Sunday, February 20, 2011

NOW SHOWING: "The Eagle"

      “The Eagle” is a war movie that is currently in theaters. It is based on the novel “The Eagle of the Ninth” by Rosemary Sutcliffe. It stars Channing Tatum as Marcus Flavius Aquila (the Roman word for “eagle”). It is set in 140 A.D. in Northern England. As background, we are told that twenty years earlier the 9th Legion was wiped out in the area of Scotland and its eagle standard was lost to the barbarians. Marcus’ father was in command (as a centurion – what?) and thus was his family’s honor besmirched. The movie accurately reflects that the Romans would actually be more concerned with the loss of a standard than with the loss of 5,000 legionaries. Sutcliffe bases this foundation on the disappearance of the 9th from the historical records after its expedition into Caledonia and the finding of a broken eagle in an archeological dig. However, the loss of an entire legion would have been clearly chronicled and the eagle turned out to have been from a statue so the premise is shaky.

     Marcus gets assigned to command of a castra (fort) near Hadrian’s Wall (which the movie implies was built as a result of the loss of the 9th) even though he is just a centurion and younger than all the other officers. The castra is authentic looking, but unfortunately the movie does not spend much on camp life. We get a paltry training and repairing montage.

     The first set piece is a surprise night attack which is not a surprise because Marcus hears in his sleep something that none of the guards hear so he calls out the garrison. The assault is in the new cinematic chaotic battle scene style. It does give you the impression of the “fog of war”. I was surprised how non-graphic the action was. There was no blood spurting that we have come to expect with movies involving swords. The movie is rated PG-13. This being a movie about Roman warfare there has to be the obligatory use of fire (see “Spartacus” and “Gladiator”, for instance). I guess since you cannot logically have explosions, fire is the next best thing. The imaginative (read: not historically accurate) use of fire in “The Eagle” involves pouring oil into the ditch surrounding the fort so it can be set ablaze during the assault.

     Our next action scene revolves around the capture of a Roman patrol. The Celts arrive outside in a large and belligerent mob led by a crazed chieftain who proceeds to behead a prisoner (off camera) to provoke a Roman attack. Marcus obliges by leading a unit out (without their pila – what?). His big tactic is to convert into a testudo upon contact with the enemy. The Romans form the “tortoise” and survive the enemy literally throwing themselves onto it. This is military nonsense as the testudo was designed to be used against missile attacks, not shock charges. Besides, this formation would have been easily carved up by a mob of warriors because the sides and back of the formation were completely exposed. The Romans manage to reach the captives and rescue them, I think, but have to retreat when scythed (inaccurate) chariots (accurate) attack. Marcus is wounded and ends up under the care of his Uncle Aquila (Donald Sutherland acting rings around Tatum).

     Marcus meets his to-be-bonded-with mate when he witnesses a gladiator show in the local amphitheater. The slave Esca (Jamie Bell) refuses to fight a nasty cuss and the crowd demands his death. For some reason, Marcus takes a liking to this coward and convinces the blood-lusting crowd of yahoos to reverse their thumbs to the upward position. Realistic? Not. Since Marcus saved his life (the same life that he did not want to fight for), Esca is now beholding to Marcus and must do whatever his despised Roman master wants. This is mighty ethical for someone whose family was killed by the Roman army.

     Since Marcus has been given an honorable discharge due to his wound, he has nothing better to do but go across Hadrian’s Wall to find the needle (eagle) in the haystack (Scotland). And by the way, the haystack is full of very hostile barbarians. It’s doable because he has Esca as his guide and interpreter. Rogue warriors ambush them at their campfire resulting in a good, but brief, frenetic action scene. Later, the buddies encounter a survivor from the 9th named Guern. He knew Marcus’ father and describes the ambush which is basically the Battle of Teutoberger Forest set in Britain. In a bit of foreshadowing, Guern mentions the worst of the ambushers were the Painted Warriors of the Seal People who liked to eat human hearts. If you are wondering if Marcus and Esca will encounter them, you have not seen any movies.

     Sure enough, the boys are captured by the Painted Warriors, but Esca claims that Marcus is his slave and they buy it. They are taken to a village that is straight out of an American western. The kids have very little resemblance to their fathers which implies the wives have been very naughty, but since there is no DNA testing… When all the men get drunk and dance like some Indians, Marcus spots the eagle and runs to it only to be knocked out. When he comes to, he finds that being knocked unconscious by a club is an advantage over being knocked out by whatever these dudes were drinking. He and Esca rescue the eagle and kill the evil king in the process. The audience is supposed to cheer his death and overlook that he is simply trying to preserve his peoples’ way of life under threat of extermination by the Romans.

     The chase is on as our horse-riding heroes cannot open a gap with their foot-bound painted hunters. At one point, Esca skins a rat and they eat it raw. Believe it or not, this is the grossest visual in the movie. Marcus cannot go further because of his old wound so he sets Esca free. Will Esca abandon this Roman or go get help? He decides to abandon his ex-master. Just kidding. Esca returns with not only Guern, but a whole band of 9th veterans who see this as their opportunity to restore their honor after they ran away rather than have their hearts eaten in a hopeless battle. Cowards! You’ll have to watch the movie to find out what happens next, but don’t expect to be shocked.

      I was sure this movie would be better than its closest counterpart – “Centurion”. I was wrong. It actually got some good reviews, although most of the reviews have been bad. Looking at it from an historical point of view, it does not hold up well. It does not appear that Sutcliffe or the screenwriters bothered with much research. Even the slightest reading would have revealed that a centurion would not be in command of a legion! I have pointed out several other historical inaccuracies. These would be excusable if the story was good, but it isn’t. The script is implausible and the acting is bad. Sadly, it is not even a guilty pleasure.


  1. I do think that it is always to a certain extent telling when you look at the cast. Unless it is a low budget movie it will say something whether they casted good actors or not. Channing Tatum was in Dear, John (which some also call a war movie)... I guess that says it all. But I know how it is, one always hopes. I think we will still see this type of movie for a while. It's quite fashionable but it will take a long time until we get to see something good again. Has no one ever done a movie based on Caesar's De Bello Gallico? I think this book was the root cause of my intense hatred of school ...

  2. I think we are more likely to see the Centurion/300 type of movies with the graphic violence. The Eagle was surprisingly tame. I tell you what would make a good movie - The Battle of Alesia from Caesar's Gallic Wars! I read the book (English version) and did not really get what the fuss was about. I'd prefer a modern historians take.


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