Despite its bleak atmosphere and sparse storyline, period drama The Eagle is a pleasant surprise. It entertains with some great sword play, and the themes of honor and bravery overcome the simplicity of the story.
Set in ancient Roman-occupied Britain, a young captain (Channing Tatum) must restore honor to his family’s name by finding the golden eagle, the standard of the Ninth Roman Legion. When Marcus Aquila was still a boy, his father (and the eagle) led the 5,000 soldiers of the Ninth into north Britain and they were never heard from again. Now a commander in his own right, Marcus has returned to Britain to restore honor to his family name, and to Rome itself, by finding the eagle. With the help of a British slave named Esca (Jamie Bell), Marcus leaves the safety of Hadrian’s Wall and heads into the wilds of ancient Scotland to find the golden standard. They go alone, as Rome has given up on ever finding the eagle and won’t sacrifice any more men on finding it. Marcus chooses to sacrifice everything to find the eagle, and discover if his father died with honor.
Tatum (Dear John, G.I. Joe) does a great job as the brave centurion fighting for honor. His physique suits the role, and the stoicism of his character means he doesn’t have to rely too much on acting. Bell (Jumper) plays the local slave and friend with laudable intensity, and ends up stealing quite a few scenes. In a strange twist of casting, Marcus’ uncle is played by Donald Sutherland. Sutherland always looks like a goofy hippy to me. He couldn’t stop grinning for some reason, though his character wasn’t meant to be comic relief. He always seemed either on the verge of tellling a joke, or just finishing telling a joke.
Director Kevin Macdonald did a decent job building the bleak atmosphere. The scenery is stark and almost barren. Once Marcus and Esca are north of Hadrian’s Wall, the wilds open up before them looking empty and mist-enshrouded. The savagery of the local tribes fighting against the Romans is typified in wild-eyed characters, painted faces, and brutal fighting tactics. Talking about fighting tactics, I liked the sword play. Good choreography and film direction there. The camera moved in and out of the battle sequences in a way that kept the fighting from feeling too staged.
The film is based on a book of the same name by Rosemary Sutcliff. Audiences will appreciate the eternal themes of honor and bravery present in the film, though the “inspirational” pep talks feel heavy-handed. At times, as Tatum’s character waxed loquacious about honor and sacrifice, it got a little cheesy. Also, though Marcus’ character development is good, the other central character Esca feels very underdone. I would’ve liked more there. And while I’m talking about characters, the film seems (much like the landscape) strangely empty. There are the centurions, and the tribal warriors, but mostly it’s just Marcus and Esca. At one point in the movie I wondered if they could have a film without a single female. They almost did.
Overall though, I’m surprised at how much I liked this film. Of course, I wasn’t expecting much but it did manage to entertain. A good film for a slow night, The Eagle is worth a watch.