After such amazing films as Ben Hur and Gladiator, I’m a definite fan of what the industry refers to as “swords and sandals” epics, films that take place during the first century or two of the common era. The Eagle takes place during this same era, 140AD, and is a tale of a Roman commander who seeks to restore his family’s honor by recovering a lost golden eagle from the far northern hinterlands of Britain.
The story is based on the book The Eagle of the Ninth, with Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) seeking to restore the honor of his family twenty years after his father Flavius (Aladar Lakloth) led the Ninth Legion to their mysterious demise in the area we now know of as Scotland. The Ninth, 5000 men strong, marched to claim the lands for Rome, carrying along a symbol of Roman authority — the eagle — but were never heard from again. In response, Emperor Hadrian commissioned the building of Hadrian’s Wall, a dividing line between Roman Britain and the wilderness.
The problem with The Eagle is that Marcus and his slave pal Esca (Jamie Bell) fight the occasionally nobel savages and travel northward of the Wall to recover the lost eagle, but never with passion and enthusiasm. Indeed, there were times that it felt more like a History Channel reenactment of a famous second century Roman battle than an actual movie.
Donald Sutherland makes an appearance as wise, beloved Uncle Aquila, but seems wasted in the film and plays the part with a lack of commitment that had me expecting him to wink at us, the viewers, at more than one point in the narrative. “We’re just play-acting, right?”
The story of The Eagle is a terrific one of family honor, commitment and freedom, even occasionally touching on whether the Romans had the right to invade and occupy Britain, but the cast walked through their parts, leaving it curiously unengaging. Does Marcus succeed? By the end of the film, you just don’t really care.