Director Kevin Macdonald
Starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland, Mark Strong
Written by Jeremy Brock based upon The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff
It’s hard to tell whether Channing Tatum is a good actor or a meat head who has been given some decent material to work with. This story, in particular, is based on a 1954 book which lost some traction in the 50+ years since it was published. The tale is good enough, however, to have been adapted once on BBC radio and twice in movie form. The 2011 version of this story plays well enough as historical drama, but eventually you get tired of the civilized invaders fighting the painted savages with wild hair. The main difference between this tale and those based on Native American lore are that under all that paint and wild hair, the savages speak Gaelic.
Tatum plays as Marcus Flavius Aquila, son of disgraced commander of the 9th Legion that was obliterated years before, spurring the creation of Hadrian’s Wall. Now that he is old enough to command his own legion, he takes the assignment that his father had, years before in northern Britain. His command career is valiant, but short, after suffering a leg injury while taking out a wild man reminiscent to that wild hair animal expert from the Jackass movies.
Next we see him convalescing in south Britain with his uncle, an incredibly relaxed looking Donald Sutherland. That he seems to have no name does not seem to bother Sutherland. In fact, nothing seems to be preventing him from thinking about his next bathing experience. While recouping, Marcus is brought by uncle Donald to see some Gladitorial matches. One of the contests features a young man named Esca (Bell) who seemingly has had it with the business and offers his life to his counterpart. Marcus takes pity on him and sees that his life be spared. A short time later, we find how useful having a slave from the northern expanse of wildness beyond Hadrian’s Wall.
The story has promise, and the actors are decent. Especially nice to see is Mark Strong, playing something other than a bad guy. Still has some flavor to his character…kind of a vanilla with a sprinkling of toffee crunch. Bell, who excelled as Billy Elliot and has been on the rise ever since, makes the most of his role. He is able to project much with very little effort. He wears the pain of his eventually revealed past quite efficiently. Comparing this to Tatum’s relatively blank stare is not altogether fair, I am aware. When they spend so much time on the screen together, it is rather hard to escape comparison. Nice as he seems to be for the feminine types to look at, his emoting is relegated to yelling once in a while and skulking a lot. On the Keanu scale, he is about a 7 out of 10.
There are some very nice scenes in The Eagle. In particular, a sequence, outside of their fort early on, we get a chance to see how brilliantly the Roman legion could work when Aquila leads a small group out against a large horde to get the leader of the wild men. The Roman shield is demonstrated in all its glory as the great equalizer when used in the testudo, or tortoise formation. After having read about this so many times, it was nice to see it demonstrated so aptly. In a later scene, for some reason, this tact is abandoned. My guess is that they really did not want to have as many survivors of that group.
The Roman Senate is portrayed as still having some significance in this film. They are off by about 150 years or so. By the time of the Roman Empire, the Senate was relegated to passing useless laws for Rome proper, leaving the real law enforcement to the men controlling the armies. It’s lazy writing, to be sure, to throw someone in a toga in a comfortable villa and have them talk about “politics being politics” when, by this time the privileged knew they went only by the grace of the Augustus.
Back to the wing nuts with the wild hair. Records of the northern England Brigantes tribes are sparse, so there is not a lot to go on, other than the scare tactics of Roman fables. Macdonald has them looking like they were the precursors of a punk version of the blue man group. One can’t help the feeling that the viewer is supposed to be made more at ease when with two groups of Caucasians fighting, one of the groups consists of something you would not want to date your daughter. The portrayal of the tribe kind of goofs up the last part of the film, which had run fine to this point. The presentation is so mixed with everything bad from so many Westerns, that it was absolutely no surprise that the big shocker before the last battle scene (involving taking an innocent life) is no surprise, and really, ineffectual. Yes, we get it. Wild hair and paint on the locals means we won’t find a McDonald’s nearby, so it must be bad.
Historical action Drama can be interesting and somewhat historically accurate. Some will blame the budget like what happened to Deadwood and Rome, but at least what they made was brilliant, and will be remembered. In the words of Lyle Lovett: “What would you be, if you didn’t even try?” One can’t necessarily consider The Eagle a success. It breaks even. That’s about it.
(**1/2 out of *****)