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.
One of the key issues for a film that's set in Roman-occupied Britain is the morality of invasion and occupation, a topic that can't but be addressed between Roman invader Marcus and his British slave Esca, a Brigant, as they travel through the wilderness and ultimately are put in situations that cause them to reverse the master/slave relationship. Yet there's remarkably little dialog spent on whether the Romans had the right to enslave the Britons and the conversations that they do have on the topic are quickly forgotten in the battles and trek towards the missing talisman.
There are also a number of cliches that make the film laughable in moments. When Marcus says "Help me regain my family's honor" without any passion or when he asks his Uncle Aquila "what was my father like?" and we then are subjected to flashbacks of a kind, loving father who doted upon his young son, it feels like the scriptwriters needed to go back to "avoiding cinematic tropes 101" in film school.
The cinematography was consistently dark, muddy and, during the battle scenes, confusing to the point of incoherence. There were certainly well-staged battles, but it was impossible to figure out what was going on and who was gaining the upper hand at any given moment. Perhaps that was true to Roman battles, but it just left this viewer confused about pivotal moments in the movie.
Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) walks past guards in The Eagle
There's a curious lack of women in the film too. I mean, a total lack. I didn't see any women appear at all other than on the periphery of the scene, yet we were shown scenes where Esca and Marcus are quite intimate. I certainly wondered after a while about the dynamics of families in Second Century Rome after Marcus not only never exhibited any interest towards women but didn't even talk about it. This isn't uncommon in Swords & Sandals films either, but it is again a cinematic cliche of the genre more than anything else.
There's also the logical improbability of two men on horseback tracking down the eagle in a vast, uncharted wilderness peopled by hostile natives. Esca conveniently speaks the local tongue but none of the ostensible savages ever question the Roman centurion just a few paces away, even as they all profess their hatred of the invader. It works cinematically, but if you actually try to follow The Eagle as a detective story, you're going to have some reservations about how it all plays out so conveniently.
Directory Kevin Macdonald has a reasonable filmography, including The Last King of Scotland and the exciting State of Play [see my review of State of Play] but in this instance we needed someone like Ridley Scott to step in and really make the film more dramatic, more emotional and more engaging. Macdonald, mostly a documentary director, just doesn't deliver the film that The Eagle could have been.
In the end, I like films about honor and The Eagle is clearly in the "hero's journey" category. I just wish that Channing Tatum would have turned in a stronger performance, because a driven, passionate, even obsessed Marcus Aquila who cares for nothing but restoring the honor of his family could have made this a gripping epic. Instead I suggest you rent Gladiator or another early Roman epic instead.