RUNNING TIME:114 mins
DISTRIBUTED BY:Universal Picures International
REVIEWED BY:Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In 140 AD, twenty years after the unexplained disappearance of the entire Ninth Legion in the mountains of Scotland, young centurion Marcus Aquila arrives from Rome to solve the mystery and restore the reputation of his father, the commander of the Ninth. After an intense battle with the Picts, Marcus sets out across Hadrian’s Wall into the uncharted highlands of Caledonia, accompanied by a local slave called Esca, to retrieve the lost legion’s golden emblem, the Eagle Of The Ninth…..
The Eagle, which some have already said is an imitation of Centurion, is based on a novel called The Eagle Of The Ninth, which I do distinctly remember reading whilst at school [I was an avid reader then, what happened?], though I don’t remember much about it. Therefore I couldn’t tell you if The Eagle, the second feature film from Kevin Macdonald, whose The Last King Of Scotland was widely acclaimed though didn’t quite ‘wow’ me, is close to its source or not. What I can tell you is that it is a solid historical actioner, which fits squarely into the growing list of recent historical movies which empathise the grit and the mud and go for a very realistic approach [i.e.Centurion, Black Death], a trend which was supposedly started by Gladiator but to my mind really got underway with King Arthur. It’s the antithesis of the approach favoured by many Old Hollywood movies, which often presented a far more romanticised view of Medieval and Ancient history, but this more recent approach perhaps seems more suited to our times. I love those old epics like Ben Bur, but there is certainly a place for the way films like The Eagle are handled, and it does work pretty well for the most part.
The immediate impression I had was of a Western, but set in Ancient Briton. At the beginning, you have somebody going to a remote outpost which is like the edge of ‘civilisation’, and the similarities to Dances With Wolves are quite obvious, while later on I was reminded of earlier, related films such as A Man Called Horse! Opening with two intense battle scenes, the film then seems to almost draw to a halt with some endless chat about honour and patriotism. Never mind, eventually Marcus’s quest begins and the film becomes the story of a rescue mission, except that of course it’s not a person being rescued but an emblem. The pace is gradual but there is a fair bit of suspense which grows and grows. Having the Romans speak English and the Picts speak Scottish Gaelic also works-it’s a nice device. There’s one superb sequence where Marcus and Esca have found one of the survivors of the Ninth legion, and, as they walk across an area filled with skulls and signs of a fierce battle, he tells of how they were massacred, and we see quick shots of soldiers falling, blood etc. There is a real feeling of dread here, aided by some especially eerie music, that borders on horror, and quite a bit of violence does ensure. This is rated 12A, but honestly, it could have been a 15. As is often the case with the BBFC, they have given a film a lenient rating because it’s ‘historical’[ how I remember walking out at the end of Braveheart shocked at how brutal it was for a 15!] and, although it’s mostly very quick, you do see decapitations, spurting blood and the like. There’s even a bit where a young boy has his throat cut!.
The battle scenes are sadly shot in the way that is the norm now-lots of quick cuts and close ups, so that what is on screen is sometimes little more than a blur. It’s especially sad here because the staging, or what you can see of it, is really good. The final battle, though, does have some great aerial shots of the fighting. Antony Dod Mandle’s cinematography is stunning throughout, evoking a real poetry out of the bleak landscapes, but is most notable in the early scenes, where for once interiors are really dark [just as they should be] because they are lit only partially by the odd candle and daylight coming in through a window. These scenes almost look as if they were shot using just natural light and almost have a Barry Lyndon look to them. Another thing I liked a great deal is that Marcus is really quite dislikeable for most of the film, he’s so bound up in things like ‘honour’ and the superiority of the Romans to everyone else , that he doesn’t seem to have much humanity at all. When he encounters the survivor I mentioned earlier, all he seems bothered by is that he fled a massacre and didn’t stay to fight to his certain death. He treats Esca like crap, and one thing I couldn’t understand is why Esca is so loyal to him. Their relationship is handled very well though, with little of the expected sentimentality. I’ve read of a supposed homosexual element, but I didn’t see it-I’m of the opinion that such things are often only there if you want them to be.
Initially I thought Channing Tatum was rather bland as Marcus, but then it occurred to me that his performance was intentional, since Marcus is quite an empty, hollow guy who wouldn’t dream of showing anything resembling feelings. Jamie Bell is given the more dynamic role of Esca but is hampered by the inconsistency of the character. Unlike his previous score for Season Of The Witch, Atli Orvarsson contributes a fine score here, with effective use of unusual instruments and sounds. When it comes down to it The Eagle doesn’t have quite enough in it to distinguish it from other films of its ilk, but it’s rather more interesting than you might expect and generally a solid effort all round.