Focus Features (2011) 114 min. PG-13
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Screenplay: Jeremy Brock; based on The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff
Cinematography: Anthony Dod Mantle; Editing: Justine Wright
Production Design: Michael Carlin; Set Decoration: Rebecca Alleway; Costumes: Michael O’Connor; Score: Atli Örvarsson
Stars: Channing Tatum (Marcus Flavius Aquila), Jamie Bell (Esca), Donald Sutherland (Uncle Aquila), Mark Strong (Guern), Tahar Rahim (Seal Prince), Denis O’Hare (Lutorius), Aladár Laklóth (Flavius Aquila)
The Eagle is well crafted, perfectly respectable popcorn entertainment. The majority of the movie was taken on location in Scotland (Glasgow, Loch Lomond, Summer Isles, Achnahaird Bay, etc.) by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, the Oscar-winning cameraman who also shot director Kevin Macdonald’s previous The Last King of Scotland. For The Eagle Mantle has photographed a beautiful expanse of the country, offering a wide variety of scenery, from grassy glens to the snowy Highlands. The result is a variety of gloriously breathtaking vistas.
The horizons and skies have been shot in a manner that attempts to recapture the look and feel of a sparsely populated vanished world. With seas of heather waving in the wind like fields of gold, Scotland has been made to seem strangely remote, as vast and uninhabited as the pre-Columbian Midwest, scattered here and there with wandering nomads and primitive tribes in their low, stone thatch houses.
When centurion Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) first arrives at his new command post on the outskirts of Roman occupied Britain, it’s by boat, drifting down a primeval river that might have remained unchanged since the beginning of the world. It’s a scene straight out of Aguirre, and we seem to be floating with him through the mists of time, on another unsettlingly still tributary of the Amazon with hostile, unseen natives waiting to riddle the soldiers with arrows from all sides. The fact that these Romans are on a strange, dangerous and unexplored region of the map is accentuated by such surreal sights as a herd of milk white cattle fording across the stream directly ahead, urged on by a spectral young savage on horseback. This is Britain, for goodness sake, but we’re seeing it as if for the first time, the way John Smith saw Virginia in The New World. We’re forced to see it the way the Romans do, and from their perspective it’s an uninviting, inhospitable alien land, peopled by hostile tribes and long haired barbarians. From these opening images Macdonald effectively transports us back to an earlier age, when life was shorter, bloodier and more brutal.
There are several excitingly mounted, excellently choreographed and nerve wrackingly edited action sequences which the two leads, with their similar background in dance, bring off gracefully. In a jump out of your seat moment, the fort is laid siege to in the dead of night, at the very instance we’ve been lulled into a false sense of security believing the overeager young commander had issued a false alarm, needlessly dragging his men out of bed in order to report to their posts. When the escaping fugitives take to the river, near the end, the jostling, hand held camerawork simulates their point of view as they navigate the rapids, the shafts of sunlight streaming across the cliffs as if this were a mystical emerald forest. Macdonald musters some great angles and formations, stationing the painted Seal people like silent sentinels at strategic intervals along hill and dale, and in the skirmish in front of the fort as the roman detachment marches out in time, using their shields to form a hurtling human tank that cuts a swath through the swirling sea of Britons as cleanly as a clipper sluicing through waves. The soldiers form a protective barricade around the bound captives as the savages assail them from all sides, the circle progressively shrinking as the roman numerals dwindle like Custer’s men at the Little Big Horn. Though the scene ends too abruptly with Marcus’ smash up, it’s pretty thrilling up till then. With his overhead, eagle eye views Macdonald might be forming geometric compositions out of the soldiers the same way Busby Berkeley used to do with his chorus girls.
Earnest in intent, The Eagle seems like something of an anomaly on a screen overrun these days by less sober ancient world epics. It’s a far cry from the equally enjoyable Clash of the Titans remake, for instance. There’s been an attempt to impart a greater sense of gravity to proceedings than with the standard historical action adventure of this sort, movies like 300 and The Immortals. Boasting some semblance of authenticity, The Eagle is more on the level of a Troy or an Alexander. It wants to be taken seriously. Indeed, with the equally down and dirty Rome having been cancelled on HBO and Spartacus trying to find its way on Starz following the death of lead Andy Whitfield, The Eagle can proudly stand as the most impressive recent sampling of what’s becoming a popular new entertainment staple- Roman revisionism (a new version of Cleopatra is also being bandied about). If Gladiator revitalized the sword and sandal epic over a decade back, proving it to still be a viable film form, then the trend seems to currently be peaking with movies like this tripping over one another with increasing frequency at the box office. The Eagle itself comes on the heels of the British made, Michael Fassbender vehicle The Centurion, which was also loosely based on the same historical incident.
An eerie forward sets the mood, with the legend that “In 120 A.D. the Ninth legion of the Roman army marched into the unconquered territory of northern Britain and were never seen again. All 5,000 men vanished together with their treasured standard. Shamed by this great loss, the emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of a giant wall to cut off the north of Britain forever. Hadrian’s Wall marked the end of the known world.” It’s an intriguing premise, which may put viewers in mind of the equally unexplained disappearance of the 1st 5th Norfolk Regiment on Gallipoli during the early stages of WWI (surveying the Scottish landscape, in quest of the lost legion, it’s observed that “Five thousand men could disappear in a single glen. And there are thousands of glens. You could search for months and still find nothing.”). But like that much embroidered, more modern ‘mystery,’ Jeremy Brock’s script, adapted from Rosemary Sutcliff’s book for young adults, The Eagle of the Ninth, is more fiction than fact, strictly history according to Hollywood and, as such, to be taken with a grain of salt despite the realistic milieu. The meat and potatoes of the movie wisely concerns itself with the purely fictional drama of Channing Tatum’s Marcus, the son of the annihilated battalion’s commander, and his seeking to recover the lost standard of the Ninth, the gold plated eagle of the title, by which he believes he can erase the stain his father’s crushing military defeat left upon his name.
Marcus’ men disrespect and challenge him, trying to undermine his authority at every turn. It’s not just because he’s young and inexperienced in his first command, but because they view him as an evil omen since he comes of such tainted stock. Being placed under the command of a man whose father notoriously led his own legion into the waiting jaws of death would seem a troublesome twist of fate; no good can come of it. The garrison’s previous commander who “couldn’t wait to get away,” isn’t even there to meet Marcus when he arrives and the affront is deeply felt, enhancing his long standing sense of unworthiness.
As with his father’s legacy, this boy who’s trying to make a name for himself finds he has inherited no prize in this shoddy garrison in such a bad state of disrepair. The latrines are broken and the men consider Britain one big sh*thole, so it seems no right thinking person would choose to come here of his own volition, as Marcus has, unless he had something to hide, or to prove (“This is where my father lost the eagle, this is where I was going to win so much glory that no Roman would ever dare bring up his name again.”). He’s like a refugee, a man on the run, but what he’s trying to escape from, his name, his legacy, is precisely what he runs smack into, more and more so as the past seems to be repeating itself and the elder Aquila’s identity begins to merge with that of the younger. Marcus may be shamed by having to bear his disgraced father’s name (when Lutorius, his second in command, suggests he has family ties to the area he flatly denies it), but it’s his name as well, and he finds he can’t run away from himself.
