Roman Road Movie
The Eagle US/UK 2011
Directed by Kevin Macdonald
Playing at cinemas now.
The Ninth Legion was a highly commended Roman Legion who fought on many campaigns emerging from the majority of them triumphant and victorious, sometimes with special commendations, but who suddenly dropped off the map of history somewhere in the North of Britain sometime after the Briton’s were invaded. Speculation has been rife as to what actually happened to this “missing” legion and some have guessed that they were “wiped out” during the occupation of Britain by a group of wronged Brits. They have been used as a source for artistic inspiration for a while now and this, obviously, includes literature where in one case the legion were abducted by aliens and taken to another world... which is absolutely not what this movie speculates what happened to them.
The most recent movie to use them as a literary source was last year’s Neil Marshall film Centurion, where the legion were decimated by tribal Brits and the narrative was based on a handful of men trying to return home behind enemy lines, so to speak. It was a pretty good movie which is what I would expect from the director of Dog Soldiers and The Descent and you can find my review of Centurion here.
The Eagle, however, is based on a fifties children’s book, The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff and concerns itself with picking up the remnants of this story some twenty years after the speculated fate of the ninth. The main lead played by Channing Tatum is Marcus Aquila, the son of the commander of the Ninth Legion, which disappeared behind enemy lines (past Hadrian’s Wall) and hasn’t been heard of since the legion mysteriously vanished out there... missing, presumed dead. Much is made of the fact that Rome now assumes that one of their precious Eagle standards is now in the hands of the savage barbarians but the reliable British have a reputation for being a Roman Legionnaires worst nightmare so no attempts have been made to find out what actually happened to the Ninth or to try to find the missing standard and return it to Rome. However, when our main protagonist is invalided out of the army after a skirmish in the first 20 minutes of the film, he is sent to live with his uncle, played enthusiastically by Donald Sutherland in a role which could, sadly, best be described as “supporting”. After saving the life of a British barbarian, Esca, and taking him as his slave, and once his wounds are sufficiently healed up so he can do more than just hobble around a bit, Marcus takes Esca on a quest behind enemy lines to find the lost Eagle of the Ninth.
All in all this film has a nice set up and takes an unexpected turn after bedding you down in one scenario for twenty minutes before “refreshing” the pacing a bit and then going off in the direction you were expecting it to go off in earlier. The story is well written and it contains the expected little moments when characters who you assumed weren’t just what they appeared to be.. turned out not to be and so there’s nothing really unexpected in this one, it has to be said. But it is pretty solid and an actual story... like what so much on the silver screen isn’t these days.
Jamie Bell is brilliant as Esca... well that’s pretty true to form for Jamie Bell actually. Haven’t seen him in much but have noted him down as “one to watch” in the movies I have seen of his. Chaning Tatum is not completely acted off the screen by Bell so, in fact, he holds up quite well. Sutherland is great, as always, but as I intimated before... he’s hardly in it.
The direction is competently handled and comes into it’s own perhaps a little more exuberantly in some of the montage travel shots in what soon becomes a Roman Road movie... although the introduction of singing on the score on one of these sequences kinda destroys the atmosphere a bit. Some of the action sequences are a little hard to follow and aggressively edited and, though this is surely the style these days where enthusiastic action editing seems to have replaced understandable action editing, I was left wondering in most of the fight sequences whether the rapid editing style was actually intended to distract from a possible lack of coverage in the shots? I guess I’ll never know but it doesn’t quite hit the mark, for me, in these areas. There seems to be a general attitude that aggressive action editing gives a movie a certain sense of rawness... but I’d have to say that for all its bluster, Centurion’s sequences were handled a fair bit better than The Eagle and had a much rawer feel to them. If people in movies really want to go down this line then I suggest everyone look at Peter Hunt’s editing work on the Bond films prior to his debut as a director on the series and then looking at that directorial debut On Her Majesty’s Secret Service very closely if you want to see how to present fast-cut, fast-paced action sequences which still maintain a basic level of easily understandable action-narrative.
The Eagle is a solid film and certainly good enough for an intriguing and fairly enjoyable night at the cinema (although it’s not the Roman detective story I was hoping it would be). I don’t think it’s necessarily worthy of repeat viewings but as a one off hit at the cinema then it’s probably not going to offend anyone’s confidence in it... of course, it’s not the most enlightening viewing experience in the world either. If you have time then go and see it but don’t put off the other ones in your “to see” list unless you know they’re going to be around for a bit longer.