Rating: 3 stars out of 5
The eagle isn’t a bird you would normally associate with Britain. It’s usually an owl if you’re into Harry Potter, or a blackbird if you’re singing a song of sixpence while baking a pie.
For an eagle, you have to go back in time. Really way back to a circa 140 AD era of swords, shields, savages and sandals where the eagle has landed and lorded in the form of the invading Roman empire and the pi**ed-off, downtrodden natives look like escapees from Dances With Wolves.
If you’re expecting Russell Crowe’s epic Gladiator here in The Eagle (directed by Kevin Macdonald of The Last King of Scotland), forget it. Firstly, the Brits don’t have that much money to make movies.
Secondly, there’s an attitude towards local authenticity since it’s adapted from a 1954 children’s historical adventure novel, The Eagle of the Ninth, written by Rosemary Sutcliff.
There’s a thumping fortress attack scene early in the beginning. But the bulk of the film is a slowly evolving, totally male accidental-buddy thing—Channing Tatum as a valiant centurion leader, Marcus Aquila, and Jamie Bell as Esca, his sullen, enigmatic native slave who has a primitive code of honour that supplants even the best loyalties of our foreign maids.
“I hate everything you stand for, everything you are, but you saved my life and for that, I have to serve you,” Esca swears after Marcus pulls him out from certain death in a gladiator pit.
The duo infiltrates the unknown territory of savages beyond Roman Britain to retrieve an eagle emblem lost by the vanished Ninth Legion of the Roman army. Marcus’ slain commander father is held responsible for its loss, and he needs to find it to restore his family’s good name.
You can tell that the fella’s terribly tormented because he has violent recurring nightmares of his dad’s demise. Kind of like Wayne Rooney waking up in cold sweat after missing an open goal. All of which makes the movie partly invigorating, mostly introspective and somewhat lacklustre for a gore-fest fan like me.
Still, if you’re into understanding other people’s cultures and all that naturalistic exploration stuff, you’d dig this flick. You know, lately there’s been a spate in interest in British cinema in the legendary vanquished-without-a-trace Ninth Legion, such as Neil Marshall’s Centurion.
I think it’s because it allows curious Brit filmmakers the chance to make a movie about an intriguingly cruel and manly Fascist military dictatorship right on their shores, instead of namby-pamby kings and queens of England and sissy royal weddings.
Anyway, south of a barrier called Hadrian’s Wall—a sort of mini-Great Wall of China—is order and civilisation ruled by the cultured Romans. North of it is the wild frontier of Caledonia – the highlands of present-day Scotland – where the inhabitants, notably a fearsome, head-chopping tribe called the Seal People, look and act like America’s Red Indians. FYI, they’re named Seal People not because they’re led by the singer Seal. It’s because they live next to the sea like Eskimos – eating seals, fish, crab, etc, and presumably smelling like them. Scantily clad with war-painted faces, they celebrate via a throbbing pagan dance orgy on the beach which looks like an unholy Lady Gaga music video.
Man, these dudes kill their own kind and they run after their enemies like Olympic marathoners. I like The Eagle on two aspects. These early native Britons dressed up like Native Americans is a new one for me. I had absolutely no idea they existed.
Plus the equal-but-unequal bonding deal between the muscular Tatum (Step Up, G.I. Joe) and the skinny Bell (Billy Elliot, Jumper) is a fascinating portrayal of friendship, ownership, mistrust and betrayal between wary and weary natural enemies struggling alongside each other in a deadly forbidden land.
Channing, as the imperial ruler, is like a strapping American football player charging gung-ho into the end zone. Bell, as the refined savage, is a gentler, more sensitive English player curtailing his inner yob instincts. I thought this stark difference to be too direct and convenient until I found out that it’s actually deliberate.
The producers decided that the Romans would be played by American actors and the Britons by British ones. “We drew an analogy between Roman imperialism and the supremacy of the American military in the world today … The clash of cultures is clearly projected in the difference of accents,” they revealed in the production notes.
And here I thought that wherever civilisation goes and the vaunted eagle lands, it’s just a marketing thing.