legion's disappearance...which would make The Eagle a sequel of sorts.
Matt in PA
8. Kinksville
I saw it the other night and thought it was pretty good.

I'm not expert on the details of Roman arms and armor, but there were some details in the armors and armor that made it look like they had at least done some research.

I think the 1st turning point in the relationship between Esca and Marcus is the scene where Esca has to hold him down for the surgeon.

Marcus's stoicism under great pain and the importance that he places on honor is something that would resonate with Esca, given the importance he places on his own honor.

In the country around the villa, Marcus treats Esca as more than a slave. It's not hard to do most of the time but as the pressure mounts, that difference between them shows through and becomes more of a bone of contention. I thought the movie did a good job of showing how that underlying current of tension running throughout the movie.

Over and over again we see places where they would have made different choices and have different sympathies and the ugliness of Esca's status as a slave shows through. I don't think you could claim that the movie has a light touch, but I think there's a coherent journey for Marcus, from convinced in the inherent rightness of Rome, to being able to see a somewhat wider perspective in the end.

All of the characters do ugly things, from Marcus's murder of the fleeing child warrior, to Esca's betrayal of the Seal people who took him in (as a guest he probably would have had a semi-sacred status, and been bound to do no harm to them), to the leader of the Seal People killing the child (his own son?).

But they're offered redemption in a way, with the old warriors of the 9th coming back to fight one last battle. There's that moment when Marcus holds down the leader of the Seal People warband, drowns him in the stream and you see the warpaint wash away, the face that was alien and threatening becoming young and vulnerable. Marcus redeems himself through his endurance, Esca through his steadfastness. There is no clear redemption for the Seal people who don't get as nuanced a treatment as the rest of the people in the movie, but hey...someone has to be the villains.

All-in-all it was a good deal better than I expected.
Marcus W
9. toryx
I haven't actually seen the movie yet (though I considered being an extra in it when they were filming this in Scotland) but I did overhear an interview with Kevin MacDonald last weekend and the question of the accents came up. According to MacDonald, there was no intention to compare America to Rome in any way.

He did purposely choose to use an American accent for the Romans, however, because in the past when Britain was a might Empire they'd used british accents for any movies involving Romans. Now that the UK isn't quite the superpower it once was (he said) he thought it was more appropriate to use an american accent. The gist of the comments seemed to suggest that since there's no chance of getting an actual roman accent with any real authenticity, the choice of british versus american accents are pretty much arbitrary anyway.

That's what he claimed, anyhow.

Personally, what turns me off of the movie from the preview is the depiction of the natives north of Hadrian's Wall. I have no idea if the people up there actually had shaved their heads back in the day but they seem too Native American Hollywood Savage for my tastes.

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