Historical action lacks depth, conviction in 'The Eagle'
It's big and shiny and carved out of bronze. But it's true value is its symbolism, standing for both the glory of the Roman Empire and the brutality of conquest (depending on one's viewpoint). It's the Eagle of the Ninth Legion, the standard carried into battle by a company of Roman Legionnaires who vanished into the murky mists of northern Britain in 120 A.D. And most of the historical action film, The Eagle, is devoted to trying to convince us—without much success—that this object is worth a lot of bloody slaughter.
The film is based on Rosemary Sutcliff's popular 1954 historical young adult novel, “The Eagle of the Ninth.” Its YA origins are evident in the film's straightforward action plot, simplified relationships, and the high degree of palaver about the "honor" of Rome while running riot over the indigenous tribes of Britain—who are (surprise!) inspired to respond with equal savagery. One hopes the reason director Kevin Macdonald and scriptwriter Jeremy Brock (they also collaborated on The Last King of Scotland) are resurrecting this material now is to draw parallels to our modern age of reckless adventuring in foreign lands. But The Eagle never gains the level of complexity that would make its story profound.
Instead, we get a youth on a typical hero's journey to avenge his family name. Twenty years after the Ninth Legion disappeared, Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) arrives from Rome to take command of a small garrison on Hadrian's Wall, the barrier erected by the Romans across the northernmost outpost of Roman Britain to keep out the natives (in what is now Scotland) after the Ninth vanished. Marcus' father was the commander of the lost Ninth, and Marcus has come to find out what happened to his father and restore the family's lost honor.
Viewed by the hardy veterans under his command as an untested boy (or, worse, a "bad omen"), Marcus proves himself in battle against the Britons (in one of the sneak attacks they periodically launch against the garrison in hopes of driving off the Roman invaders). Badly wounded, he's sent to the nearby villa of his uncle (Donald Sutherland) to recover—where he impulsively saves the life of the captive Briton, Esca (the always watchable Jamie Bell), who is given to him as a slave. Honorably discharged from the Legion, Marcus hears that the Eagle of the Ninth has been seen among the warrior tribesmen; with Esca as his guide, he ventures into the wilds of the north to recover the eagle for Rome.
The complicated relationship between Marcus and Esca ought to be the heart of the movie, and sometimes it is. Marcus' campfire rhapsody that the eagle represents the "pride of Rome" is countered by Esca's description of Roman invaders slaughtering his entire family. ("That too is Rome.") When they're discovered by the fierce, painted, Mohawk-haired Seal People, Esca cagily passes off the Roman Marcus as his slave. But more often, their bond is merely explained to the audience, rather than playing out in any convincing way. (As when Esca tells Marcus "I despise everything you stand for," but says he'll loyally serve the man who saved his life—and that's the end of that.)
Happily, we're no longer in the bygone Hollywood era where ancient people depicted onscreen always spoke in tony British accents, but still, the flat American vernacular of most of the speaking parts can be jarring. ("We had it coming," grumbles one warrior, describing an epic battle.) But things really go awry in the final showdown. Murder is involved in reclaiming the lost Eagle, a fact unaltered by the ruthlessness of the posse that gives chase to get it back. And after debunking the whole notion of 'honor" and "glory" associated with any war of conquest, the film sets up a final battle whose entire purpose is to allow participants the chance to die with honor. Talk about a hollow victory. By this time, it would have meant more had Marcus (and the film) been less obsessed with whether his father died bravely, and spared a thought for how many Britons had to die bravely defending their homes and families.
THE EAGLE ★★
With Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, and Donald Sutherland. Written by Jeremy Brock. From the novel by Rosemary Sutcliff. Directed by Kevin Macdonald. A Focus Features release. Rated PG-13. 114 minutes.
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