Movie Review: “The Eagle” (2011)

The Eagle should appeal to movie-lovers who are frustrated with the way modern action movies prefer to ignore story and character in favor of rushing from bloody killing to bloody killing. It’s an exciting adventure that really does care about the characters and their relationship.

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Title: The Eagle (2011) IMDb
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Lead Actors: Channing Tatum (Marcus), Jamie Bell (Esca), Tahar Rahim (Seal Prince), Donald Sutherland (Uncle Aquila), Mark Strong (Guern)
Score Composer: Atli Örvarsson
Length: 114 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for battle sequences and some disturbing images.
Spoiler-free Synopsis: “In 140 AD, twenty years after the unexplained disappearance of the entire Ninth Legion in the mountains of Scotland, young centurion Marcus Aquila 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, 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.” (by Focus Features)
Reason for Beginning: As it’s based on the novel The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, one of my favorite authors, I desperately wanted to see this. Been waiting for it for years.
Reason for Finishing: Somewhat classic-style adventure story, and good entertainment.
Movie Re-watchability: Yes, though I would let a little time go by first. Because the story is so simple and focused, I predict it will become the kind of movie I can easily jump into at any point, and enjoy equally in individual chunks or as a whole. It’s nice to have some movies like that.
Director Re-watchability: Hard to say, really. It’s the source material and art direction that make me like The Eagle so much, although Macdonald’s overall directing is good. He’s clearly talented, but I’m wary about his camera work: shaky cam and I do not get along. Wouldn’t know what to expect from another movie of his.
Recommendation: Not a perfect movie, but very good and rather unique. For those who like movies about ancient Rome and period adventure stories, yes. Also, if you saw Gladiator (2000) and thought “Well that’s fun, but I wonder what it all really looked like,” then you should see this movie. The Eagle should appeal to movie-lovers who are frustrated with the way modern action movies prefer to ignore story and character in favor of rushing from bloody killing to bloody killing. It’s an exciting adventure that really does care about the characters and their relationship.

Key Thoughts

In some ways, The Eagle is sort of an anti-Gladiator movie. The scale is realistic and human rather than epic. The locales are tangibly real instead of glitzy CGI. The heroes do not engage in superstar posturing, do not splatter their enemies’ blood at every opportunity, and do value honor and mercy over revenge. It may not be as thrilling or spectacular as Gladiator, but it’s more internally consistent, and, in its own way, wiser and more heartening.

The film begins with newly-minted Cohort Centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila (Tatum) arriving at the Roman frontier fort of Isca Dumnoniorum in southern England. The other officers grumble that he is a cursed young man, because twenty years ago his father, Commander of the Ninth Legion, had lost the legion’s eagle standard during a mission in (what is now) the Scottish highlands. Unperturbed, Marcus orders that the fort’s defenses be repaired and the garrison’s training be improved. In these scenes, two details about the movie become apparent: 1) its attention to historical detail is rich, textured, and greatly welcome, and 2) it likes to use the Bourne-style shaky-cam and over-the-shoulder shots to almost disorienting effect.

Tatum is good in these scenes. Though lacking in commanding presence, he carries himself like a serious young soldier determined to make a strong start to his military career. The character in Sutcliff’s novel is more interesting and fleshed out, but Tatum’s one dimension is the necessary one. His face projects a kind of grim, good-hearted honesty. At the weakest points his performance relies too much on pouts and brooding (shown extensively on the movie’s posters), but fortunately this is not overdone, and Tatum does manage to bring enough humble dignity to be believable in the role. I noticed this first in the scenes where Marcus takes over command of the fort at Isca. He is younger than most of his officers, and has the difficult task of needing to listen to their more experienced advice while still asserting the authority of his rank and his responsibility to run the garrison as he sees fit. When he orders that the fort’s defensive wall and ditch be shored up, he does so without insulting his predecessor or seeming like a martinet. The men do get a little more annoyed with him when he turns them out in battle dress in the middle of the night, all on a hunch, but they are soon thanking Centurion Marcus for their lives.

