As Duncan Kenworthy, the producer of this film, pointed out to me in an interview just a couple of weeks ago: there is a temptation to expect every film about Romans to be an ‘Epic’. This is absolutely no longer the case, as has already been proven by Centurion and is now about to be proved again in The Eagle, both of which have more in common with Black Hawk Down than with Spartacus.
The Eagle begins with young Legionary Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) making a surprise request to be stationed at the edge of the world, in Britain. The reason is not that he’s a rogue, a maverick, a man on the edge… well, it is a bit, but it’s also that his father happened to be the commander of the legendary Ninth Legion, a fighting force that was the pride of the Roman Empire. That is, until the group disappeared in the wilds of Caledonia, losing their treasured standard – a golden eagle – in the process. Now Marcus is seeking to regain his family honour by distinguishing himself in battle and retrieving that lost symbol of the glory of room.
Unfortunately for him, he distinguishes himself quite early on by getting battered by a flying chariot during a siege and is sent to recover at his uncle’s villa. While there he saves the life of a slave, a Briton named Esca (Jamie Bell) who has lived his life hating the Romans for what they have done to his homeland. But now, with his life saved, he pledges servitude to Marcus and vows to stand by him no matter what life throws at them. Unfortunately, the insensitive and highly oiled Roman is hatching a plan to infiltrate barbarian Britain, slay a few dirty natives and get back his shiny bird.
Of course the whole premise is ridiculous. The stilted view of ‘Roman honour’ is one big, phony cliche and the reliance on this so-called ideal makes so much of the plot completely tenuous. Especially when Roman deserters begin cropping up so Marcus can give them a ticking off, and a chance for redemption.
Much more interesting is the central dynamic between Marcus and Esca, or at least it could be. Their bond, forged in battle and built on a shared view that nothing matters more than a man’s honour (yes, that word again), they share an incredibly tumultuous time. Marcus is trying to overturn decades of family shame, and Esca has an internal war raging between his loyalty to this brave man, and his loyalty to the people from whom he was brutally torn by this Imperial leviathan.
Sadly, these complex moral nuances are rarely touched upon. Hints of homoerotica can be glimpsed in some intelligent acting from the two leads, and in the campy ending to their tale, but director Kevin Macdonald chooses to avoid any real investigation of a bond beyond good old macho camaraderie, and the plot suffers as a result.
Equally under-explored is the oppressor/oppressed dynamic that is intrinsic in the plot as Esca goes from being a foreign slave in Rome to being the one in control of a Roman in his homeland. Moments of conflict spark up, delivering neat powder-keg examples of what the situation does to the pair, but their morally dubious interactions with the natives never really go beyond basic ‘seek and destroy’ tactics. Even when the Seal People (a made up Scots tribe) take Esca and Marcus in and care for them, we are still meant to cheer for Marcus as the supposedly ‘civilised’ man.
This certainly didn’t ring true with me. I have a hard time believing that the civilised thing to do isn’t engage with these people, and understand them as the kin of a man who has proved himself so loyal, but rather kill them to get your metal eagle. Even in Roman times I suspect systems of morality were not so simple and contradictory.
Nonetheless, Jamie Bell and Channing Tatum do a lot of good work with the material. They bring reams of energy too, not just in the fight sequences (which are mostly superb) but in the few chances they get to deliver meaningful dialogue. The pair create an intensity that really powers the whole story, and creates a sense of time and space.
Unfortunately, that alone isn’t enough to help this film rise above simple subject matter.
The Eagle is released in the U.K. today.