The Eagle is based on Rosemary Sutcliffe’s popular novel The Eagle of the Ninth, and is the story of a young Roman officer who possesses a singular obsession; regaining the honour of his family name. Marcus Flavius Aquila’s (Tatum) father was the commander of the Ninth Legion, whose 5,000 men disappeared while north of Hadrian’s Wall, along with their eagle standard – the legion’s rallying point and symbol of honour. The disgrace this brought on his father’s name sits heavily on Marcus’ shoulders and when he is posted to Britain he resolves to recover the precious Eagle of the Ninth, accompanied only by slave and Briton Esca (Bell). So begins his long journey north into a inhospitable lands were he will meet ferocious warriors and court death, relying only on his strength, courage and the loyalty of Esca, whose people are sworn enemies to the Romans…
You’ve got to feel sorry for the two stars of The Eagle: it doesn’t sound like director Kevin Macdonald went easy on them. Mostly filmed in Scotland, Tatum and Bell spent several hours a day in October-cold rivers for chase sequences; after a lot of time already given to training and bulking up for the roles, and it’s a shame that all the effort didn’t quite pay off. Tatum obviously works hard and is by no means a bad actor; he just didn’t have the flair to carry this film, especially as it relies so heavily on the two leads. In this case the script and direction were largely at fault – there were too many shots of Channing looking pained and pensive, praying and kissing his little wooden eagle (no, not a euphemism, you filthy lot), with some hazy childhood flashbacks with which the audience didn’t sympathise so much as giggle. This is some surprising heavy-handedness from a director who brought us The Last King of Scotland, State of Play and Touching the Void.
On the other hand, Jamie Bell is reliably good and the friendship that develops between Marcus and Esca is very believable, helped by a real rapport shared by the two actors while on set. In fact, the chemistry is so tangible that I kept expecting a Brokeback-style ‘bonding’ scene. Maybe I’m missing the point of the film, but I was really rooting for the guys’ relationship to make it, despite the slave/master Roman/Briton divide. Wait, a gay Romeo and Juliet set in Roman times… No one’s done this yet??
The main problem with the film is that the whole endgame and plot feels a little pointless – all that fuss over a golden eagle? In a bit of exposition for like-minded audience members, Marcus explains to Esca that the eagle standard is Rome; wherever it stands it says “this is what Rome has done”. Esca, quite fairly, points out that maybe Romans should rather be ashamed of the rape, pillage and death they inflict upon others to make their mark. Interestingly, all the Romans have American accents. Maybe Macdonald was trying to make a point about a modern day empire and their own invasion habits? Or perhaps it was to prevent American audiences from feeling alienated, giving the film a better reception across the pond. God forbid.
I could write a fairly large amount on whether or not the film is historically accurate but that would be slightly unfair as it is based on a novel that historians claim is mostly supposition and artistic license. The Seal People, the northern tribe that Marcus and Esca clash with, are an example of style over research and a higher availability of Gaelic speakers than actors fluent in Pictish. But the amount of knowledge on the northern tribes in the 2nd century is scarce, so let’s not dwell.
While The Eagle is a decent action film with some good battle scenes and great location shots, in comparing it to one of the highs of the genre (Gladiator), Macdonald’s project just misses the mark; there’s nothing especially memorable to it. Apart from Channing Tatum’s frankly jaw-dropping body, but I don’t think that’s what they want us to focus on. Watching the trailer is the best way to determine whether you will enjoy the film – the full-length feature offers no surprises.