Before moving on, let me interject on one specific point: all the Romans speak in very modern American English. No false archaisms or poetic turns of phrase. Sadly, none of Rosemary Sutcliff’s wonderfully timeless dialogue. Just simple, familiar phraseology. And, to be honest, it works. I wouldn’t have thought it would work, but it does. It makes the Romans familiar, comfortable, down-to-earth. While the dialogue isn’t brilliant or eloquent, it is written with an ear for how people more or less actually do speak today. Not that it includes slang or recognizably modern attitudes, not at all. That would be disastrous. The dialogue simply doesn’t call attention to itself. It fades away, so we think about what the characters have said instead of how they said it. It’s not the right choice for every kind of movie, but I think it works here.

Images like this fly by really quickly, but if you can pause them, you notice that each frame is very dynamically composed.

I was looking forward to the night attack, remembering it vividly from the book. All the pieces are in place for a classically exciting sequence: great buildup, incredible photography that highlights that quietly growing tension of waiting for something you don’t know will come and can’t see when it does, and appropriate musical touches. And, when it begins, it is appropriately frenetic, scary, and pulse-pounding. However, the scene is marred by that most evil of modern movie-making techniques: the dreaded Shaky Cam! As other reviewers pointed out, it’s almost impossible to tell where one man is in relation to another, and the battle lacks a sense of spatial reality.

In fact, my main problem with the whole movie is the lightning-quick editing and shaky cam. It’s not just in action scenes either; even in the slower, character-building scenes director Macdonald doesn’t let the camera sit long enough for his wonderful images to sink in. Unfortunately, this gives the whole picture a very unstable, thrown-together feel that doesn’t suit the script’s more deliberate, focused pace. If Macdonald had used more and steadier mid-range shots, rather than close-up bouncy ones, and more deep focus, rather than blurry over-the-shoulder shots, then watching this movie would be more pleasant. Individual frames of the movie really do look fantastic: the frame composition is painterly, the colors darkly saturated in a way that feels right and real instead of fake. There’s so much good and unique stuff for the eyes to feast on, but sometimes it’s hard to just sit back and enjoy it all.

Ridley Scott, take note.

It’s also worth noting that this movie has, I think, the most accurate and exciting portrayal of Roman military tactics since Spartacus (1960). Most medieval/ancient war movies utterly fail to portray any of the tactical genius of ancient armies (Gladiator, King Arthur, etc.), so it was very gratifying to see The Eagle have a proper understanding of the Roman testudo formation.

Marcus saves the fort, but his wounds prevent him from continuing his command, and he is granted an honorable discharge from the legion, much to his anger and disappointment. He spends a few months recovering at the villa of his Uncle Aquila (Donald Sutherland in something of a glorified cameo), who lives at Calleva. While attending a gladiator game at the local arena, he saves the life of a young British gladiator who is almost executed because he refuses to fight. This young Briton is Esca (Bell), and he soon becomes Marcus’ slave, as a gift from Uncle Aquila.

I really like Jamie Bell in this role. He brings the charisma, intensity, and subtlety that Tatum lacks, and actually manages to capture some of the fierce honor that Rosemary Sutcliff wrote about. He’s honest with Marcus, but is always hiding something. When they meet first, as new master and slave, Marcus is warned that the young barbarian will slit his throat at the earliest chance. But Esca draws his knife and throws it at Marcus’ feet, saying that even though he hates everything the legions stand for, he owes Marcus his life and will serve him. From Bell’s performance we can see that he is still angry at being a slave to a Roman, but he has decided that his moral principles are more important. The question is, of course, whether he will hold to this oath when up north among his own people.