Divesting himself of his armor on a wooden stand that looks suspiciously like a crucifix (indication of how pilloried and persecuted he must feel), Marcus prays for the strength and wisdom to lead his men well, to not dishonor his legion. Feeling his father’s failure to be a reflection on him, Marcus needs to restore the elder Aquila’s reputation for his own peace of mind. As he’s well aware, he’s under intense scrutiny. Everyone is judging him (he most of all) just waiting for him to make a false move, slip up, fall on his face. Yet he earns his regiment’s begrudging respect by the way he successfully acquits himself in battle, lighting a torch to the entrenchments encircling the besieged fort and coated with flammable pitch, thereby saving countless lives.
For holding the post under extreme duress the fourth cohort is given the golden laurel for conspicuous gallantry, and her commander an honorable discharge due to his wounds. Only in his twenties and already drummed out of the army, Marcus is like an embittered war vet, hobbling about on crutches with a useless leg. His dreams of securing glory on a field of combat destroyed, he’s forced to become inventive and pursue other avenues to self realization. “I will not sit in some villa for the rest of my days, rotting and remembering. If I can’t win back my family’s honor by being a soldier then I’ll do it by finding the lost eagle.” he resolutely states.
Though we’re fully an hour into proceedings before it becomes clear exactly where events are leading, the movie’s emotional core centers around the strong attachment that develops between Marcus and the British slave boy he rescues from certain death in the gladiatorial ring, Esca (Jamie Bell), as they set out in quest of this treasure. It’s a bond that cuts deeper than the visible iron shackles that bind master to slave. As in The Defiant Ones, these two men are linked together by psychological impediments and social restraints that keep them all bound up, mentally and physically, long after the actual tethers have been lifted. Theirs is a relationship sparked by the whip and the chain, a tortuous, sado-masochistic attachment forged by fetters both real and invisible.
In essence, The Eagle concerns the oedipal complex of two overage boys with daddy issues. As Marcus reveals, “Ever since I can remember, all I wanted to be was a soldier like my father.” and later, equally dewy eyed, “I can still see him now, riding away for the last time. My father, centurion first cohort of the Ninth legion. Can you imagine anything more magnificent?” All that Marcus has to remember his father by now is the little eagle replica he was given before he set out on the mission from which he’d never return. It’s become a talisman to his son, who wears the precious keepsake around his neck like a gold cross, praying on and kissing it as if it were a rosary. The searching question Marcus murmurs during his delirium, “Father, where are you” suggests the abandoned boy subconsciously believes tracking down that lost golden relic he saw carried off to battle will somehow also lead him back to his absent parent, bringing some emotional closure to his life (“You know, sometimes I dream that I find my father alive up here. That he survived in some hidden place.”). Aquila, Marcus’ surname, means ‘eagle’ in Latin, so it’s no coincidence that the two concepts become so merged in his mind. Not since The Maltese Falcon has the quest for an elusive metal bird seemed such absorbing stuff as these dreams are made of.
When Marcus meets his uncle for the first time, the indication is that he will serve as a father figure to him, replacing the one he lost. But Donald Sutherland seems so vastly unlike any other human being who ever drew breath comparison is impossible (only with Kiefer in the role could a family resemblance have made any sense). He assures doubting Marcus that “if (his father) died defending the eagle, he died honorably.” But Marcus fears that his father was a coward who ran away in the face of death, as he imagines him doing, rather than standing and fighting like a man. Moreover, he perceives this to have been a sign of weakness, a moral failing on his part, which explains why the son feels it so impingent to test his own mettle, proving beyond doubt his courage and fortitude.
Consequently, Marcus never acknowledges his own weaknesses, never complains despite the constant misery in his leg, and tries to dismiss his slave before the operation on it can begin, not wanting to be seen in such a prone, powerless state. When Marcus awakes after his excruciating surgery, the only thing he wants to know is if he ‘shamed’ himself, by betraying any sign of weakness, if he cried, whimpered, screamed in pain while he was out. This determination to appear hard, to put on a brave front, underpins his obsession with recovering the eagle. Marcus says the standard represents Rome, but he’s wants to find it for purely personal reasons, not patriotic ones. To him, it represents his father’s lost honor, “The eagle lost, honor lost. Honor lost, all lost.” It’s this lost honor that he’s trying to recover, clearly equating honor with strength and bravery, and bravery with being a man. He’s searching for the gold eagle, but he might just as well be trying to reclaim his family jewels.
Marcus doesn’t respond to his uncle’s curiosity as to why he saves Esca from the ring, but such unexpected magnanimousness fits his psychological profile. Marcus, to whom bravery is everything, admires the bold slave’s nerve in the face of the baying crowd and uneven odds, throwing down his weapons and refusing to give the spectators the show they paid to see rather than making a public spectacle of his death. Plagued by the suspicion that his own father turned tail and ran, Marcus sees Esca’s unflinching willingness to meet death head on as a sign of courage rather than the cowardice the audience takes it for. Ironically, this defiance Esca displays when confronted with death, is rewarded with his life.
Like Marcus, Esca is also haunted by the specter of his deceased father, in trembling awe of his heroism. “My father was Cunoval, bearer of the blue war shields of the Brigantes. Lord of 500 spears.” Esca crows, bearing his name with pride. When he learns that Marcus’ father commanded the enemy forces, his face drops, and we realize just how deeply the two men are divided by the standing animosity that exists between their warring cultures. The fathers of both fell fighting on opposing sides of the same conflict, convinced that his position was the only correct one to take. While Marcus’ father is regarded as a pariah, causing the son who bears his name to distance himself and disown any relation, Esca’s is renowned throughout the length of the north; he merely has to mention his esteemed father’s name in order to be feted and fawned over.
That Esca idolizes his father and, in a sense, also feels diminished in relation to his larger than life legend, is signified by his correlation with the Seal prince’s starry eyed young son, who looks up to and hero worships Esca just as blindly as Esca does his father. The analogy indicates that Esca is likewise still a wee little laddie inside, wetting himself in dumbstruck awe of his deified Da. Like Marcus, Esca measures his idea of honor against his father’s repute. Pledging himself to his master’s service as bond slave it’s with “an oath of honor,” vowing, “I’m the son of a Brigante who’s never broke his word. My father’s dagger is my bond.” Esca expresses as strong a desire to live up to the high standards his father and martyred brothers set for him, as Marcus does to live down his father’s shame. This universal oedipal complex is what bonds them, brothers under the skin. It’s the tie that binds them together more strongly than the literal chain of master to slave.
Marcus’s preoccupation with following in his father’s footsteps likewise makes him seem like an emotionally arrested adolescent, having never really matured from the traumatized boy with abandonment issues he once was in flashback. This explains why the kid cast as Marcus as a child is the spitting image of that boy at the beginning, glimpsed for just an instant herding those cattle across the stream (the same young actor, Bence Gerö, was cast in both parts). Marcus, so anxious to prove himself courageous, strong and honorable, a man, still secretly feels like that helpless little boy inside, lost, scared and needing his absent father to comfort and protect him. It’s here on English soil where Marcus will face down his past and exorcise his inner demons, the inner child who still haunts him, growing into the man he wished his father had been. Until that time, he’s just playing at being a big boy, same as the professionally untrained Tatum still seems like an underwear model just playing at being an actor.
