The Eagle is a 2011 historical film based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1954 historical adventure novel The Eagle of the Ninth. It was directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) adapted for the screen by Jeremy Brock (The Last King of Scotland) starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland and Mark Strong.
I picked up Sutcliff’s novel way back in college when I came across it in one of those used book stores selling for only 30 pesos. It was a fascinating read with memorable characters though in the end, it failed to interest me as I’ve grown more accustomed to contemporary fantasy novels. With that prior experience with the novel, I approached this movie with lukewarm anticipation. I did not expect anything grand and the trailers even pointed to something less epic than Gladiator or Centurion. In the end, what I received was something of a surprise. While not following closely to the novels, the movie managed to capture the atmosphere in a low-key and minimalistic affair. It did not go beyond what the novel offered and remained faithful to its most important events.
The Eagle tells the story of a young Roman officer Marcus Flavius Aquila (Tatum) who is honorably discharged from service in the beginning of the film after being wounded in battle and sent to live with his uncle (Sutherland). Marcus has a personal quest to regain his family’s honor after his father lost the eagle standard of the Ninth Legion which mysteriously disappeared years prior. With the help of a Celtic slave named Esca (Bell) whom Marcus rescues in a gladiatorial show, Marcus travels north, beyond Hadrian’s Wall, to track down and recover the lost Eagle standard.
Ever since Gladiator was released filmmakers have begun creating movies with the notion that bigger is better with every new release more epic than the last one. The epic historical movies then that followed were mostly disappointments as well as critical and box-office failures (Oliver Stone’s reviled Alexander for instance). The Eagle surprisingly revels in its minimalism and simplicity. In fact the themes that are the main focus of this film deals with the unlikely bond that forms between master and slave, loyalty and sacrifice. Freedom and honor which are usually the themes in epic historical films are notably underused here and for its own good. It is in this simplicity that the Eagle succeeds. It isn’t pretentious, nor feels contrived. It’s a buddy adventure film that somehow feels refreshing yet at the same time underwhelming. The screenplay here is very thin and not all characters are as memorable as they were in the novel mainly due to the diluted story elements Brock has employed in adapting the novel. Macdonald’s direction is as diluted as Brock’s adaptation, delivering a more straightforward approach that never goes beyond epic, nor sweeping. It fails to grip the audience along the way but the final act neatly wraps everything up into a wonderfully fitting conclusion. Brock and Macdonald who collaborated in the stunning ‘The Last King of Scotland’ clearly hasn’t replicated that magic here.
Here’s where some things go wrong. Channing Tatum just doesn’t have what it takes to carry the role of Marcus. He delivers a stoic, emotionless, expressionless performance throughout the entire movie. Moreover, Tatum is overshadowed by Jamie Bell who delivers a captivating performance that outmaneuvers the rest of the cast. In a movie that mainly focuses on these 2 characters, Tatum simply cannot keep up and he eventually fails to step out of Bell’s shadow whose character, Esca we come to care about in the end. Had this film relied on Tatum alone, then this would be barely watchable and at the same time had someone more capable been cast as Marcus, this would be a better overall film.
As simple as this film is (as far as historical epics are concerned), the same can also be said of its production values. The cinematography is fitting for a film of this nature, it isn’t breathtaking despite some gorgeous shots but it generally channels the atmosphere intended by the author, and it arguably captures it quite well. The film score is mainly composed of traditional historical tunes with some celtic themes and doesn’t go beyond epic as Zimmer’s score for Gladiator. In fact, the score here is quite subtle.
The Eagle is a very straightforward film. As cliche as this sounds, this film knows what it wants to be. It follows faithfully its source material and doesn’t go beyond what is expected and required. Unfortunately this is also the source of its weakness. It just doesn’t strike as something fresh and original. Although I admire the filmmakers attempts to go back to the roots of historical films (with less bloat), in the end this is very much an average film only slightly elevated by Bell’s performance. This isn’t a film I’d highly recommend, but for those looking for a historical film to watch, then The Eagle is a competent enough film.