See, Marcus has decided to travel north to find and recover the lost eagle standard of his father’s Ninth Legion. He needs Esca to translate for him and guide him. They pass through a gate in Hadrian’s Wall, and enter the wild mountains of Caledonia, where Romans have given up hopes of lasting conquest. The farther north they go, the more we notice the gorgeous scenery. It’s wet, for one thing, a reality in Scotland that Hollywood doesn’t always remember to depict. The colors of the moors have more reds, browns, and ambers than greens, another detail I have found to be true when visiting the Highlands. As they ask questions of the native peoples and follow clues, they encounter suspicion: after all, why is a Roman traveling with a Briton in Caledonoia? The people are tight-lipped, but will answer to Esca. Finally, a scraggly-haired man named Guern (a darkly charismatic Mark Strong), points them to the Seal People, the fiercest and most brutal tribe.

It’s this section of the movie that has to establish the growing bond between Marcus and Esca. The script feels a little bare-bones and too straightforward here, and prefers a few action scenes to thoughtful discussion. But the chemistry between the two men makes up for it well enough. With Esca, there is always something unsaid just beneath the surface, whereas Marcus tends to state his mind simply and clearly. And crucially, each respects the personality of the other.

The Seal People

It’s at the arrival of the Seal People into the story that the real tension begins. They paint their warriors gray, have a violent mean streak, and seem to live on the windy northern edge of the world. This tribe hates Romans so much that the only way to keep them from killing Marcus is for Esca to claim that Marcus is his personal slave. And so the roles are reversed; Marcus gets beaten and disrespected by the tribesmen, but lives, and must follow Esca’s lead in everything. It’s a nicely dynamic change of pace for the movie, as Marcus begins to wonder how long Esca will keep up the charade, or if he ever intends to end it.

The last thing I want to do is rehash every plot point, so I’ll only say now that Esca makes clear his loyalty to Marcus, and it’s not long before a genuinely exciting cross-country chase scene ensues. “We’re mounted,” says Marcus, “They’ll never catch us on foot!” Esca squints behind them and replies, “Have you seen them run?” And run the Seal People do, like deer, with hunting dogs yapping at their sides. It’s also worth noting that Marcus’ leg wound has not fully healed, and thus he often must rely fully on Esca to help him along, when not on horseback.

Esca must choose.

Probably the central theme of the movie is the idea that honor may be more important than freedom. This is a fascinating and unusual theme, one not popular in our modern society that worships individualism and personal freedom. At any point on their journey, Esca could have killed Marcus or simply escaped and left him to fend for himself. Freedom and his native society are but a few steps away. He has come to respect Marcus, but they are not truly friends. Certainly their relationship alone isn’t enough to keep Esca with him. But he doesn’t break his oath and run away. He chooses his honor first, a move which deeply impresses the honor-worshipping soldier in Marcus. In fact, going by Jamie Bell’s performance, I don’t think Esca had ever considered breaking his oath of servitude – he just didn’t get all sappy about it.

In fact, some other reviewers had problems with this, complaining that Esca should have abandoned Marcus. Forget “personal honor,” it’s so outdated, they say. Now, certainly freedom is important – but freedom without honor, without integrity? Is that not just being a slave to dishonor, to selfishness and dishonesty? We cannot pick and choose the virtues we want to have and dismiss others, as a child chooses which foods he will and will not eat. Virtue is absolutist in its claims: either you desire true virtue in everything, or you do not truly desire virtue at all. No, I am pleasantly impressed with The Eagle’s treatment of this theme, however much it only scrapes the surface of the arguments on either side.

So, in quick conclusion: despite some flaws with “Shaky Cam” and a bare-bones script, The Eagle is an exciting and beautiful-looking adventure, with a strong sense of place and themes that are wiser and more unique than are usually found in period Hollywood movies.

Other Reviews
Sarah Cuthbertson – “One Take on ‘The Eagle’ Film” @ Rosemary Sutcliff: an appreciation. This is one of the best comparisons with the book. It’s fair to the movie, but expresses sadness at how nearly all the richness of the book was needlessly excluded, a position I now hold also.
Roger Ebert @ The Chicago-Sun Times
David Edelstein @ New York Magazine
Ian Richards @ IGN.com
Jonathan Kim @ The Huffington Post
John Fink @ The Film Stage
Ron Hogan @ Den of Geek
N.P. Horton @ Den of Geek
Robert Hammerle @ Hammervision
Anomalous Material
Jorge Vargas @ AllMediaNY – worth it for a less enthusiastic opinion, although the review is rife with errors (especially in the characters’ names). He thinks the plot is similar to Avatar (when it’s really not), and seems unaware that the whole thing is based on a book with many more complexities than appear onscreen.
Michael Gallucci @ Excursions of a Pop Renegade
Pure Complex
Chris @ Blogging with Badger
Pop Culture Ninja (a truly well-written review, touching on most of the points I did but more eloquently)
Jamie Neish @ Centerfolds & Empty Screens
MaryAnn Johanson @ flick filosopher
Juliette Harrison @ Pop Classics

