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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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