Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play) has returned with his latest offering, The Eagle, a historical drama set in Roman-controlled Britannia. Fans of the early second century who have dedicated a considerable portion of their lives to the understanding of the various tribal movements, political situations, and general feelings between the British tribes and the occupying Romans will likely find some entertaining and enlightening moments. To the other 99 percent of us, The Eagle is a predictable and uninspired film that manages to offer some entertainment, despite itself.
The Eagle is not a bad film, it just fails to live up to the glimmers of potential that it shows. There are just too many themes that don’t go anywhere, and the movie seems unsure of who it is trying to appeal to. Even the interesting action scenes are heavily edited — possibly to secure the PG-13 rating — so the action fans will only be mildly entertained. There are some historical details that are interesting, but they are quickly glossed over so history buffs will be left wanting. There is a relationship between the two main characters whom begin as enemies and grow to respect each other, but it isn’t handled all that well, so fans of predictable dramas will leave feeling underwhelmed. And that is The Eagle in a nutshell — several interesting parts that do not coalesce into the movie that it wants to be.
Now, all of that being said, there are still some moments of enjoyment to be squeezed from The Eagle. The plot is derivative and predictable, but it is not a bad story. The acting varies, but it is solid overall. The cinematography is also fairly strong, and the look of the country (filmed in England, Hungary and the Scottish Highlands) is impressive. While the movie never shines, it never offends either. History buffs with an interest in Roman times or ancient British history will likely enjoy this film — as long as they don’t look too deeply at the details. The Eagle does several things well, but it feels like there is a better story there, just under the surface.
A funny thing happened on the way to Britannia
In the year 140 AD, a young Roman centurion accepts his first command, and surprisingly asks to be assigned to the northern most part of the Roman Empire, in what would one day become England. It was a savage age, with nary a tea time nor a biscuit to be had, and Hadrian’s Wall marked the boundary of the known world. Beyond it, tribes of people who would one day lend their genetic stock to make up the modern day English and Scottish people resisted the influence of Rome. Uprisings were common, and 20 years earlier the entire 5,000-man Ninth Legion disappeared, along with its Roman Imperial Eagle, thus bringing shame to all of Rome.
The Roman Eagle was considered a piece of Rome itself, and the dishonor of losing it reverberated through the Ninth Legion commander’s family, leaving a stain on the reputation of his son, the new commander, Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum). Following his posting, Aquila quickly earns the respect of his men in battle, but suffers a terrible wound in the process, resulting in his honorable discharge.
While recovering at the home of his Uncle Aquila (Donald Sutherland), he witnesses a fight in the arena between a gladiator and a British slave named Esca (Jamie Bell), who’s honor and courage impress Aquila so much that he intercedes on the slave’s behalf to save his life. Esca then becomes Aquila’s personal slave, and swears to repay the Roman for his life, even though he hates him on principle.
As Aquila recovers from his wounds, he hears rumors of the missing Eagle in the possession of a Northern tribe. He takes the reluctant Esca as a guide, and sets out north of Hadrian’s Wall to discover what happened to his father, retake the Eagle, and regain honor for his family.
Based on the 1954 novel, The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, The Eagle is at its heart the story of Esca and Aquila. The plot of the Imperial Eagle itself is the motivating factor for the movie to progress, but the focus quickly becomes more about the two men, each from a different culture with reason to distrust the other, and how they learn to work together. The details are slightly different, but it is a story that you have seen many times before, in many different settings where war and hatred drove two groups apart.
One of the most striking things audiences will notice about The Eagle is that the majority of the Romans speak with an American accent. There has been an unwritten rule that when acting out an adaptation of Ancient Roman life, the cast must speak with a British accent, whether the actors be Americans, Australians, etc. So to hear the actors portray Romans with American accents is deliberate, and it stands out. It is a piece of modern day symbolism, and it is expanded upon through the relationship between Aquila and Esca, who represent modern day America and many of the countries that America now has a military presence in. It is an interesting parallel, but one that never really goes anywhere thanks to the action-oriented ending. If anything, the movie accidentally comes down in favor of America’s expansion, if the symbolism is meant to be an ongoing theme throughout the movie.