I may have missed something along the line, but when precisely did Channing Tatum become a star? The man has been struggling to establish a screen persona for so long he threatens to become Hollywood’s next Josh Hartnett. He’s tried himself out in just about every type of role there is (in the last year alone there’s been The Son of No One, The Dilemma, Haywire, The Vow), but has yet to find one that fully connects with the public. He seems to be all over the place, yet at the same time so aimless, he’s even taken to Twitter to ask his fans for career advice. His specialty seems to be soldiers (Stop Loss, Dear John, Rise of Cobra, his centurion here), and he’s a natural for the sort of parts that can take full advantage of his beefy physique, dancers (Step Up), ballplayers (Coach Carter), boxers (Fighting) and bullheaded brutes, brawny characters who do their thinking with their fists, as he did in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, his most well received performance to date. Personally, I think it would be amusing to see the actor attempt the role of Stanley in Streetcar; he might not be half bad. Tatum makes a decent action hero (another G.I. Joe film is on the slate), but in this particular historic guise he seems as anachronistic as Brando did when he appeared in Julius Caesar. For what it’s worth, Tatum’s career is suffering from advanced Marky Mark syndrome. He’s going to have to find a way to make his hard bodied, knuckleheaded image work for, rather than against him, in order to gain some street cred as a serious actor. It’s likely going to be a while before he’s able to entirely shake off the onus of his early work as a Ricky Martin music video ho, Abercrombie and Fitch underwear ad model, and even more disreputable stint as a stripper. The fact that Tatum seems to have the good natured PR sense to laugh about his past publicly, with a self effacing gig hosting SNL and starring role in an upcoming vehicle inspired by his own life on the pole, he might be able to live it down, at least if he doesn’t start taking himself and his present prospects too seriously (he’s already turned actor slash producer).
Though he’s upstaged by his scrappy co-star, The Eagle is actually one of Tatum’s better performances, he even manages to disguise that disconcerting accent (he’s from rural Alabama but sounds like inner city Jersey) by descanting in the same flat, declamatory English that actors generally affect for period pieces set in eras where there’s no real way to know what the dead languages sounded like (unaccountably, the British Bell has been coached to speak in an identical vocal range here, sometimes lilting his phrases with the inappropriate suggestion of a Scottish burr). The actor can seem sympathetically human on sporadic occasion, such as his glimmer of self doubt that he may have been wrong about the night attack, his humiliation when the contingent he sent out to scout for the missing grain wagon is captured and beheaded right before the fort, and his blush of pride at hearing that the same soldiers who once disparaged him are now eager to know how their captain fares. But the action figure Tatum’s playing doesn’t demand much more of him than G.I. Joe did.
While we commiserate with his Marcus’ desire to measure up, sullen, sulking Tatum doesn’t fully give himself over to exploring the character’s insecurity in his untried new role as commander and chief. His Marcus is forever putting on a brave front, in an attempt to disassociate himself from his weak father’s failures, but the director hasn’t included enough balancing scenes in which he breaks down and reveals his own vulnerabilities, at least to the audience, or to Esca, with whom he does briefly start to open up. With Tatum in the part, Marcus just seems like an unvarying series of brave faces, alternately trading up his limited number of expressions for comedy and tragedy as if they were that two-sided Janus head mask the gladiator wears in the ring. And it’s difficult to identify with his character’s journey, since the outdated notion of eugenics, in which genetically predisposed people are susceptible to the sins of their fathers, being defined and distinguished by their lineal line of descent, no longer sits so well with the notion of rugged individualism, which tells us that everyone is supposed to be his own man.
Tatum has filled out from the lithe dancer he was in Step Up, though with the added bulk his muscle bound body language has become far less fluid and expressive. Though he’s no greater shakes as an actor now than he was back then, he seems less lummox like than when he appears in more constrictive roles, since in The Eagle he has all outdoors to range around in. To flatter his hulking frame further, he’s been cast opposite the thin, slightly built Jamie Bell. Macdonald’s curious casting of strapping American Tatum seems to have been motivated in part by a desire for another abrasively loud, larger than life portrait similar to Forest Whittaker’s in The Last King of Scotland, to offset the quieter one of the small, pale British co-star with whom the director is more emotionally invested, as he was with James McAvoy in that earlier film. Jug eared Bell still appears all raw boned teenage angles, just growing into manhood, though it’s been over a decade since he made a splash as the spastic, spindly limbed child star of Billy Elliott. That movie was released the same year as Gladiator, the film to which movies like The Eagle still owe their ongoing fount of inspiration, and Billy Elliott lost big to it in the awards rounds, so it must give Bell especial pleasure to have grown up to fill Russell Crowe’s sizable leather sandals.
In the movie that established him, Bell played a kid who takes much flack from his working class British community for wanting to be a ballerina, and certainly that must play with the psyche of a child actor, especially as he grows into adolescence and is at pains to prove his virility. With his scraggly new scruff of facial fur and the film’s strenuous fight scenes, arduous horseback riding over rough terrain, wild boar hunts, and gladiatorial fights to the finish, The Eagle allows the gaunt, sharp featured young actor with a face preternaturally wizened, to show what a tough guy he can be when the occasion warrants. Bell seems as eager to prove himself in the eyes of the world as the Marcus character does.
The unintentional irony however is that there’s probably no genre with a stronger homoerotic subtext than gladiator movies, unless one takes into account buddy movies, in which the focus is on the platonic bromance shared by two strong male leads in the absence of women. The Eagle, with its scenes of male bonding and the growing attachment between master and slave, seems like a curious cross between these two classes of film. As far as queer theory goes it warrants closer inspection since many of the movie’s major themes, including the search for a strong father figure, Marcus’ sense that there’s something intrinsic in his character that makes him weaker than other men, his attempt to put on a hard, impassive front to disguise his secret insecurities, his determination to measure up in the eyes of a world that looks down on him, are intrinsic to the gay experience. Moreover, I’m not sure how properly masculine it appears for Bell to be cast as a slave passively submitting to the whims of a more dominant man, forced in effect to play the submissive, ‘female’ role in this male on male relationship. The relative slightness of his stature in comparison to Tatum visually accentuates this dynamic, reinforcing the notion that Bell is meant to represent the weaker sex.
The presumption is that Uncle Aquila buys Esca and makes a gift of him mistakenly assuming Marcus’ inclination to save the boy resulted from an unspoken attraction. Already struggling to eradicate any sign of weakness in his nature, this gesture embarrasses Marcus no end, as he assures Esca “You didn’t (beg for your life). I did, on your behalf… and I meant nothing by it.” In vain he tries to convince the boy that he has no use for him, but Esca pledges himself to Marcus’ service anyhow with the not entirely untender oath “I hate everything you stand for. Everything you are. But you saved me. And for that I must serve you.” A man who would willingly foreswear his independence in submission to another man seems like no man at all, undermining the new image sought by the young actor, at least until the situation shifts once his Esca is back on home turf and can be on top for a change, forcing Marcus to his knees.