Author: David

I’m a young Christian American reader writer dreamer wanderer walker flier listener talker scholar adventurer musician word-magician romantic critic religious idealist optipessimist man.

17 thoughts on “Movie Review: “The Eagle” (2011)”

  1. I’ll admit I was very sceptical about this one. I’ve been planning on giving it a chance, and after this review I just might have to. The idea that a 21st century film might have a theme other than neo-democracy (whatever that might be) and the importance of individual freedom is very appealing, and one that I think Sutcliff would have approved of.

    1. Aye, you’ve a right to be skeptical, but I recommend seeing it. I wasn’t expecting a perfect Sutliff adaptation, but went in cautiously optimistic, and was pleasantly rewarded. Still, it’d be much better if not for that darn shaky camera!

  2. Nice job on a review that evaluates the movie on its own merits without reference to the book! I still can’t separate the two, I’m afraid.

    I think one of my favorite things about The Eagle was that it was clearly shot with an artistic eye, rather than the more straightforward approach of most action movies. Even though the results are sometimes confusing (mainly the disjointed quality of the fight scenes), I thought the artistic approach was a fitting tribute to Sutcliff’s beautiful and evocative prose–even though the movie wasn’t a perfect adaptation, it wasn’t reduced to a mere action flick.

    A note one the language: while I missed Sutcliff’s eloquent dialogue, I thought the modern language worked okay, too. It was funny, though, my dad leaned over to me at one point and took issue with the fact that one of the Roman’s used the word “bloody.” “Do you think Romans would say ‘bloody’?” My dad asked. “Yes,” I told him, “If they’re in Britain.” For some reason, that word struck my dad as a huge anachronism, but I thought it was an acceptable choice of not-too-modern sounding verbiage. Anyway, just a funny anecdote.

    I’m not sure I saw quite as much character development in it as you did. Maybe that’s because I wanted to see more and am disappointed. But I felt that Marcus and Esca’s relationship was a lot flatter in the movie than in the book. I would dearly have loved to see their discussion of the shield boss and the dagger sheath in the movie. Part of the reason I loved the movie’s end scene so much was that it finally gave a glimpse of Marcus and Esca’s camaraderie that should have been visible much earlier. I guess my biggest complaint with the movie is that it needed more character development. I love that in the book, Esca and Marcus are trusting friends even before they go north, and I definitely didn’t see that in the movie. Like you say, Esca does display a different kind of honor and trust in the movie which is commendable, but it’s not the same. Ahh, I don’t think they’ll ever make a movie version of a favorite book that I’ll wholeheartedly love. I’m too much of a perfectionist for that, unfortunately.

    I think you’re being too hard on Gladiator. I’ll fully admit, Gladiator isn’t terribly historically accurate, but I think it does portray the larger than life feeling of Rome. But that issue aside, I don’t think Gladiator is merely a revenge story, either. I actually think the strongest themes of the movie are honor and duty. From the very beginning of the movie, Maximus choses duty over his own personal wants by agreeing to travel to Rome rather than return to his family as he had hoped to do. When his family is murdered and he’s stripped of everything that mattered to him, he *is* first moved to revenge, but I think by the end of the film, he is opposing Commodus for more than simply revenge. It’s to fulfill the dying wishes of Marcus Aurelius, whom he loved like a father, and to free Lucila and her son, and to preserve the ideal of Rome herself from corruption. I can see your objection to the revenge issue, I have it too, but ultimately for me, I see Maximus’s character as extremely honorable. In some ways, his is a pagan honor, but there is still a great deal that is admirable in him. Also, while Gladiator *is* a violent movie, Maximus himself isn’t portrayed as someone over eager to shed blood. He’d rather be a farmer than a soldier; he kills because it’s war, but he hates that people take the killing in the games for entertainment. He also spares a defeated gladiator’s life, against the will of the crowd.

