A film review by Craig J. Koban February 16, 2011


2011, PG-13, 114 mins.


Marcus: Channing Tatum / Esca: Jamie Bell / Uncle Aquila: Donald Sutherland / Guern: Mark Strong / Seal Prince: Tahar Rahim / Lutorius: Denis O'Hare

Directed by Kevin Macdonald / Written by Jeremy Brock, based on Rosemary Sutcliff's novel The Eagle of the Ninth

Kevin Macdonald’s THE EAGLE is a film with an evocatively brawny sense of authentic period detail that regrettably contains individual performances that don't feel authentic.  This cinematic adaptation of the Rosemary Sutcliff 1954 young adult historical novel THE EAGLE OF THE NINTH does a splendid job of immersing audiences in its richly grainy, grungy, and sepia-toned atmosphere of 2nd Century Rome.  Certainly, this film was made on a budget that would barely cover the catering costs of GLADIATOR and definitely does not have its epic scope, nor does it need to.  Yet, for as solid as THE EAGLE is as a visual journey, the resulting sword and sandal action thriller becomes distracting because of its spotty casting and its main lead character, which ultimately has the unintended effect of pulling you out of the story. 

MacDonald is by no means an unaccomplished filmmaker: he made one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in TOUCHING THE VOID and he also thanklessly helmed the political thriller STATE OF PLAY.   He aims for a sense of immediate historical veracity in THE EAGLE (despite the fact that very little is historically known about the tribes that Romans encountered) and he does so by employing Anthony Dod Mantle’s (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE and 127 HOURS) lush and primal cinematography.  However, the way he casts the Romans in the film with many American actors is peculiar.  It has been said that MacDonald was attempting to make some modern day allegories to how Rome’s imperialistic might and aggression echoes the United States’, but I don’t find that connection to be very clearly delineated.  All that is clear is that many of the Roman characters sound more like they belong on a contemporary New York street corner than in Britannia circa 117 AD. 

The biggest miscalculation, though, is with Channing Tatum’s casting in the main role of Marcus Aquila, a headstrong, resolute, and empowered Roman commander.  Now, there is no doubt that his granite jawed and sculpted physique makes him a perfect physical specimen for the role, but as a performer with emotional range, Tatum is essentially a blank void.  His expressions throughout the film range from grimacing and stoic to even more grimacing and stoic and his dialogue is uttered with a sort of pseudo English accent morphed with the pouting intonations of a boy band member.  He performs more than adequately when it comes to fisticuffs and sword swinging gallantry, but when he is forced to settle down in quieter introspective moments, he never once comes off as credible.  His casting is all sorts of wrong. 

The film – during the opening title cards – deals with the disappearance of the Roman Ninth Legion that marched far north into unfamiliar territories from the colony of modern day England and into the uncharted wilds of Scotland, where they were never heard from again.  A famous Roman artifact known as "The Eagle of the Ninth" was in the possession of Ninth Legion when they braced themselves on their trek up North and was presumable lost while they were there.  To journey into the mysterious and dangerous lands to locate and recover the Eagle would be a massive heroic feat and accomplishment. 

This is where Marcus Aquila steps in, and he certainly has personal reasons for wanting the golden statue back.  Two decades earlier his father, a respected and mighty Roman warrior, was one of the men of the Ninth that had disappeared and it has been largely held that he was the man that lost the Eagle.  This dubious legacy weighs down heavily on young Marcus as he bears down in his current assignment as the leader of a small and minor Roman outpost.  His self-imposed mission to reclaim the Eagle and restore his father’s legacy is put on hold when he is seriously wounded in battle and taken to his uncle’s villa for recovery.  Donald Sutherland plays the uncle, a great and dignified actor, but a bit out of place as a Roman.

During his rehabilitation Marcus and his uncle attend a gladiatorial contest where Marcus is surprisingly taken in with the raw courage of a slave named Esca (the very decent Jamie Bell, one of the few performance standouts) and convinces the fickle Roman crowd to spare his life.  Afterwards, Marcus acquires Esca as his personal slave and even though Esca despises Rome’s militaristic extremes with all of his being, he agrees to serve the man who essentially saved his life.  Yet, the two form a very unlikely bond and alliance when Marcus decides that they will both traverse across thee highlands of Caledonia and fledge on north of Hadrian’s Wall to go where the Ninth notoriously did so that Marcus can reclaim the much sought after Eagle.   

Macdonald is able to muster some thematic curiosity in this otherwise problematic film: There are the obligatory notions of honor, duty, and loyalty when it comes to Marcus’ quest, not to mention that the film becomes sort of compelling when he and Esca come across the mystifying and otherworldly tribes that may or may not have had something to do with the Ninth’s disappearance.  The culture clash presented within the story between the wild and nomadic tribes and Rome alongside the juxtaposition of Marcus’ loyalty to Rome’s imperial pursuits and his coming to grips with Esca’s beliefs and traditions provides much of the interest in the film.  There is no doubt that THE EAGLE is at least inquisitive about its period and is actively involved in presenting it. 

Yet, the film fumbles when it comes to the central relationship between the slave and his owner.  The script sort of teases audiences as to where the real loyalties lie with Esca while he is on his treacherous journey with Marcus, but the modest intrigue generated here is resolved rather predictably.  There is also very little development of the characters of Marcus and Esca beyond there requirements towards the general plot trajectory (one’s a Roman soldier, one’s his slave, they both are enemies that become frenamies, so to speak, but there is very little substance beyond that).  Then there is the conclusion of the film which is more than a bit clumsily hypocritical: MacDonald has pained to categorize Rome as an empire whose ambitions are matched by its own barbaric tendencies to harm others, but, in the end, the film sides with Marcus and his empire versus the tribes they battle.  A vastly more compelling choice would have been to allow viewers to make up their own minds as to which entity is worthy of their support.  Alas, THE EAGLE takes the lazy and straightforward route by making the tribes the evil savages and Rome the politically civilized and justified society. 

Again, I appreciated the ruggedness and handsomeness of the production values here: On a basic level, THE EAGLE has an old fashioned visual allure that thankfully does not revel in contemporary, CGI-infested overkill, which is ultimately refreshing.  However, the individual battle scenes and brawls are kind of insipidly choreographed and edited (you are rarely given a prevailing sense of spatial relationships and who is fighting who in most cases, which is not helped by the fact that MacDonald has a nasty habit of framing the battles with close-ups and jarring editing).   Combined with this is the fact that – until the story gets Marcus and Esca deep into unfamiliar and hostile enemy territory – THE EAGLE is ill paced and rarely generates much suspense.  The film only becomes truly involving about two-thirds of the way in, which leaves the build up to that point kind of lacking.

Lastly, there is one other problem with this film: it lacks…well…balls.  THE EAGLE was annoyingly rated PG-13 and despite the apparent mayhem displayed on screen, the action is shockingly bloodless.  If you want to see a similar film about the same era that has considerable more testosterone-laced nerve and fortitude, then watch last year’s CENTURION (also featuring Roman soldiers warring against Northern tribes), which was an unapologetic, hard-R rated testament to sword slicing carnage and blood curdling chaos.  That film never succumbed to the pressures of the wimpy and limp-dicked limitations of a more box office and audience friendly PG-13, nor did it feel the need to sheepishly cast a former American model turned actor as Roman soldier. 

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