Published: February 16, 2011
Directed by Kevin MacDonald
Somewhere around A.D. 100, the 9th Legion of the Roman army went missing in the vast territory now known as Scotland. Scotland then was the last unoccupied holdout on the British Isle, divided by the 73-mile-long Hadrian’s Wall from the rest of the island that existed under Roman colonial control. Our understanding of the history of that time and place is littered with likelihoods and uncertainties—it is ancient history, after all—but The Eagle offers a Scotland as tribal and lawless as a pulpy American-made Western might show Native American lands. Dominated by savages a couple of steps up from animals, in other words—or who might even resemble the zombies of 28 Days Later a bit.
It’s in this tribal Scotland, full of stunning, eerie, bare, and rugged landscapes, that most of The Eagle’s action takes place. Marcus Flavius Aquila’s (Channing Tatum) father was the leader of the 9th, you see, and it’s up to him to recover the titular Eagle—a Roman emblem whose significance isn’t really explained that much—and restore his family’s honor. With some vital, film-saving twists, what follows is an action-adventure flick standard enough that you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it’s based on a children’s book. Which it is: Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth. So, if you wind up in the movie’s last third feeling a bit cheated by the miles and miles of buddy-flick, happy-go-lucky clichés, keep in mind The Eagle’s source material.
There’s a clear filmmaking bargain in effect here. The Eagle makes some sly points—you might even say digs—through its two hours about colonialism and the bringing of civilization/modernity via force of empire. Note that while the tribal peoples are speaking Gaelic—or, sometimes, heavily accented English—the Romans are blue-blooded, ruggedly handsome Americans. You could even say they’re that same breed of American from those old Westerns. Indeed, Tatum’s manly-man half-brooding perma-soldier might seem a mite familiar. And there is at least one discussion between Marcus Flavius and his British-native slave/buddy Esca (Jamie Bell) about which culture, the Romans or the natives, is the civilized one after all: the scrappy, face-painted hunter-gatherers or the land-stealing, woman-raping, power-mad intruders.
Naturally, the answer is neither, and as the face paint washes off the corpse of one of the native “seal people” to reveal a plain white boyish face you’re to understand, of course, that whether it’s Americans in Iraq or Romans in Britain, it’s just people perpetrating violence on people. And as Marcus Flavius returns victorious to Rome with the Eagle—of course he does; children’s book, remember—the victory and honor and so forth might have far less to do with Rome than they do family and friendship. Rest assured, though, that if cheesy moralizing isn’t so much your jam, The Eagle doesn’t skimp on brutal battle scenes, and they are most certainly badass.
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