    1. Aye, it’s shot with an artistic eye – that’s a good way of putting it. My biggest fear going in was that it would be “just another action flick,” but instead it showed some real sensitivity.

      Hehe, no worries, I’m usually too much of a perfectionist in these matters too (I still have avoided Voyage of the Dawn Treader, for fear that it might provoke a fit of rage). You’re certainly right that Marcus and Esca’s relationship is flatter in the movie. Not only did the writing fail to really explore the characters, but Tatum wasn’t up to projecting more than one (maybe one-and-a-half) dimensions. Their friendship in the book was so much more interesting and mature. The main reason I was able to not crucify the movie on that account is because I had learned of the change about a year ago and already resigned myself to it. As far as it goes, I think they handled it decently, if not too deeply, and Jamie Bell brought some of the subtext and texture that was otherwise lacking in their characters. But preferably, yeah, I’d have liked the essence of Sutcliff’s friendship to be shown instead. Now the last scene, well, it was kind of fun, it made me smile. But it was also a bit corny and more “buddy-movie-ish” than the rest of the film. So it was kind of jarring too, and hurt the realism (and artistic sense) of the film’s normal tone, I thought. It would have been better if it followed the book’s relationship, but makes less sense in the movie’s context. But in the end, after all that doom-and-gloom and throat-slitting, it was kinda nice to see them relax.

      As for Gladiator, I didn’t make it clear in this review that I really do enjoy it overall. Historical inaccuracy wasn’t a big deal for me, except in the opening battle scenes that utterly ignore Roman formations. It was nicely epic, and hit strong emotional notes. Commodus was a great villain, Russell Crowe was almost inspiring, and the side characters were entertainingly played. It’s one of the few I own on Blu-Ray, and it always engages my attention if I see it playing somewhere. But I do think that ultimately it is a hypocritical film, on the main issue of violence. Not just of revenge, but of the way the director Ridley Scott treats violence. Think of the famous scene where Maximus yells to the crowd “Are you not entertained?” He exhibits disgust for the gladiatorial games, and for the crowds that cheer for blood, but what does he do? He kills in the arena anyway. He plays their game and doesn’t really subvert it. His actions deliberately encourage the killing and make it more popular than ever. Once he spares a guy’s life, as the movie’s way of saying “See? He’s still a good guy!”, but then he goes back to dismembering. What makes this harder for me to take is the fact that Maximus was previously portrayed as a fairly staunch idealist. A practical one, but I think still an idealist. Someone who would more likely die or fight to escape than go along with something so evil. And regardless of Maximus’ goals (toppling Commodus for revenge and as a service to Marcus Aurelius’ ideals), the movie sends the message that his slaughters in the arena are morally justifiable in the pursuit of them. How? By making the violence fun. Anything a movie presents as fun or entertaining, is something it promotes. Sure, most movies try to make violence fun, but this movie is specifically tackling real-violence-as-entertainment and is pretending to condemn it. On a meta level, it tries to tell the audience that the gladiator death games are bad by making Commodus love them and Maximus end them eventually, but it then shamelessly exploits their entertainment value in order to put people in theater seats. The combat scenes really do fetishize dismemberment, and going beyond “showing the decadence of Roman culture.” Now it’s not that honor and duty are absent from the film – there certainly are good examples present. But I think the movie is more interested in blood and guts, and doesn’t want to admit it. Compare Spartacus (1960), which also uses gladiator games as a sign of Roman moral decadence, but doesn’t really exploit or fetishize them in the same way.

