Mail & Guardian

A Roman holiday

08 Apr 2011 00:00 | Shaun de Waal

I do like an old Roman flick. I even like some of the demonstrably bad ones, but it's a pleasure to be able to announce that The Eagle is a rather good one.

I initially thought it was based on the first of Simon Scarrow's Roman novels, Under the Eagle, but in fact it's based on Rosemary Sutcliffe's story for young readers that was first published in the 1950s.

I haven't read it, but I think it's safe to assume that the makers of The Eagle have butched it up considerably, as well as giving it a somewhat more contemporary resonance -- a general reference to Iraq, say, rather than a time when 19th-century colonialism was staggering towards its end halfway into the 20th.

The "eagle of the Ninth" is the standard of the Ninth Legion, which, according to this story, was lost when the legion was massacred somewhere in the hinterland of what is now Scotland. Losing a whole legion is a tragedy for the Romans, but losing the standard as well seems like carelessness. It adds insult to injury, and the honour of the legion's late leader is permanently stained. Hence the narrative of The Eagle, which has to do with that leader's son trying to restore familial honour.

Interestingly, the loss of the Ninth Legion was also the subject of last year's Centurion, which made a bloody action movie out of the aftermath of the legion's loss. It had good action, but the storyline was less good, and the historical anachronisms irked somewhat (woman warriors with ninja-like skills, and so forth). The Eagle does well by giving its narrative a great deal of solidity, by hewing to historical verisimilitude, yet keeping the action coming.

Legend of the Ninth
Interestingly, too, the legend of the Ninth seems just that -- a legend. Its story may have been conflated with that of the Battle of the Teutoberg Forest, in which three legions (and their precious eagles) were entirely lost, presumed massacred, in the vast German woods. This bothered the Romans for centuries. The Ninth, however, appears simply to have been relocated some time in the late first century and to have lost its number when it was absorbed into other forces.

At any rate, legend usually makes for more exciting stories than history, and the fact that in about 140 AD the Ninth was stationed in Britain makes of The Eagle a very filmable and assimilable narrative. Chunky Channing Tatum plays Marcus Aquila (are Romans in movies always called Marcus?), who wants to redeem his father's honour by finding out what happened to the Ninth's eagle. He is joined on this quest by Esca (Jamie Bell -- I nearly wrote Billy Elliot), a British slave, and from this point the film becomes a kind of first-century buddy movie, in which two men must resolve their differences and commit to common goals.

Long-standing movie tradition, in Anglophonia at least, has it that Romans are played by Brits and the relevant oppressed natives are played by Americans. Hence even The Last Temptation of Christ had Willem Dafoe as an American-speaking Jesus (oppressed Judaean, you see) with American-speaking disciples, while David Bowie, contrariwise, was cast as Pontius Pilate. This seems to me a kind of distant nostalgia for when Americans had to fight for their freedom against the Brits and could bask in their sense of victimhood.

It makes sense, and not only because the director and scriptwriter of The Eagle are British, that now the conquerors should be American and their victims British, or at least non-Americans who speak some form of ancient Gaelic.

From the point that Marcus and Esca set out on their quest, the film changes focus. It becomes an adventure embarked upon by an unlikely pair, often at odds with each other: it reduces the conflict of conqueror and conquered to the interaction of two individuals. This may be opting out of the bigger political issue, and making a feel-good resolution easier to achieve, but it does also generate a more manageable storyline. The firm focus on the travelling, bickering pair gives the epic action a human-scale centre.

Chunky Channing does well in his role, and Bell does even better in his, while Donald Sutherland provides avuncular gravitas. There is no female lead, no romance: this is a homosocial romance, really. If, at times, it borders on the homoerotic, I think filmgoers like me are entitled to imagine that the chunky Roman and the tough, wiry Brit could have found a warm spot in which to cuddle up (or more) while on their trip to the icy north.

But this is a boy's movie, not a gay's movie or a girl's movie. A woman colleague at the screening I attended was excited to see Chunky Channing on screen again, and was certainly hoping he'd take his shirt off (she got her wish for about two seconds), but in the end felt disappointed that this was such a boy's movie. So, girls, take that into account.

Still, speaking as a boy, I found it engrossing, exciting and finally satisfying -- the latter in a rather clich├ęd, old-fashioned but still stirring way. The heroes are interesting, complex characters, and their interaction is well played.

The villains are scary, the landscapes are lovely and The Eagle has an epic feel without actually stretching itself out to three hours in length. What more could a boy want?

View the original online publication here