By Don Simpson | February 10, 2011
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Writer: Jeremy Brock (screenplay), Rosemary Sutcliff (novel – The Eagle of the Ninth)
Starring: Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland, Mark Strong
Some backstory: The year is 140 AD. The Roman Empire controls Britannia (England and Wales), while indigenous tribes hold their ground in Caledonia (Scotland). The Roman-constructed Hadrian’s Wall separates the Romans from the rebellious Britons. Legend has it that twenty years prior, the entire Ninth Legion — 5,000 men led by Flavius Aquila — vanished in Caledonia losing the golden Eagle of the Ninth (the emblem of Roman honor that the Ninth Legion carried with them) in the process, forever marring Flavius’ (as well as his family’s) name. (This is as good of a time as any to point out that aquila is Latin for eagle.)
Back to 140 AD, The Eagle begins shortly after a young centurion Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) requests to be stationed in Britannia. Marcus is given the command of a dangerously desolate northern outpost prone to raids by local druids.
Marcus’ sole purpose in life is to restore the reputation of his father, the aforementioned Flavius; but when Marcus is injured during a battle and brought to his Uncle’s (Donald Sutherland) residence to recover, he is honorably discharged from the military. How on earth can he restore his family’s honor now? Oh, that’s right! Find the long lost Eagle of the Ninth!
Of course Marcus cannot expect to survive in the uncharted region north of Hadrian’s Wall — otherwise known to Romans as “the end of the world” — alone. Luckily he just recently saved a Briton’s life; and that Briton, Esca (Jamie Bell), is now Marcus’ slave. So, Marcus and Esca journey forth into the highlands of Caledonia on a hare-brained mission to find an eagle in a haystack…or a moor.
The always brooding Marcus is literally haunted by his father in flashbacks that reveal his intense desire to regain his family’s honor and prove that he is a great warrior capable of conquering the very same enemy that ruined his father’s good name. Even though he never really knew his father, Marcus is unabashedly loyal to him.
But there is much more to The Eagle than Marcus’ Freudian quest to find the Eagle that his father lost. There is also a complex relationship between the master and the slave in which both men’s loyalties (to country, family and friend) are severely tested. Marcus and Esca must come to terms with the bloody histories of their families; reconciling their pasts, all the while separating their pasts from their present. Honor and faithfulness drive Marcus (who truly earns the pia fidelis inscription on his war medal) and Esca to achieve greatness, to do the impossible. (Of course they do the impossible!) They are great fighters, but it is only when they realize the senselessness of violence that they truly evolve into near-mythical warriors.
Based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical-adventure novel The Eagle of the Ninth from 1954, Scottish director Kevin Macdonald (State of Play, The Last King of Scotland) opts for plot and message over violence and action. The Eagle has much more in common with the slowly paced Westerns of Hollywood’s past than anything resembling a modern historical-adventure fantasy flick — well, other than the fantastically lush cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle (127 Hours, Antichrist, Slumdog Millionaire). Don’t get me wrong, there are fight scenes; but a majority of the film is comprised of Channing’s brooding face with a gorgeous backdrop of the Scottish Highlands.
I gotta give Macdonald a lot of credit for making this into an anti-action genre film. Despite its annoyingly predictable plot, the film’s heart-y message really won me over — and I do not mean heart in the romantic way (well, unless you choose to read any homoerotic subtext into Marcus and Esca’s master/slave relationship), because there is nary a dame onscreen. (These are manly men doing manly things with other manly men; this is no place for lady-folk.)
Macdonald’s two major missteps are his casting of Channing as Marcus and the incredibly drab dialogue all around. Channing is a one note, one facial expression kind of actor and the character of Marcus deserved significantly more personality than Channing could ever offer him. (Having to act in a handful of scenes against Tahar Rahim [A Prophet] only magnifies Channing’s flaws tenfold.) The dialogue, penned by Jeremy Brock (The Last King of Scotland), does not do Channing any favors either.