      Anyway, that’s my issue with Gladiator. There are other elements that make it a good movie, but I think it could have been a great one. (and for what it’s worth, I think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon deserved the Best Picture Oscar instead. *shrug*)

      Thanks for the great comment! This is why I started a review blog.

      1. Actually, I agree almost completely with you now that you’ve explained your thoughts on Gladiator. (I say “almost” because I think Russell Crowe’s performance truly is inspiring…) But I was thinking about the movie after replying to you and came to the same conclusion about its portrayal of violence. I still really like the character of Maximus, but you’re absolutely right that the story has flaws on a meta level.

        About the last scene of The Eagle: yeah, I agree it was too “buddy-ish” to truly suit the movie or the characters, but it made me happy because it felt to me like the closest the film got to portraying the trusting friendship the characters had in the book.

        I recommend the Dawn Treader movie, particularly in comparison with the other two Narnia movies. There are a few plot changes that are, well, just stupid, but if you can look past them, I think Dawn Treader is the closest of the movies to the spirit of the book. My sister had a good point in saying that because Eustace is enough of a problem character, they didn’t have to invent a bunch of angst for the characters, like they did in Caspian. Ah, but my favorite Narnia films will always be the BBC ones I grew up watching. Not much for special effects, but they’re pretty accurate.

        I’d be up for a Gawain film. That poem has a fond place in my heart because Em and I did a joint translation project on it for an English class. We were stressed out of our minds at that point in the semester, but still managed to have fun and come up with some ridiculous alternate translations of the Middle-English just for kicks.

        1. Aye, the BBC ones have a safe spot in my heart. They have issues too, of acting and casting mostly, I think, but they hit the feel and message of the books better than any of the new ones, I think. My sisters and I still quote them affectionately. If only they could have finished the series! But thanks for the rec on Voyage. I’m still quite wary of it, but your opinion helps.

          Middle English is so much fun! One of the saddest things about my time in St Andrews was that I somehow lost one of my medieval assignments. In place of an essay, I was allowed to compose, in Middle English, a “lost” addition to one of the Arthurian poems we’d studied. I chose a Gawain one (not “Green Knight”) and added a comical episode about the queen getting a piece of lettuce stuck in her teeth during dinner, all in proper Middle English poetic meter. My prof liked it, but somehow the file disappeared from my computer, and my endeavor is lost to the ages…*wistful sigh*

          1. Tragic! We had the Green Knight asking if anyone was crazy enough to shave him with sweet cream. Hey, the words technically could have meant it…

  3. David,
    Thank you so much for the comments on my blog. “Sword at Sunset” is the only of Sutcliff’s novels I have read, because my interest is primarily in King Arthur, but your comments have made me want even more now to read her many other books. I am so glad to hear the book is far more in-depth than the film. I also agree with you that in many ways it is one of the best Roman films in years–I enjoyed it far more than “Gladiator” or “King Arthur.” I am very impressed with how thorough your own review of the film is–clearly you must love the book, so I will have to read it very soon.
    Tyler Tichelaar

    1. You know, I shall have to review “King Arthur” here sometime. I was able to have fun with it, but mainly because it’s so ridiculous. It’s absolute camp, thumbing its nose at history. And actually, it looks beautiful too. Not historically accurate, but beautiful. The annoying part is really that it’s going to be much harder for anyone to make a proper Arthurian film anytime soon, because of this one. Not that it would be easy anyhow. *sigh*

      What we need is a spot-on brilliant adaptation of Sir Gawain & the Green Knight. As well as more faithful/brilliant adaptations of Rosemary Sutcliff books.

  4. I’m not sure that they did have a historically or military understanding of the Testudo formation, in short the usage was inaccurate!

    The formation is purely to stop far superior missal fire from being used on the legionary, in the film they use the formation on light infantry, which is one of the worst formations you can make! To explain this: In testudo formation half of the legionaries have their shields faced upwards and are unable to fight, they are also easily surrounded!

    What should have happened was that the legionaries should have formed line of battle using the wall to cover their flanks then pushed forward. Wait! This has a rival in its ridiculousness! Ordering his legionaries to run from chariots, I don’t even need to explain that one do I? GIVE ME A BREAK!