There’s a docilely dazed, bovine vibe to Tatum’s features, as there was to the young Brando. It’s as though someone had taken a sledgehammer to his head. With his sloe eyes and slack jaw frequently tensed in strained concentration, he imparts the impression that he should be chewing cud. He’s a substantial side of beef and the movie goes out of its way to accentuate his heavy boned masculine beauty. Macdonald’s camera seems taken enough with his sculpted body to fixate on it, whether capturing a nearly nude Tatum rolling around under pelts of wolf fur with only the brief modesty of a loincloth to conceal him from glory, sporting a shimmery bronze breast plate that accentuates the cut of his ripped abs, or running around in midriff togas and makeshift tunics with leather tong fringe directing our eyes to his muscular calves. When he’s taken prisoner, his shirt will be scenically ripped to reveal his bulging biceps in a suggestive manner that makes it difficult to believe this testosterone fueled action movie wasn’t being marketed more with female filmgoers in mind. Other images seem pitched for their appeal to sublimated gay fantasy, such as the one where the Roman soldiers dig the entrenchments, their bare-chested torsos slick with sweat beneath the beating sun as they slip and slide around in the mud. Or the pagan Seal people’s strange, hallucinogenic rite of manhood ritual, as they writhe in the dirt on all fours, leapfrogging and lapping at each other’s faces, presided over by a shaman in glittery Mardi Gras mask and stag antlers that make him resemble a sexually licentious ram’s head, the horned beast. There are few other interpretations possible for scenes like the one where the surgeon forcefully exhorts the slave to pin Marcus down, to put his full weight on him (Harder!”), sounding like a sports commentator’s running blow-by-blow on the physical act of love. This semblance of simulated intimacy can’t help but bring the two men closer together, quite literally. It’s laughable in its obviousness, yet we feel no urge to laugh, even as we’re blushing in embarrassment for the actors who must behave as if they were blissfully unaware of the implications.
In fact, the entire movie operates on the same wavelength of sexually unaware prepubescence as the children’s book on which it was based. Events transpire in a nearly all-male world, where no girls are allowed and copulation seems like an unknown concept. The closest The Eagle comes to being heterosexually suggestive is when Marcus makes cow eyes at the giggling sister of the Seal prince, earning him a wallop across the face for the effrontery. Instead of the supple embrace of tender woman flesh, it’s Esca, with softened sympathies, who’s waiting dotingly by his master’s bedside when he wakes from surgery. After witnessing Marcus endure such suffering, Esca can’t help but admire his bravery as well.
The days that follow seem like deliriously happy times, an idyll straight out of Boy’s Life, with a no longer debilitated Marcus now fully functional. With the two men having seemingly become inseparable, they’re like the fox and the hound once divorced from their inherited prejudices. During their trek into the Highlands, they’ll come to an even better understanding of one another, with Esca watching Marcus pray, directing the smoke of the fire before him, and Marcus experiencing firsthand how Esca’s people live and worship. One or the other should convert since it’s only the bonds of matrimony, the old ball and chain that’s left to link them now. Whether walking out of the Senate victoriously at movie’s end in perfectly timed lockstep, hunting together or fighting side by side, they’re in perfect synch, ideal harmony; when one advances the other instinctively responds. They move as one, as if engaged in some arcane mating dance.
The original novel was written back in the more innocent 50’s, for a younger audience, so such innuendo in written form, if it existed at all, might have been entirely inadvertent and lost on the intended readership. But in our more cynical day it’s difficult not to misconstrue what we’re seeing in vivid, living color on screen, and get the wrong impression. Still somewhat callow himself, perhaps Bell also unwittingly overlooked all these intimations in his eagerness to play a part similar to the one that made such an impression on him as a child, when all he saw was the superficial macho accoutrements, and the suggestive subtext was lost on him.
Bell is introduced in a similar guise as Russell Crowe was in Gladiator, a captive slave forced to perform for the entertainment of the crowds, only here it’s at a shoddy facsimile of the Circus Maximus, constructed on the colonial fringes of the empire. Instead of professional gladiators, the crowds are offered undersized, malnourished slaves. Instead of exotic beasts, the arena makes due with mangy hounds in shabby coats, and in place of imported pygmies, macabre munchkins for comic relief. This downsized reproduction of the Roman arena, intended as an exact duplicate fashioned in flattering imitation of the original, is a satirical comment on how culturally imposed imperialism mutates and warps along the outer edges of the empire, where it becomes an indeterminate mixture of the domestic and influences from distant lands. Scenes like these are important in establishing the movie’s main theme concerning the clash of cultures, but its most clever thematic manifestation is in the conception of Hadrian’s Wall itself. The very existence of this structure serves to divide north from south, indication that the Highlands were considered a lost cause, its people beyond the pale, too ferocious and feral to ever be effectively tamed.
A good deal of the film’s fascination lies in director Macdonald’s atmospheric evocation of this symbolic divide, the isolated colonial outpost stationed at the edge of the known world and safely separated from the menacing wilderness only by this thin barrier between the civilized and the savage. Stretching away into infinity at first glance, it’s an awe inspiring sight, harkening back to all the great siege gates in screen history, dating to Griffith’s Intolerance. It’s a pity then that more extensive use wasn’t made of it. Yet when those ominous gates separating the known from the unknown swing wide, the tingling sensation of the otherworldly is palpable. Beyond this point, for all we know, there might be dragons as marked on ancient maps, or the end of the earth itself, off whose edge explorers might fall (“No Roman can survive North of the wall.” Uncle Aquila warns). Like the otherwise hearty legionnaires, who themselves fear to explore it, we don’t know what might be out there waiting, so when Marcus breaches the gates in search of his bounty, accompanied only by his shifty, resentful, captive guide, we share in his sense of trepidation (“Didn’t they tell you this was the end of the world?” the gatekeeper warns “See you in the afterlife, Roman.”). As he passes nude, decapitated cadavers strung upside down from the treetops, a warning to all to turn back, he might be entering the deepest wilds of darkest Africa, populated by headhunters and cannibals, rather than the north of Briton, and the two men, lost dots against the wide open landscape, seem so swallowed up they’re like a knight and his squire cast adrift in a savage land.
Though it transpires in the same Britain of King Arthur, The Eagle is set in the 2nd century, long before the age of chivalry, before Avalon, the Round Table, Robin Hood, eons before this area was enlightened enough to have even entered into the Dark Ages. Scores of Anglophile films over the decades have glorified the British Empire and its notion of itself as the most civilized nation on earth, so it’s unusual, almost startling, to see the pre-Christian Druid tribes and Scottish Picts (much of the dialogue in the latter half of the film is in Gaelic) depicted in the same manner as English films frequently depicted inhabitants of their own colonies. The clever irony of Macdonald’s movie is in reversing the more familiar historic dynamic. It is the Britons here who are presented as primitive, pagan worshipping, animal skin clad savages, themselves the disgruntled colonial subjects of a superior global power that has subjugated the island, placing it under foreign control.
