Eagle of the Ninth

Two young heroes, lookin’ for adventure.

At first glance, The Eagle might seem like the kind of movie that is playing off of a semi-popular trope (Roman soldiers fightin’ barbarians on the march to Empire) to deliver some MTVish shenanigans. Channing Tatum just doesn’t belong in this kind of movie. It’s like James Franco in Tristan + Isolde. It’s just… odd. It doesn’t work!

Or does it?

I’m sort of a Channing Tatum apologist. Yeah, he’s a chunk of manmeat that women my age swoon over endlessly. Thankfully, my girlfriend calls him shoebox-face and professes no affection for his pouty lips or powerful, masculine neck. I, however, think he’s a guy who is half working off his looks and half using them to propel him into the kind of career where he can dovetail between crowd-pleasing (read: lady-pleasing) lighter fare and more serious actorly stuff. Tatum has chops, he’s been good in a few movies (Stop-Loss, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Fighting) and far from bad even in less demanding ones (G.I. Joe, Havoc).

Jamie Bell, the other lead, isn’t as well known. Not even close. In fact, he tends toward smaller films with less exposure. He’s always good (Undertow, Defiance, The Chumscrubber) though, even in lesser films (Jumper, King Kong), and has more pedigree behind him than Tatum if only because he’s more scruffy than pretty. And also cuz he’s Billy Elliot. I’ve never seen the movie but it is a big deal I guess.

With these two playing a Roman soldier and the slave he befriends, it’s not really a surprise that so many have misread The Eagle as a kind of ancient-world buddy movie. It does have some elements of this, especially toward the end, but mostly it’s a character study of Marcus Flavius Aquila, the young Roman officer Tatum effectively portrays. A lot rests on whether or not Tatum can carry such a role. The irony is that there would have been no impact had The Eagle been flashier or quicker-paced. Instead, its slow and deliberate exploration of Aquila’s world in all its bleak detail is the very thing that supports Tatum’s performance and allows him to carry the film. He is also helped out (assuming he’s bad with accents) by the choice to leave all the Romans with neutral American accents rather than the theatrical British we’ve become used to in these kinds of films. Even though he didn’t have to, Tatum does offer a slightly affected delivery that feels right for the character. I also think it’s kind of hilariously easy to read into the choice of using American accents for Roman soldiers, which I can’t seem to pin as a pro or con for the movie as a whole.

There is also some great supporting work, especially from Donald Sutherland and Mark Strong (both of whom could do this movie in their sleep, but neither phoning it in or hamming it up). Even Denis O’Hare, who plays a limited though earnest member of Aquila’s command, is fun to see pop up here. I kept wishing he’d drawl in his Russel Edgington Southspeak but of course that shit does not belong anyplace but where it is.

What worked for me more than anything else in this film was how it continually threw me for a loop. I kept expecting cliche turns to be taken and I was surprised all of the time. Examples range from the small (the outcome of Esca’s gladiator match) to the much larger (Aquila’s injury).

The respect for detail and authenticity was also truly impressive. Most movies in this subgenre tend to pay lip service to the flavor of ancient Rome probably because writers are ignorant and consultants ignored in favor of oomph or something. Here, we get some really choice details including an epic display of Roman fighting tactics (testudo formation!) and even prayers to Mithras. The authenticity on display helps sell what could have easily been perceived as an “Americanized” historical film due to the casting and accent choices.

Beyond the attention to detail for the Romans, it is also impressive that the film sketches a Brittania where there are many tribal cultures, all with different histories and customs and reactions to the Roman presence. Most of the time, we see the locals in films like King Arthur or Centurion as being one hodgepodge tribe mixing call-outs to distinctive groups like Celts, Brigantes, Picts, etc. The Seal People, the group who a large part of the film is spent on, is eerily different from “Northern Tribes” we’ve seen before. They have more in common with North American aboriginals than with what we have come to expect from Gallic or Celtic peoples. They are a very well-drawn creation and give the film some increased nuance by suggesting the European (in this case probably Celtic or Saxon) conquest of their version of Aboriginal peoples (the Picts and others, like the Seal People apparently).

What makes me reject the thesis that this is a buddy movie is in how it handles the relationship between Esca and Marcus. They seem to become friends after Marcus saves him, but Marcus’s uncle warns him against trusting a slave and the majority of the film is spent with his words hanging in the air between our heroes. By the time Esca seems to betray Marcus to the Seal People, a tightrope is being walked between convincing us that Esca is loyal to Marcus beyond his oath or that he is simply waiting for an opportunity to clear the debt so he can escape and/or kill his master. This line is skirted right up to the point where Marcus frees Esca, a bid to convince him to leave while Marcus faces the Seal People alone with the Eagle to restore his honor.

At about this point, we’re so-far so-good. It is when Esca comes back with the naturalized remnant of the 9th Legion (who have “gone native” and now live as farmers or whatnot in unconquered Northern Brittania) that things go a bit off the rails. The point is that Esca is honorable and loyal, as Marcus is, and these former soldiers who ran away to save themselves have honor to regain which they can do by helping protect the standard when once they abandoned it. This neatly ties together the themes The Eagle is dealing with, but it also misses the point, which is to die for honor. Some of them do die, but Marcus and Esca survive to unbelievably return the Eagle and then quip about what they’re going to do next. Really? That’s an ending for a Pirates of the Caribbean movie or a buddy comedy about quirky NYC cops. It does not belong with the moody, gritty film that went before. And that isn’t even the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that while Esca and Marcus have shown that they are BFFs now, too much of the film was spent keeping the true nature of their relationship ambiguous so the conversion to wisecracking buddies (not really, I do exaggerate a bit) feels forced and reeks of studio interference to make it open for sequels.

I expect the ending will be easier to swallow on future viewings, though. What comes before is so surprisingly effective that I think The Eagle might be a very early contender for my Top 15 list.

The most important thing to convince a would-be audience of is that it’s a serious movie. It’s not fucking around, ending aside, and if you like Ancient Rome you will have to pay some respect to what Kevin MacDonald and his crew accomplished here. My screen was pretty much empty the second evening of its release and it isn’t making too much money apparently. So go see the movie, seriously.