The Eagle Review
The Eagle opens with a squad of armed Roman soldiers crammed in to a small boat, gliding gently up a picturesque English river. It’s an image that is both beautiful and jarring, and quickly establishes these troops as strangers in a strange land, an unwelcome occupying force many miles from home. It is a theme director Kevin Macdonald expands upon greatly through the course of the film, bringing with it unmistakable parallels with contemporary conflicts; but then we should expect no less from the director of The Last King of Scotland, another film whose story is rooted in colonial rebellion. Political allegory takes a back seat to Boy's Own-style action, however, and The Eagle is all the better for it.
Adapted from Rosemary Sutcliff’s children’s novel The Eagle of the Ninth, lantern-jawed Channing Tatum stars as Marcus Flavius Aquila, a Roman centurion posted to hostile Britain. He and his family have been in disgrace ever since his father, also a commander in the army, led his legion in to the wild and savage lands of Scotland twenty years earlier, where they were brutally wiped out by the local Pictish tribes and lost the legion’s standard – the eagle – in the process. With rumours that the eagle has been seen again near the border, and having been removed from his own command following an injury, Marcus determines to head north with his British slave Esca (Jamie Bell) to recover the eagle and his family’s honour.
The Eagle is best described as an old-fashioned historical potboiler. This is meant in a nice way: you’ll have seen bits and pieces from various other stories and films, but they are mashed together here in to an entertaining whole. In Marcus and Esca you have the rough-and-tumble bromance of Butch and Sundance; in the Picts and their insurgency you have the brutal and bloodthirsty natives from The Last of the Mohicans; and the depiction of imperial Roman society as hypocritical and decadent comes from, well, from just about every Hollywood Roman epic stretching from Quo Vadis to Gladiator. But Sutcliff’s plot, based on a dubious legend and adapted by Jeremy Brock, makes for a rattling good yarn. In particular, Esca’s uncertain allegiance to Marcus brings an extra dimension of suspense to proceedings, when the tables are turned midway through and master is forced to become slave after they are captured.
Macdonald also adds some intriguing political subtext to his take on Romano-British society. Roman characters all speak with American accents, which is a little jarring at first but does effectively convey the power and scale of the all-conquering empire to today’s audience (presumably it also helped the project get the financial greenlight). This American/Roman occupying force is given further contemporary resonance by the actions of the native Britons in rebellion, when a captured Roman soldier is beheaded in full view of Marcus' garrison. It's not subtle but it does work. At least there aren't any squinty-eyed generals called Georgus Bushius. It’s also beautifully shot: the Pictish village that Marcus and Esca are received in to really does feel like the edge of the world, with the local population covered head-to-toe in some pretty intimidating make-up.
It’s a shame then that the level of excitement never really rises above that of enjoyable Sunday afternoon fodder. It starts well with Marcus almost single-handedly defending his garrison’s fort, but thereafter the trek north in search of the eagle, while engaging, lacks the sense of foreboding that Macdonald seems to be striving for, and the climactic battle is over all too quickly. If the pulse had been raised a bit higher a bit more often then it could have been a genuine contender – a sort of Sharpe in Ancient Britain - but as it is, the Eagle is simply a respectable slice of historical adventure. But hey, it’s perfect for Sunday afternoons.