Rome, at its imperial height, regards itself as extolling the same eminent virtues as the later British Empire would. These legionnaires consider themselves the torchbearers of civilization, and likewise look down on the indigenous local tribes they vanquish as superstitious, inferior barbarians; it’s to their advantage to have the benefits of superior Roman culture imposed upon them by force. Moreover, a direct correlation is drawn between Rome’s imperialist policies and those of more contemporary world powers, the aftershocks of which were still very much in evidence in many parts of the world at the time The Eagle of the Ninth was originally written. The book must have served as an unpleasant reminder that Britain herself was once in the same unenviable situation as her own occupied territories, the colonial holding of a vast empire upon whom the sun never set. By placing Britain in the same straits as the indigenous lands she would go on to conquer, English readers were obliged to ask themselves how they would like it if the situation were reversed. And this is a valid question, because The Eagle is very much about the worm turning.
When Marcus says he’ll take Esca along on his quest since he can use his knowledge of the local languages, his uncle scoffs “He’s a Briton. He may not be from north of the wall, but he’s a Briton. He’ll slit your throat the moment you’re alone.” Marcus protests that, “He wouldn’t do that… he gave me his word.” inciting his uncle’s further ire. “His word? He’s a slave! He says what he says and he does what he does because he has to.” They’re the words of an Iago, meant to plant the seeds of doubt in Marcus’ mind, and ours, and they reverberate throughout the latter half of the movie as we just sit back, silently watching, waiting for the duplicitous Esca to rip away his thin veneer of civilization and go all caveman on him. The reverse turns out to be true.
Passing through Hadrian’s Wall is like traveling through the looking glass where everything is backward and events can be seen from the opposite perspective. Marcus’ sense of nationalistic superiority shines through as he espouses the imperialist mindset, patronizing his slave with “The eagle is not a piece of metal. The eagle is Rome. It’s a symbol of our honor, every victory, every achievement. Wherever the eagle is, we can say ‘Rome did that.’ You wouldn’t understand, how could you?” There are two sides to every story, however, and the counterweight to this one is voiced by native son Esca “Seven years ago, you took our lands and we rose against you. My father and two brothers died; my mother also. My father killed her before the legionnaires broke through. He knew what they would do to her. She knelt in front of him as he slit her throat. Rome also did that.” What Marcus considers success and accomplishment could be regarded as just the opposite when viewed from the perspective of the oppressed. Unfortunately, history is written by the winners.
Truth being relative, the film shows how vastly one’s assessment of the same event can differ from another’s. Upon learning that Esca’s Brigantes took part in the massacre, for instance, Marcus accuses him of having known where the eagle had fallen all along and of purposely leading him astray with “Your tribe was there! And they butchered my father’s men like dogs!” only to have his slave proudly contradict, “Your father came to kill! He came to punish us because we would not bow to the name of Rome. Yes, I’ve heard of this place. To me and to all my people it is the place of heroes.” North of the wall, the son of the Seal chief can declare that all Romans are savages, rather than vice versa. This is a world where everything seems wrong side up, where master can become slave and slave master.
Once on the other side, Esca takes the lead, advising “Whoever we meet, let me do the talking. If they find out you’re a Roman, they’ll kill you and me.” Silencing Celtic chants strum over the soundtrack as Marcus stands his horse at a respectful distance, watching his translator inveigle information from the wayfarers they meet along the road. Master in Roman controlled South Britain, he’s virtually helpless here, muted, shriveled in stature and importance. As Esca increasingly gains dominance, their roles subtly start to shift, with Marcus forced to rely more and more on his slave for guidance and direction, and becoming proportionately less and less sure of himself, his surroundings and ability to survive on his own. “You’d be dead in a ditch if it weren’t for me.” Esca assures him, undermining his psyche even further.
He openly defies Marcus’ authority, to his livid master’s sputtering dismay (“How dare you! You’re still my slave.”), flatly refusing when commanded to ask some inhabitants they meet about the lost legion. Emboldened by their distance from the Roman occupied south, Esca becomes increasingly insolent in a manner he would never have dared to back home and there’s really nothing a flummoxed and flustered Marcus can do to make him mind here. Moreover, having learned what he has about the boy’s feelings toward Rome, Marcus is wary about whether Esca can truly be trusted. Unable to decipher what the slave is translating, he becomes suspicious that he may be leading him on a wild goose chase or, what’s worse, right into enemy hands.
The personal boundaries between master and slave have diminished to such a degree by this time that it actually comes as a shock to be reminded of the accepted social order when the men meet up with Guern, a deserter from the Ninth who has gone native and permanently taken up residence north of the wall. Now it’s Esca who’s left out in the cold while Marcus converses fluently in his native tongue once more. Bolstered with a sense of his rightful place as lord and master, through fleeting contact with his fellow countryman, Marcus weakly tries to reassert his authority, but the unruly slave has crossed so far over by this point there’s no reigning him back in. Forced to follow him around like a puppy, Marcus already seems to have lost his hold over Esca long before he’s ever taken captive and the shift in their power dynamic is made complete.
When the two men are stumbled upon by the Seal tribe, Esca maintains that Marcus is his slave, and it’s not clear, at least not initially, whether he does so in order to save Marcus’ life, or if he’s seriously presuming to take over, buying into his own delusions of grandeur. To muddle matters further, this happens at the pivotal turning point in their relationship when Esca had stopped playing the slave and had actually attacked his master. Esca responds to Marcus’ frantic queries concerning what’s happening as he’s leashed and drug away with a curtly dismissive “You’re my slave. Do as I did for you and you’ll survive.” leaving the audience in as much suspense and doubt as Marcus as to whether or not this is just a sham for the benefit of the hostiles.
The story of the sly servant who outfoxes his imperious master is a perennial favorite, dating back to ancient times and seeing the tables turned here holds the same populist appeal it always has. When asked how he came north, Esca claims that “I tricked the Roman to help get me here.” While Marcus is reduced to slave, Esca, son of a slain Highland hero, is treated like royalty. The irony is punched up further as the Seal people give Esca advice on how to best handle the unmanageable Marcus, “You must teach your slave not to talk to you as he does. We will help you.” The movie treats this role reversal, which gives Marcus a taste of his own medicine, as poetic justice, but we still have to impulse check our urge to see ingrate Esca, whose miserable life Marcus earlier saved, put back in his place for the uppity airs he affects now that he’s risen above his station. We want to see him receive his comeuppance. It’s easy to commiserate then with the outraged Marcus when he assures his impertinent piece of property that “When I get the chance, I will kill you.” Taking back the life he gave seems the only fitting way to rectify matters.
Marcus is unarmed, exposed, helpless in enemy territory, leaving him utterly dependent and at the mercy of a foreign culture whose customs he’s unfamiliar with and whose language he can’t understand. His experiences looking up from the bottom cause him to acquire a whole new slant on things. We’re given the impression that he’s being forced into such close proximity to the ways of the northern tribes in order to develop a fellow feeling for them, to see their side of the issue, perhaps to throw in his lot with them against Rome. Indeed The Eagle might have become a Druid Dances with Wolves.
Instead of Marcus going native and turning his back on Rome however, it’s his father’s former legionary, Guern, who expresses the movie’s anti-imperialist sentiments. “All I know is that we had it coming. Why did they have to come north? There’s nothing here worth taking. Couldn’t they have been satisfied with what they had? Do they always have to punish and push on, looking for more conquests, more territories, more wars?” Despite such enlightened platitudes however, the Scottish clans encountered, representing a cross section of at least three different tribal and cultural groups, never develop fully into human beings in Marcus’ eyes or the movie’s, remaining feral, ferocious, foreign ‘others.’
