The Eagle Review

poster from the Focus Features film The Eagle

When I was doing my trailer reviews for this weekend, I totally bypassed The Eagle, thinking, from looking at a thumbnail of the poster, that it was one of those translated Chinese action movies. But upon closer inspection I discovered that it was actually in English – in fact, it was an adaptation of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s book The Eagle of the Ninth, which I had just recently read at my friend’s house during my trip to the Netherlands. So I thought: okay, I’ll bite. The story goes like this:

A centurion in Roman-occupied Britain goes on a quest to find out the truth about his father’s lost legion and it’s missing eagle standard in order to clear his family’s name.

It looks, at first glance, to be just another one of those gory, tragic, ancient Roman/Greek battle stories a la 300 or Centurion (which, coincidentally, is about the lost Ninth legion) where practically everyone gets killed in the end, but it’s not. The battles are almost incidental to The Eagle. The real story is an adventure/mystery/buddy movie where the central question is: what happened to the eagle? That’s why I like this movie, and I don’t like those other ones.

The central figure in the story is Marcus Flavius Aquila, who is played by Channing Tatum. Marcus gets posted to Britain, the southern part of which is occupied by Romans, and put in charge of a fort. He struts around, has people talk about him…

Marcus in his Roman armor from the Focus Features film The Eagle

…wears a hairbrush on his head…

…. and just generally lets the audience get to know why he’s here (he’s trying to regain his family’s honor) before he gets in a huge battle and ends up invalided out of the army.

Marcus kills a Celt from the Focus Features film The Eagle

He kills a bunch of dudes first, obviously.

Now at loose ends, he goes to live with his uncle Aquila (Donald Sutherland), who is sort of a father figure for Marcus in the book but is only around for a few minutes in the movie.

Marcus and Uncle Aquila from the Focus Features film The Eagle

Hey, they had to cut SOMETHING.

While he’s recovering he goes to one of those gruesome Roman games where they make people fight each other to the death and he ends up saving the life of a British slave named Esca (Jamie Bell) who had the temerity to stand in front of a gladiator instead of scrabbling pathetically in the dirt for a few minutes and then getting slaughtered.

Esca faces a gladiator from the Focus Features film The Eagle

A brilliant plan, except it still would have resulted in his death if Marcus hadn’t saved him

Marcus’ uncle buys Esca for him as a body slave, even though Marcus doesn’t want a slave and doesn’t really know why he saved Esca in the first place. After a visit from some pompous politician types who disparage his father’s name, he decides to head north to find out what really happened and bring back the eagle. The problem is that his father’s legion disappeared somewhere in the north, which is so riddled with battle-ready Celts that the Romans had to build Hadrian’s Wall to keep them out.

a painted warrior running from the Focus Features film The Eagle

One of their tricks is that they run really, really, fast, so I guess the Romans
decided to stick something in their way and hope they ran into it.

Marcus must rely on Esca to guide him and speak to the natives, but although the boys like one another, they each hate the other’s people on account of both their fathers were killed in battle. So there’s a decent chance that despite the fact that Esca feels honor bound to serve Marcus for saving his life, he might change his mind as soon as they’re out of range of help.

Marcus becomes Escas slave from the Focus Features film The Eagle

My my, how quickly the tables have turned.

What follows is part mystery (where is the eagle, and what happened to the ninth?) and part buddy story (can Marcus and Esca get over their people’s animosity for each other and just get along as people?)

Marcus and Esca are angry at each other from the Focus Features film The Eagle

MARCUS: You’re a jerk.
ESCA: No, YOU’RE a jerk!

Although the progression of their friendship is somewhat truncated because screenwriter Jeremy Brock wanted to put some more tension and uncertainly into a later part where the tables are turned and Marcus must pose as Esca’s slave (in the book they were unequivocally friends before that happens, in the movie, not so much) it comes off rather well.

Marcus and Esca in Scotland from the Focus Features film The Eagle

And also, the scenery is gorgeous.

There are enough battles in the movie to keep the gore crowd from rioting, but director Kevin MacDonald went the Paul Greengrass route and shot them in a really close-up, confusing way, so I’m glad there weren’t more battles. It must have been tempting to turn it into a battle movie. I thank them for refraining.

Marcus fights a painted warrior from the Focus Features film The Eagle

The stills always make everything look so clear. What a bunch of liars.

I won’t thank the filmmakers for lopping the “of the Ninth” off the end of the title, though. The Eagle of the Ninth is a unique title, more instantly recognizable as being about the ancient Romans. The Eagle is utterly generic. Searching for it on Google will get you a whole slew of movies (Iron Eagle, Eagle Eye, etc.) It tells you nothing about the story, and hides the movie’s connection to the book. A poor choice, I think.

Marcus has a carved eagle from the Focus Features film The Eagle

Yes, eagles are central to the story, but we need more explanation.

There’s also a certain dichotomy between the story and the target audience. You see, The Eagle of the Ninth is a young adult novel. In it, Marcus is about seventeen. The problem with adapting it into a movie is that the subject matter (ancient Rome) and the battle violence made it inappropriate for the 10 year olds who would be going to the movie if they chose a seventeen year old star, so they had to upgrade the age of the target audience. They compromised by hiring Channing Tatum, who is thirty, not seventeen. He does have a bit of a baby face, but he still seems a little bit too old to have the sort of daddy issues that Marcus has.

Marcus leads a legion from the Focus Features film The Eagle

He’s too old and he’s got half a fake Irish accent sometimes, but he’s got the teenage pouting down pat.

Esca, who was also a teenager in the book, was better cast. Jamie Bell is 25 years old, but he’s short and he has a young, angry, face, which is perfect for a movie teenager. Because of the big gap between their ages and sizes, Esca ends up seeming more like Marcus’ sidekick than his friend.

Esca and Marcus ready the horses from the Focus Features film The Eagle

Come on, Kato, let’s roll.

But the bottom line is that The Eagle is a pretty decent movie based on a more than decent book. I have to give it a lot of credit as an adaptation, because usually after I read the book I never end up liking the movie. But I like The Eagle. Even if you’re not familiar with the story, or with the history of the period, they’ll take you by the hand and lead you through it. So do go and see it, battle movie fans, drama fans, and adventure/mystery fans will all find something to like about it.

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