I walked into The Eagle expecting an uninspired historical adventure, giving an excuse for some cheap beefcake to draw in the teens. See also: Gladiator. Instead, I was rather pleasantly surprised.
Sometime in the early second century, the ninth legion of the Roman army disappeared in northern Britain, or so the story goes. In fact, since Rosemary Sutcliff wrote the original novel in 1954 historical opinion seems to have become rather muddled. But anyway, along with the legion was lost their standard: a bronze eagle representing the Roman Empire as a whole. Partly as a result of these uprisings the Roman emperor Hadrian had a wall built across the neck of the island, seventy-odd miles long.
Some twenty years later, Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum), the young son of the former legate of the ninth legion, arrives in Britain to take up his first command. He’s seeking to restore the good name of his family by serving with honor in the very land where his father was lost. Within days, he proves his valor quelling another outbreak of violence, and is sent to stay with his uncle (Donald Sutherland) to recover from his injuries. While at his uncle’s villa, he is given a commendation from Rome, along with an honorable discharge.
Of course, this flies in the face of his plans, since he can’t very well serve with honor from retirement. On the other hand, his service seems to have moderated his opinion of the locals, as he convinces the crowd to spare the life of a slave in the gladiatorial arena. His uncle buys this slave, Esca (Jamie Bell), to serve Marcus’ needs, but Marcus doesn’t really want that either. Still, Esca feels he owes Marcus a debt, and the two strike up what passes for a friendship.
As Marcus recovers, rumors circulate that the eagle standard has been seen somewhere in the far north of Britain, held by one of the Pictish tribes. He decides that this is how he can regain his family’s honor: to recover the eagle with Esca’s help, or to die trying. The two set off beyond Hadrian’s Wall on the hunt; Marcus bringing his obsession with this quest, and Esca bringing some secrets of his own.
Now, this may not be the most historically accurate movie in the world, but it’s not at all bad. One would certainly have to be well-read to pick out anything particularly laughable. The film is not just here to show off a bunch of hot guys; Tatum and Bell are classically attractive, of course, but they’re not used as eye candy. The larger battles are excellently shot, without any significant glamour. The smaller action sequences are gritty to say the least, and yet not so overdone that they become the focus of the whole movie.
The focus, instead, is on the nature of honor and tradition, especially when confronted with contrary traditions. The eagle, Marcus explains, is Rome. Wherever it goes, all the wonders of civilization that follow — the roads, the aqueducts, the culture — are Rome’s doing and Rome’s honor. The eagle stands for all of that. But Esca points out that the Romans come as usurpers; stealing lands, killing, looting, and raping the locals. Rome does that, too, and that’s what the eagle means to those outside the wall. What, then, is Marcus seeking to reclaim?
The film makes it clearer than I’d like that Rome is, in fact, the more civilized of the two cultures, and to be honored and favored despite its flaws. Still, the question is clearly posed, and these days we are all called to answer it.
Worth it: yes.
Bechdel test: fail.