Macdonald’s most notable feature prior to The Eagle, The Last King of Scotland was also about culture clash, peppered with intimations of imperialistic role reversal in the unlikely friendship that developed between a transplanted Scot and a larger than life foreign leader. Macdonald’s admiration for the Highland clans’ fierce independence and rejection of Roman dominion is a direct carryover from Idi Amin’s similar sentiments as dictator of the former, British held, free republic of Uganda. In the earlier film, James McAvoy found himself an interloping stranger in a strange land, first accepted then targeted by the locals as the closest representative example of the oppressive enemy forces, much as Marcus is here.
Given the Scottish Macdonald’s apparently strong nativist sympathies, one had every right to believe that the heart of this movie would lie in his humanizing the Highland tribes, influencing his audience to side with their cause against Roman rule. Yet the way he depicts them, these subhumans aren’t far removed from the apocalyptic zombie hordes mustered for the Mantle shot 28 Days Later, an allusion enhanced by the fact that the same speeded up, kinesthetized camerawork is employed for the fights, attacks and ambushes here. Mel Gibson displayed more sensitivity toward his warring Scots in Braveheart, and Gibson is not exactly renowned for his sensitivity to other peoples.
In a spooky, atmospheric sequence, the men revisit the scene of the slaughter where all the tribes of the north beset the Ninth legion and the blanching, unburied bones of the massacred men still litter the forest floor like fallen leaves. While these ‘killing grounds’ evoke memories of the Cambodian killing fields, the various Northern tribes are purposely made to seem indistinct so that they can represent all indigenous cultures encroached upon by imperialist interests throughout the centuries. The painted warriors of the Seal people are said to have used the stones as alters to kill the officers, ripping their hearts out while they were still beating (“We could hear them being sacrificed.”), and the mental image links them to the blood rites of the Aztecs and other Mezo-American tribes. The archers who beset the small party in the forest might be South Seas Polynesians from the looks of their shaved skulls and heavily tattooed bodies.
When the Seal chief jokingly asks if his hunters brought their captives back to the village for him to eat, we don’t know how seriously to take his intimations of cannibalism since we’ve just passed a scene of well picked over bones inexplicably sunk beneath the watery waves of a nearby stream. Cannibalism was also a charge leveled against Idi Amin’s Last King of Scotland. The long haired Druid chief who assails the fort burns with the zealous fury of the self-righteous, and though he speaks sense to justify his actions (“You have stolen our lands and killed our sons. You have defiled our daughters.”), we reflexively discount what he has to say because he seems so crazed and because he shows his captives no mercy. When he subsequently appears in a chariot with slicing blades attached to its wheels, intending to mow down the Roman foot soldiers who can’t outrun him, we might be meant to recall Messala’s similarly rigged out ride during the famous chariot race in Ben-Hur. Jerusalem in the 2nd century was still as much a conquered Roman province as Southern Britain. To strengthen the allusion further, Marcus here, like Judah Ben-Hur, finds himself betrayed and sold into slavery by a man he’d grown to trust implicitly and considered a friend.
It’s only through Esca that we’re afforded any personal insight into his people’s suffering under Roman rule. It’s only through him that we can put a human face on the primitive tribes, understand their viewpoint rather than seeing them as unindividualized, hostile hordes, the way the Romans do. Carrot-topped Esca is so incensed at the injustice of his subservient position, his boiling blood pressure seems to have risen like a thermometer all the way to his hair, flaring out in a fiery orange patch that leaves us seeing red as well. Burning with indignation, Esca’s flaming spikes are like outcroppings of his firebrand character’s own rebellious nature. His fair complexion actually makes him look more stereotypically Scottish than British, and hence more like one of the enemy (“Ask him. He knows. He’s one of them.” it’s alleged, while a finger points accusingly his way). Marcus can’t fathom how saving Esca from the ring in order to serve as his spear bearer might be considered a fate worse than death by such a wildly defiant nature as his. Indeed, Esca resents him even further for his merciful act; death in the ring would have been preferable, would at least have freed him from bondage. He’s not only a slave now, but indentured double over since, ethically, he owes Marcus a life debt in exchange for saving him; an eye for an eye. He feels he cannot be truly free until accounts are balanced. This is why, even after he’s returned to his homeland, Esca still feels under obligation to his master. “You saved my life. I have a debt of honor to you now.” As far as Esca is concerned, he’s still in bondage.
The Briton is positioned as the ethnic sidekick here, naturally attuned to the land in the way Native Americans are seen to be in Westerns. Marcus can’t see any of the hidden warriors concealed in the brush for example, while his slave proves his sentient superiority by spotting three. Despite his seditious speeches, Esca is all the pacified Tontos and Gunga Dins and Fridays of drama, literature and myth rolled into one. The beauty of their soul lies in their doglike devotion to outside interests at odds with their own. Esca’s scout could pass for any number of native guides having sold out their own people to the ruling class, proving his steadfast loyalty to the eagle by sacrificing himself in service to a master who believes there to be no higher glory than this (“Can you imagine anything more magnificent than… serving Rome with courage and faithfulness?”). The men’s contentious, co-dependent relationship is, by extension, meant to represent the problem of benignly strict, paternal empire and rebellious, dependent colony in microcosm, the problem, in effect, of the oedipal father-son conflict as magnified and applied to the world stage. When Esca pledges his allegiance to Marcus by relinquishing his father’s phallic dagger to his care, it’s indication of just how thoroughly Rome has his Britain by the balls.
Esca may liberate Marcus to discharge his debt of honor, but there’s no reason for him to continue protecting him and rescuing him during their escape attempt, much less return to him after he’s been freed. Esca is suffering from the slave mentality; he’s less concerned with seeing to his own safety than that of his master. When wounded Marcus tries to send Esca on ahead with the eagle (“Do not dishonor me.”), the slave refuses to quit him (“I came this far with you.”), to the point where Marcus must order him to save himself, and the standard. It’s a strange form of Simon Says where only those very words that free Esca from being forced to obey can paradoxically sway him to carry out his master’s wishes to the letter. “I swore an oath of honor never to abandon you. If you want me to leave, set me free. Give me my freedom.” Freedom seems to mean so much to Esca, but once he’s released from his bond he’ll demonstrate his appreciation by standing by his master of his own volition. He exercises his God-given free will in slavishly choosing to die right alongside him, fighting for his cause, like that emancipated black always depicted as nobly fighting alongside his white masters in movies about the Alamo.
If the tribes had been depicted more humanely we might have experienced some twinge of remorse over Esca’s betrayal of these people who welcome him with open arms, as so many primitive tribes imprudently welcomed white travelers from across the waters, to their own detriment in the long run. Turning traitor to his own people is the only way for Esca to prove himself loyal to Marcus, and it’s difficult to sift our feelings about this. We aren’t sure whether to revile him for turning Tom by throwing in his lot with the oppressors or admire him for remaining true to the man he’s grown so attached to. He wins his own freedom but only at considerable cost to those he plays false.