    Use of Roman formations? Yes. Correct use of formations? No.

    1. Thanks for the comment. You’re right that the testudo formation is designed to protect from missile weapons, and is not a good fighting formation at all. I think the filmmakers knew that, and that they have Marcus improvising with it to suit the situation at hand.

      The Roman force that sallies out to rescue the patrol is far smaller than the British warband they are charging into. Marcus knows he doesn’t have enough soldiers to form a proper fighting formation and win, and he doesn’t know when reinforcements from the next fort will reach him — perhaps a few days. (some of this is admittedly elaborated on in the book) From what I see in the film, his goal is to retrieve the captured patrol with as few losses as possible…NOT to kill as many British warriors as possible. So when the soldiers form testudo and charge out, their strategy is to form a heavy juggernaut of steel and men that can punch through the light British infantry and reach the patrol with few or no losses. Now I don’t remember how the movie has it, but in the book they are also charging downhill towards the British, which greatly increases the weight of momentum behind them. In both versions, however, once they reach the patrol, they break into a formation that is more suitable to melee combat.

      *shrug* I’m not a strategist, but this explanation satisfies me, and seems to make logical sense. It’s not the ideal use of testudo, no, but I think it’s meant to be an innovative one.

      As for running from the chariots…yes, that makes less sense. The book makes it clearer that they at least stood a chance of reaching the fort before the chariots got to them, so it makes sense for them to run rather than fight, but in the movie they looked farther away.

      At any rate, it’s also just nice to see the testudo actually formed correctly, and held in battle. In Gladiator they immediately broke formation to fight one-on-one with the German warriors! Now that’s ridiculous!

      1. It may very well be that this is improvising by Marcus, but exactly the kind of improvising that would get everyone killed in under a minute. The testudo is a bad formation for close combat because the soldier inside does not have enough room to move and defend himself. The enemy has plenty of room. all it takes to defeat a testudo in close combat is a spear or a longer sword than the Roman short-sword.

        Ironically the testudo would be a much better choice to use in the retreat from the Britons cavalry as the mass of tightly packed troops with complete shield coverage could easily withstand cavalry, in fact until the 19th century the way to deal with enemy cavalry was to form a square.

        also quite ironically Gladiator was far more accurate than this movie. The infantry tactics in the battle in Gladiator were pretty much correct (advance in line and once contact is made one on one combat where the heavy armour, big shield en far superior training of the Roman legion had the advantage

        1. Thanks for joining in. Well, my understanding is that Roman superiority was in their ability to fight as a disciplined group, and that one-on-one they were probably not superior to the barbarian warriors, who were used to fighting individually and heroically. Their heavy armor and huge shields are more conducive to formation fighting than individual combat. So the opening battle of Gladiator struck me as ludicrous because they made absolutely no attempt to hold ranks once combat joined and instead fought in a way that left them highly vulnerable to the Germans with their huge axes. This also minimized the usefulness of Maximus’ cavalry charge, which was probably meant as a hammer-and-anvil strike, but instead the cavalry-hammer swung down to find a melee mess and no anvil against which to strike the Germans.

          You’re right that the testudo would probably have been Marcus’ best chance against the chariots. The chariots were intended to scare the enemy into running, and in The Eagle they did (as at the Battle of Sentinum), but Marcus’ men may have stood a better chance if they met the charge in testudo. My only other thought about this is that had he done that, his men would have been caught in that formation by the British infantry which were probably running behind the chariots and whose numbers would have overwhelmed his small force. Marcus made a snap decision, and then decided to sacrifice himself in order to make the escape work for his men. As for retreating in testudo formation, doesn’t the testudo limit movement too much for that to work in Marcus’ situation?

          This is a great discussion, and I’m not pretending I’m authoritative. I did study classics in college, so I’m trying to use that schooling with logic to figure out what makes the most sense, but I acknowledge I may be wrong, if my hypotheses can be disproven. Thanks again for commenting, I appreciate it!

          Have you read the book?

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