The Eagle is such a twenty-first century movie, and this is clear not only from the casting of American actors as Ancient Romans and the easily understood dialogue, but also from the beliefs the filmmakers apply to it – beliefs that, in all likelihood, weren’t shared by the vast majority of the populace nearly 2,000 years ago. The film explores, rather simplistically, themes of inequality, ignorance, and how imperialistic viewpoints don’t tend to coincide with the traditions and beliefs of indigenous peoples. It is, in short, a historical piece that wants to send a very modern-day message. This approach has worked before, most recently with Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven. Here, however, it feels forced. It might not have felt that way had the plot been a little less artificial.
Adapted from the novel The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutclif (which, incidentally, was written for children), the film opens with title cards outlining the 120 AD disappearance of an entire Roman legion known as the Ninth, which was on its way to claim the northern most section of Great Britain and discover the end of the known world. Twenty years later, the son of the Ninth’s leader – a centurion named Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum) – arrives in England. He’s determined to restore his father’s reputation as well as recover the Ninth’s eagle standard, which he claims is not merely a piece of metal but Rome itself. This will require him to travel beyond Hadrian’s Wall and into Caledonia, where the last unconquered Pictish tribes await.
Along for the ride is Esca (Jamie Bell), a slave native to the region. When we first see him, he’s forced into a gladiator pit with a sword and shield, although he refuses to fight and resigns himself to being skewered by his opponent; as the crowd flashes a unanimous thumbs-down, Marcus steps in and lobbies for a thumbs-up, which he gets. Why he’s compelled to do this is never adequately explained. Neither is the crowd’s sudden change of heart. Regardless, Esca declares his debt to Marcus and joins him on his quest – although it’s made abundantly clear that Esca hates everything Marcus stands for. Their journey through Caledonia is rudely interrupted when they’re attacked by the Seal People, known for being the most ruthless of all the English tribes.
It’s usually a good thing when a character is difficult to read, for it indicates a thought process on the part of the director and screenwriter. In the case of Esca, however, something is seriously lacking. Despite his apparent misgivings about Marcus and the entire Roman Empire, his true feelings remain painfully unclear, as do his motives. At a certain point, the two will form a friendship based on nothing the audience can see or feel. If the intention is to attach a modern-day message to a period film, one cannot keep one of the main characters a mystery; everyone must be clearly defined. That probably wouldn’t improve the quality of the plot, but at least I’ll be able to understand why certain characters to do what they do.
Other aspects of the film are simply odd. We have been conditioned, for example, to by and large see British actors in films that require foreign and/or ancient characters to speak English; director Kevin Macdonald made the stylistic choice to have Americans play the Romans, and although they speak English just as capably, it will be quite some time before I get used to a centurion with a bland American accent. Complicating matters even further is Channing Tatum, who continuously makes a go (but mostly fails) at faking a British accent. Another example is the dialogue, which is at times so contemporary that it effectively destroys the illusion the film is attempting to create. The ending, one of the least plausible in the history of Roman period films, is made worse by the lines Tatum is given, which amount to little more than a naïve sermon. And then there’s Donald Sutherland, who plays Marcus’ uncle. At one point, he delivers a line in which he compares the smell of Marcus’ medicine to that of a fart, and that is the exact word he used.
I can give praise for the technical aspects. The film has an appropriately dingy look, and this is due not only to the dirt-stained actors but also to Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography, Michael Carlin’s production designs, and the art direction of Peter Francis, Neal Callow, and Zsuzsa Kismarty-Lechner. Credit also to costume designer Michael O’Conner and the makeup effects department. But when it comes to story and characterization, The Eagle is tepid and uninspired, a vision shattered by its own idealism. It is possible to explore modern themes in a period film, although given how easily it can go wrong, perhaps it’s best to steer clear of it – at least, until a filmmaker discovers a clever way to go about it. Macdonald tried, but unfortunately, he didn’t try hard enough.
Stories about honor and courage. A lot of us have all been there. I have to admit I went to “The Eagle” with extra low expectations since I was never a fan of Channing Tatum (Fighting) but though it doesn’t say that this is a terrific film, I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t horrible. Adapted from the story “The Eagle of the Ninth” (book one of Rosemary Sutclif's "Aquila Family Dolphin Ring" series), director Kevin MacDonald's film shares … more
What’s with it with the Ninth Legion? It keeps disappearing into the wilds of what now is Scotland. Once is bad enough (Centurion, which was bad enough), but twice? The Eagle is the Ninth’s old story. The soldiers set out in 120 or so to bring some Roman peace to the Picts. They don’t come back, and neither does the Eagle standard, which means loss of honor to Rome and to the unfortunate commander of the Ninth. Twenty years later his son, Marcus (Channing … more
**1/2 out of **** I often enjoy a night at the movies where I can merely enjoy the sheer spectacle of a production rather than bask in some complex, consistent story. These experiences are much needed, as we all need a good form of escapism. However, even escapist entertainment must be well-made for me to fully enjoy it, and that's why I'm constantly disappointed by the majority of the movies that most would dismiss as, well, "escapist entertainment" (example: the recent … more
12A - 114mins - Adventure/Drama - 25th March 2011 Now I'm not great at working out whether this was historically accurate or not so that's not going to be affect the way I rate this new movie. I'm just going to assume that all was well unless someone cares to correct me in my ignorance? Except for the fact that thumbs up in a gladiatorial ring means kill (simulates thrusting the sword up into the body) and thumbs down means live... can't let that one slide, ever! As for whether … more
Back in the early second century, the Ninth Legion disappeared from history. The current going theory is that they were wiped out in combat in the Eastern Provinces, but there’s also a theory that they were destroyed fighting the Picts in what is now called Scotland. That’s the jumping-off point for The Eagle, a rather lightweight sword and sandals film staring Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell. Tatum plays Marcus Flavius Aquila, son of the commander of the Ninth Legion. He’s … more
Growing up a shy kid in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, Chris Pandolfi knows all about the imagination. Pretend games were always the most fun for him, especially on the school playground; he and his … more
Consider the Source
Use Trust Points to see how much you can rely on this review.
A Roman epic adventure, based on the classic novel of the same name, set in the dangerous world of second-century Britain. In 140 AD, twenty years after the unexplained disappearance of the entire Ninth Legion in the mountains of Scotland, young centurion Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) arrives from Rome to solve the mystery and restore the reputation of his father, the commander of the Ninth. Accompanied only by his British slave Esca (Jamie Bell) Marcus sets out across Hadrian’s Wall into the uncharted highlands of Caledonia – to confront its savage tribes, make peace with his father’s memory, and retrieve the lost legion’s golden emblem, the Eagle of the Ninth.