When the Seal prince stone heartedly murders his young son, the same boy who had so looked up to Esca and who he had prevented Marcus from killing earlier, he does so with the damning words “Esca, this is what happens to those who betray their own people!” He’s being made an example of. For both these fugitives with father issues, as well as the audience, this atrocity on the part of the enemy imparts justification for what they’re doing. Somehow it seems to morally vindicate their wiping out all three generations of Seal chieftains in one fell swoop. Yet the truth behind these cutting words, and the movie’s own opinion of Esca’s deceitful actions, is never satisfactorily resolved.
Rome’s expansionist policy into other lands is indirectly linked with America’s own notion of manifest destiny, so it’s no coincidence Macdonald cast an American actor in his lead, to hammer the point home. The Roman eagle would be appropriated as the American eagle at the founding of this country, and the movie offers a subtle commentary on the modern superpower’s own imperialist past, from Hawaii and the West to Vietnam and the Middle East. The beheading that occurs early in the picture evokes unpleasant associations in our post Daniel Pearl days and Marcus’ strong armed response also speaks to the way America’s government manipulated similar media imagery in order to justify military retaliation against the uncivilized barbarians who could commit such atrocities. Guern, that woodland wildman Esca and Marcus stumble across, puts one in mind of stories of Japanese and Serbian soldiers discovered secretly living wild in the mountains and jungles unaware that the wars they fought in had long since ended. Certainly the ruins of this two thousand year old Roman fortification besieged by wild, painted savages might double as a cavalry fort in some John Ford western. We might be watching The Searchers, though the men are out to retrieve the lost eagle of the Ninth rather than Natalie Wood. The book came out in 1954, two years before Ford’s masterpiece, but Macdonald’s variation appears to have been heavily influenced by that classic. Despite the Highland setting, a Western is exactly what The Eagle is, with the captives escaping from the indigenous encampment where they’ve been held prisoner and trying to make their way back to the safety of the fort by following the river home.
As in The Searchers, Marcus’ epic odyssey across the wilderness, accompanied by a part-British, part-Roman ‘half-breed,’ is used metaphorically. He’s seeking some form of spiritual salvation in order to resolve not only his doubts about his own masculinity by reclaiming his father’s ‘honor,’ but to purge himself of the imperially imposed prejudices that he’s come to realize are wrong. Despite Marcus’ belief in his culture’s innate superiority, the backward Romans seem as superstitious as the Highland Scots to our modern eyes. When unsure of what route to take, for instance, Marcus clutches his eagle like a totem, as if he were again calling on the spirits of his honorable ancestors for guidance.
The man must sink to the same level as the ‘savages’ he looks down on as conquered subjects in order to survive in their world. “I’m not eating that. I’m not a savage.” Marcus disgustedly declares watching Esca consume the rat he’s just skinned, eating it raw for fear of lighting a fire. “So die a Roman,” his slave shrugs before cajoling him into taking a few bites to keep up his strength. This discriminating line patrician Marcus draws between the civilized and the savage proves less of a priority than more immediate and rudimentary concerns, like staving off starvation. Both master and slave are placed on equal footing by their basic animal needs for food and shelter. Race, culture, rank seem self indulgent, theoretical constructs in the face of the far more fundamental struggle for survival.
It’s fascinating watching the superior, civilized Marcus degenerate into savagery, as if infected by the atmosphere of the wilds he inhabits as he journeys further and further north of the gate, further and further from ‘civilization,’ and I wish the movie had explored this aspect of the character more thoroughly. Just as John Wayne did in The Searchers, Marcus becomes progressively bloodthirsty and brutish in his obsessive quest for restoration, to salvage his father’s reputation. When Esca hesitates killing one of the tattooed archers who ambush them in a clearing, releasing him when he realizes that he’s only a boy, he helplessly watches Marcus bring the fleeing child down with a knife in the back, before slitting his throat as mercilessly as he’d stuck that pig nearer the beginning (“Next time, don’t hesitate.” he cautions as if the words were a threat). Child killing hardly seems the act of an honorable soldier.
It’s the ‘savage,’ Esca, who must become a civilizing influence on the Roman here, later staying his hand from smiting the Seal prince’s young son, in an echoing scene, with the assurance that he can be trusted. Similarly, it’s Esca’s humane hesitation to murder Guern, despite his trigger happy master’s exhortations, that spares the life of this deserter revealed to be one of Marcus’ own friends, Romans, countrymen (“He has a chin strap scar. Only a Roman helmet does that.”). It truly is the Roman who begins to seem the savage this side of the wall, and once having crossed that line, become like the very people he deems worthy of oppression, Marcus’ enslavement seems the only proper way to govern, tame and repatriate him, according to the precepts set forth by his own city-state. It’s judgment on him, the chickens coming home to roost.
When Marcus drowns the Seal prince who had killed his own son, the selfsame act Esca had stopped Marcus from committing earlier, he successfully exorcises the newfound savagery he’s discovered latent in his own nature, the savagery the Seal prince himself was meant to embody, as Wayne did when he killed the Indian Scar in The Searchers. It purifies him, washing his sword clean of blood. Arising from this baptismal fount Marcus is reborn. The water also rinses away the savage prince’s war paint to reveal him to be human after all, finally giving identity back to the faceless enemy.
Having been forced to look himself in the eye for the first time, and seen the inner savage reflected back at him, Marcus has reached the end of his journey in the Seal encampment, locating both the lost standard and the truth about his father, which the deserter had been unable to fill in, having run before the end of the battle. Experiencing a fleeting Luke-I-am-your-father flash, for an instant Marcus believes the menacingly masked Seal shaman, who wears his father’s ring, may be the real deal. The passing doubt causes him to hesitate striking, wavering uncertainly just as he’d advised Esca never to do, because he sees something familiar in his adversary, just as Esca saw something of himself in that child warrior. Instead of turning out to be Marcus’ father, the shaman professes to possess intimate knowledge of his last moments, claiming the coward knelt and begged for his life before he died.
Loathe to translate this allegation, knowing it will crush Marcus, we expect Esca, who had earlier evinced the opinion that “No man should ever beg for his life.” will lie in order to spare his master’s feelings, averring that his father died honorably. This lie, the first one of his life, should enhance the selfless slave’s nobleness in audiences’ eyes, even while it stains that flawless record he’d earlier spoken of (“I’m the son of a Brigante who’s never broke his word”), thereby tarnishing his family’s honor in order to redeem his master’s, by letting Marcus believe his father was a bigger man than he actually was. But for some strange reason the script denies Esca this sublime moment of poignancy, though it seems to be on the very tip of his tongue.
Marcus’ search for his long lost father becomes, in a quite literal way, a search for himself. He must become his father in effect if he wishes to erase any doubts about his own strengths and weaknesses, restaging the battle of the Ninth in order to test how he would acquit himself in the same situation. Marcus is shown taking on the traits of the very man he’d so often tried to distance himself from, proudly bearing the recovered standard and slipping his father’s ring onto his own finger. Given the movie’s oedipal frame of mind, he’s living out every boy’s dream, supplanting his father to become the man of the house. Confronted with this image, it doesn’t seem like such a stretch as history begins repeating itself in other ways as well. The ghosts of his father’s legion, the straggling remnants of the Ninth regiment who ran rather than stay and be slaughtered, emerge from out of the dim mists of the past, as if hallucinatory figments from the feverish Marcus’ imagination. Backing their commander once more in this heroic last ditch effort, they bravely stand their ground this time, reclaiming their honor, as the hordes of painted savages again bear down upon them.