A boy and his Brit
Esca owes Aquila his life, and has sworn on his father’s honor that he will serve Aquila, which the Roman takes to heart. But that doesn’t stop Esca from explaining at great length why both Aquila and the Roman Empire suck. As the pair leave the relative safety of the Roman-occupied England to head into the North, Esca takes the lead, forcing Aquila into a position where he must rely on the slave to accomplish his goal, and in doing so he exposes himself to the various cultures and people they meet on the way.
From the first moment that you know the set up, you know that this can either go one of two ways: Either they try to kill each other, or they become BFFs and both learn some important life lessons. The dramatic narrative really doesn’t leave too many alternatives. The movie tries to play on this theme and offers a few twists and turns, but there are never any real surprising moments. In fact, the most surprising thing is how predictable the movie is.
The heart of this movie is the Roman and the Brit bonding and finding mutual ground, and both actors do a decent job—Tatum plays his role as a stoic Roman soldier and does well with what he is given, while Bell shines as Esca. The problem is that they never have any real reason to bond. Sure they fight off enemies a few times, and there are a few strings of honor tying them together, but it just seems to be more of a given that they become friends even though one of them passionately hates everything the other stands for, while the other sees the first as a slave. It is not a dynamic that you would expect a real friendship from — except in a Hollywood movie.
Channing Tatum will likely receive an undue amount of criticism for his acting in the film, and many will judge the failure of the characters’ bonding as his fault, but that is unfair. He does what he is asked, and the fault lies with the script and the pacing of the movie. It does seem obvious though that between Tatum and Bell, Bell is the better actor.
While Bell does a good job and comes across as likable and interesting, the plot forces his character into doing some extraordinarily odd things that are never truly justified—especially during the climax of the film, where Esca makes bizarre and unexplainable choices for his situation, then apparently becomes magic, enabling a final conflict despite pesky little things like space and time. Without going into spoilers, Esca accomplishes a task that should take days, maybe weeks, in what appears to be minutes.
The good, the bad, and the uncanny
The plot of The Eagle seems to have a bit of an identity crisis throughout. It forces a conclusion you know is coming, and has characters become slaves to the plot as a result. The most glaring examples are from one of the antagonists. He seems to be a fairly reasonable and rational character, then right at the end he does something incredibly evil for absolutely no reason at all, thus justifying other decisions made by other characters. The film seems to make it a point to stay neutral on which side is good and bad –which allows the movie to take on a bit of modern day symbolism regarding imperialism — but then at the last second it veers wildly off course to try to give an action-oriented conclusion that only kind of works.
The Eagle is also littered with talented actors in minor roles, which is more puzzling than interesting. Seeing Sutherland and later Mark Strong as a former soldier, you would assume that both are going to play a major role, but both exist only in to push the plot along. Neither actor is given much to do other than help set the stage for things that Aquila and Esca accomplish, which is a shame, especially given the interesting and unexplored nature of Strong’s character, and the huge amount of potential it could have added to the story.
Now, if you can put aside all of that, if you can overlook the missed opportunities and sometimes schizophrenic plot, The Eagle has its good points. While the relationship between Esca and Aquila is rushed, the two actors seem to have a decent chemistry which makes the end fun to watch, even if the journey to get there was flawed.
The idea of a son trying to find out the fate of his father and then honor him may not the most original idea ever, but it is still compelling enough to make the film enjoyable at times. If anything, this is an old school adventure tale, where the era is the important thing, but the details of that period be damned. The brutality of the age is ignored in favor of the spirit of adventure, and that works — albeit on a very shallow level.
If you are looking for a deep, thought-provoking story that truly captures the age, check out HBO’s Rome, Gladiator, or dozens of others. If you want a quick and forgettable action tale that hints at greater things, but falls short of delivering, than The Eagle is the movie for you.
The Eagle is a fairly dull film, but it is harmless as well, and does have a few moments that make it enjoyable. Check it out if you are looking for a rental a few months from now, or you want to get out of the cold during the afternoon. Anything beyond that and you may be disappointed.
An interesting period in history that can and has yielded numerous stories. The cinematography is top notch. Interesting modern day parallels.
The relationship between the characters feels rushed. The story is predictable and the interesting threads are cut short. The fights are heavily edited.
[Updated to clarify a description.]
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