Directed By: Kevin Macdonald
Screenplay By: Jeremy Brock
Based upon the novel The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff
Produced By: Duncan Kenworthy
Cast: Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland, Mark Strong
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 114 minutes
Release Date: February 11, 2011
Review Date: February 12, 2011
While watching the blandly named The Eagle, I found myself wondering if there had ever been a tag applied to a movie that said: Sanitized For Your Protection. If not, I propose that this film should be the first to do so. Granted, it’s an idea that’s a little late for the theatrical release, but maybe they can attach it to the DVD.
Marcus (Channing Tatum) is the new leader of a legion of Roman soldiers that occupy a fort in the southern part of what is now Great Britain. It’s been twenty years since the infamous Ninth Legion of the Roman army travelled into what is now Scotland and went missing. It turns out that Marcus’s father was the leader of the Ninth, a fact that makes his men distrust his leadership skills. After all, why judge the son by his abilities when you can judge him by the fact that his father lost 5000 men and, apparently even more important, the sculpture of a metal eagle carried into battle which stood as the symbol of Roman power?
Marcus soon faces his first battle and leads his men admirably, saving several soldiers from certain death, but he is seriously injured in the battle. Taken to stay with his uncle (Donald Sutherland) to recover, Marcus receives two very surprising pieces of news: Due to his injury, he has been given an honorable discharge and rumor has it that the eagle has been spotted north of Hadrian’s Wall. Nearly recuperated, Marcus decides to travel north of the wall to find the eagle and maybe discover what happened to the Ninth and his father.
To do this, he takes Esca (Jamie Bell), a native of Britain who has been captured and turned into a slave by the Romans. Esca has taken an oath to protect Marcus because Marcus saved his life. Despite this fact, Marcus’s uncle warns him that Esca will kill him the first chance he gets.
In a better movie, the prickly relationship between Marcus and Esca would have been the focus of the story. The ever-present threat of betrayal by Esca and the shaky moral ground on which Marcus stands would have given the material the potential for great drama. Unfortunately, the movie that director Kevin Macdonald and screenwriter Jeremy Brock give us is more concerned with battle scenes (bloodless to insure a PG-13 rating) and clichéd ideas of honor above all else. Never mind the bodies that pile up as Marcus wages his war for the honor of a man long dead.
The disappearance of the Ninth Legion is a true occurrence. The episode caused such shame for the Roman Emperor Hadrian that it led to the construction of the wall that marked the end of Roman territory. It has been fertile ground for storytellers who have long tossed about theories of what could have happened to the Ninth. I couldn’t help thinking of Centurion, a flawed, but much more interesting and entertaining film from last year that offered up a plausible explanation amidst a fairly ridiculous action movie. But while it was largely silly, it was also a fairly ugly and graphic depiction of war and how it makes savages of all who take part in it, no matter how justified their actions.
The Eagle wants no part of such philosophical arguments. Part of the reason is the desire to protect the coveted PG-13 rating that keeps the film opened up to the adolescent girls that make up Tatum’s fan base. But I think there’s also a belief on the part of Macdonald and Brock that a mainstream audience isn’t sophisticated enough to handle a trickier dynamic between Marcus and Esca or to understand that maybe something as fleeting as honor shouldn’t be a good enough reason for dozens of people to be killed.
Maybe I’m reading too much into what is intended to be just another action flick, but it feels like the possibility exists for the film to be something more than it is. There are character deaths that should be absolutely brutal, but are treated with clinical precision to show as little blood as possible. Marcus and Esca both do terrible things to survive, but never do they question their actions and Macdonald doesn’t want the audience to either. It’s this attempt to play at being gritty and ambiguous, while offering nothing more than chaotic battle scenes and shallow speeches on honor and duty that is most insulting.
Despite the shallow nature of the film, I can’t argue that it manages to stay watchable. It’s slickly shot and put together by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and editor Justine Wright. With the exception of Tatum (who looks and acts like Josh Hartnett without the charisma or sense of humor), it’s well acted with Bell doing good work to give the underwritten Esca a sense of moral conflict.
Perhaps if The Eagle hadn’t shown the occasional sign of testing deeper waters, I would be a little more forgiving and just look at it strictly as a shallow action flick. But, even if that was the case, it still wouldn’t have been fun due to its dour tone. As it exists, it’s not a horrible film, just a mediocre one made worse by its halfhearted attempts to be something more.
Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.