Sutcliff’s historical series, beginning with The Eagle of the Ninth, was a sort of genealogical pageant, tracing the history of a British family all the way back to its ancient roots in Roman times, the antiquity of the name and its associations imparting a sense of gentility in a country where ancestry and title mean everything. With its sentiments concerning burying ghosts and letting the past rest in peace, the movie takes a different tack, concentrating more on the issue of cultural assimilation and cooperation. Though their two sides were at odds in the original battle, for instance, Marcus and Esca now stand side by side, brothers in arms, their two warring cultures united in common defense. Their actions are meant to right all wrongs, the sins of the fathers being absolved through the alliance of the sons.
As Marcus eulogizes, finally letting go the past, “Let us remember the men who fought and died in the name of honor. Romans and Britons. My father, and yours.” The banding together of Roman Marcus, British Esca and the former Roman legionnaires who have now taken up permanent residence in Britain has strained the battle of its original nativist antagonisms. It’s now meant to demonstrate how all these diverse cultures must work together in the interest of the civilized country to come. Burning the body of fallen deserter Guern on a funeral pyre, a warrior’s send off, both Marcus and Esca toss the respective emblems of their fathers, eagle and dagger, which had been consecrated to perpetuating ancient hatreds, onto the blaze, letting the ashes blow away in the winds of change. All that’s needed for the sentiment to be made complete is the sight of Hadrian’s Wall crumbling down.
For his part, Marcus’ experiences have succeeded in broadening his mind. When a Roman senator belittles Esca’s contribution in recovering the eagle, Marcus defends him, “… he knows more about honor and freedom than you ever will.” The man might be reproaching himself for his own prior prejudices, his unquestioned belief in the innate superiority of the Roman people. Smiling for the first time in the film as they take their leave of the speechless senate, Esca asks “What now?” His former master’s heartening reply is “You decide.” He can do whatever he wants now that he’s no longer a slave. The world’s wide open. Esca’s far-seeing freedom (“I came north to be free of Rome.”) is intended to represent his land’s own eventual independence from the imperial yoke, so it seems fitting that the ‘son’ should leave his father’s house, just as the colony he symbolically represents will one day break from the paternal Roman empire holding it, forging ahead autonomously into the future. Both men have been liberated in a sense, with Marcus having exorcized his inner demons and reclaimed his lost honor. Now that the eagle has been released, there are no further fetters restricting him from moving forward with his life either.
The Eagle of the Ninth was written back in the Eisenhower era and the stolid manner in which director Macdonald and screenwriter Brock have packaged it in movie form makes it still seem very much a product of that more conservative time. The movie has been molded in its star’s own image- broad, flat, and square- but it’s hard not to enjoy a film so austerely forthright and determinedly undemanding. There’s a clean, straightforward, schoolboy’s simplicity to it all that bespeaks of the source from which it was adapted. It presents a shallow, child’s eye view of the glory of war, the need to prove your bravery, strength, courage, manliness with your broadsword, to measure up to your father, a more simplistic view of the world before the discovery of girls.
The period in which the book was published might also explain the faint staleness to many of the major themes, particularly those involving the son’s attempt to make amends for the sins of the father, the importance placed on lineage and protecting the family name, reverence for one’s honorable ancestors and glorification of the military virtues. The way it’s presented here, the assumption that one can prove their manhood and valor only in the contest of battle seems pretty incontrovertible. The Eagle simply carries over this dated mindset without questioning it, so it appears to be blindly glorifying those same military virtues fascistic Marcus holds in such high regard, the type that nobody apart from the most militant of martinets really believes in any longer. This picture might have been co-produced by General Patton.
Fear in the face of death is depicted the way Marcus looks upon it, as weak moral fiber, rather than the instinctual response of anyone with the self preserving impulse to stay alive. When Marcus charges deserter Guern with cowardice for running before the end of the battle, he rationally counters, “No. You weren’t there. You don’t know what it was like.” No one could say for certain what they would have done in the same situation, which is why it is so important to Marcus to restage that final battle in order to find out for himself once and for all how brave he would have been when staring into the face of death.
When originally published, The Eagle of the Ninth must have seemed unduly influenced by the big, splashy sword and sandal epics 50’s era Hollywood was in the midst of churning out in color, widescreen and cinemascope because TV couldn’t offer anything comparably stupendous. Such movies were the only way to draw audiences out of their comfy homes, back into theaters. Today, shows like Rome and Spartacus have proven TV every bit as capable of staging spectacles as compelling and impressive as The Eagle, and with some flat panel, Plasma sets approaching theatrical dimensions, audiences are becoming increasingly discriminating about what they want to pay their hard earned money to venture out and see. Consequently the movie failed to set the box office afire, which is unfortunate because this is an enjoyably clunky piece of artistically conservative inconsequentiality, old fashioned moviemaking at its finest.
Then again, that’s part of the problem. The Eagle is a better made film than it probably should be, and that’s a fact that actually mitigates against our full enjoyment of it. We’re preconditioned to chortle appreciatively at thunderously lunk headed movies like this, but the quality of which The Eagle reeks robs us of that simple pleasure. High minded Macdonald tries to elevate his material into something finer than it needs be. But if you can’t laugh off a sword and sandal epic that affords an excuse for Channing Tatum to indulge himself in a toga party amidst such flagrant Greek suggestiveness, there’s something amiss somewhere. Audiences don’t need to pay to watch Rome flaming on the big screen when they can stream it from Netflix at home.
3 thoughts on “The Eagle”
I enjoyed your review. I have wrestled with this film, often believing I liked it more than I should, and yet I cannot shake it. While I do not agree with every last point you make – I do thank you for an extremely thorough and thoughtful look at this picture. Even those points upon which I disagree with you, I feel you have been very fair, I think you looked at the movie as a whole. That’s what got me into trouble. I wanted very much to dismiss it on the basis of Channing Tatum (I also feel Donald Sutherland phoned it in – or whatever they did in Roman Theatre) but Tatum did grow on me. He is no Russell Crowe, but it is about the best role he has had,) Two points that haunted me, brought me back: the beautiful filming of Scotland, my favourite place on Earth. The DP knew his subject and did it full justice. Second: the film score, which I really liked. I would love to read a piece by you measuring The Eagle and Centurion.
Thanks again – superb writing. Well worth the time to read it.
I agree it’s difficult to just dismiss The Eagle out of hand, for all the questionable casting choices (I thought Bell was excellent and perfectly cast, btw). It certainly lends itself to other interpretations. Putting down my thoughts generally gives me a better understanding as to why I’m responding the way I am toward movies like this. It can be very therapeutic. I’ve received a lot of flack for the length of the reviews here (essays would be a better word) but they’re intended for movie fans who are as passionate about the subject as I am, so your encouraging response is much appreciated.
I quite enjoyed this movie and sorry but I didn’t see the homosexual implications of this movie as the author of this critique does. Of course my view could be biased having had my best mate die in my arms with a huge hole in his chest.