The Eagle – More than just an adventure film

The Eagle movies
The Eagle movies (Source:
The Eagle – More than just an adventure film
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“The Eagle” is based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novel “The Eagle of the Ninth”, which was one of my favourite books when I was young.

According to one story, Sutcliff’s original title was altered by the film-makers because test audiences in the U.S. assumed that a film called “The Eagle of the Ninth” would be about golf, even though golfers would more normally talk about scoring an eagle “on” or “at” the ninth.

The film is set in Roman Britain in the year 140 AD, a time when the southern half of Britain- roughly speaking modern England and Wales- was part of the Roman Empire, whereas the northern half- modern Scotland and Northumberland and referred to by the Romans as Caledonia- was independent of Roman control.

Marcus Flavius Aquila, a young centurion in the Roman Army, arrives in Britain to taken up a position as commander of a fortress. Although it is nearly a century since the Roman conquest of southern Britain, many of the inhabitants are still deeply hostile to Roman rule, and shortly after his arrival Marcus is confronted with an uprising by the local tribesmen.

His courage and resourcefulness saves his garrison from being overrun, but is honourably discharged from the Army due to wounds sustained in the battle.

The Eagle
The Eagle (Source:

Marcus’s father was the commander of the ill-fated Ninth Spanish Legion which disappeared- according to this version of history- while on an expedition into Caledonia. (Historians have debated the fate of the real Ninth Legion without coming to any firm conclusions).

Marcus is desperate to redeem what he sees as a stain on the family’s honour and decides to travel north into the wild country beyond Hadrian’s Wall in order to recover the lost eagle standard of the Ninth Legion. (The eagle, like a modern regimental standard, symbolised the honour of the Legion; to lose it to the enemy was considered a great disgrace.

Significantly, Marcus’s cognomen, Aquila, is Latin for “eagle”). He is accompanied in his journey by his British slave Esca, whose life he once saved.

One of the main themes of the film is imperialism and the clash of cultures. The Roman characters are played by American or Canadian actors, whereas Esca is played by Jamie Bell (of “Billy Elliott” fame) using his own native Wearside accent.

Appropriately enough, Esca is the son of a chieftain of the Brigantes, the tribe who occupied what is today northern England in Roman times. Scottish Gaelic is used to represent the language of the Pictish tribes of Caledonia; this is, strictly speaking, inaccurate as Gaelic was introduced into Britain from Ireland several centuries after the date when the film is set, but no more inaccurate than the use of English to represent Latin.

Bell’s performance as Esca has been much praised, but Channing Tatum as Marcus has been criticised as wooden, a criticism which seems to me to miss the point.

The Romans are portrayed as a stiff, formal people whereas the Britons are more spontaneous and emotional and closer to nature. It therefore seems fitting that Bell’s acting is more expressive than Tatum’s.

Although “The Eagle” is not an epic on the grand scale of some recent films about the Classical world such as “Gladiator” or “Alexander”, it is nevertheless a very good action-adventure story with some decent action sequences, especially the early battle when the Celts attack the Roman fortress.

There is also some striking, autumnal photography of the Scottish landscapes and an imaginative recreation of the life of the Seal People, the fierce and warlike hunter-gatherer tribe who have captured the missing Eagle.

Not much is known about the peoples of northern Caledonia, but they appear to have been culturally distinct from the southern Britons, a farming people who had begun to accept cultural innovations from continental Europe even before the Roman conquest.

Yet “The Eagle” is more than just an adventure film. Marcus starts out by despising Esca, both because he is a slave and because he is a member of a race whom the Romans consider barbarians.

Esca despises all Romans, the race who have enslaved him and oppressed his countrymen; he only stays with Marcus out of a belief that he owes a debt of honour to the man who saved his life, not out of affection. Yet by the end of their adventures the two men have not only come to respect one another, but have become friends.

This is a film which asks some pertinent questions about the true nature of such concepts as honour, freedom and friendship and about respect for cultures which differ from one’s own. The one thing I did not like was the rather implausible ending (which differs from that of Sutcliff’s novel), but that apart this was an excellent film. 8/10.

Source: James Hitchcock – imdb


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