As a child Dr Miles Russell, now senior lecturer in Prehistoric and Roman Archaeology at Bournemouth University, “endlessly read (and re-read)” Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1954 novel The Eagle of the Ninth . In fact he recalls that it was “to the point of being able to quote whole chunks of text verbatim. Not healthy, perhaps, but it meant that I approached the film The Eagle with both excitement and apprehension. That a film of Sutcliff’s book had finally been made was thrilling; but there is always the fear of cinematic disaster”. He has reviewed The Eagle for the BBC History magazine.
Life as a Roman soldier, brutal, repetitive and mundane, has rarely been so realistically portrayed. Troops are well trained and equipped, but bored and cynical; their fort defences are creaky and the latrines are blocked. When battle commences, the soldiers fight in rigid formation, shields locked, swords inflicting industrial carnage. This is the no-nonsense mechanised killing machine that was Rome, not the stylised hand to hand silliness of many a Hollywood epic.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film is the portrayal of the Romans themselves, for all possess American accents. This is a masterstroke: here Rome is an occupying force, out of its depth trying to win the hearts and minds of a people it misunderstands and underestimates. Troops patrolling mountainous terrain, are unable to distinguish friend from foe. They are constantly on the alert, awaiting acts of violence instigated by religious fanatics who behead their prisoners. In this sense the accents fit perfectly, for this is a frighteningly familiar world and, whether or not the film was intended as a critique of modern intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, it places a core of realism at the very heart of The Eagle.
If the film has any shortcomings, it is the incongruous change of pace in the final scenes from claustrophobic thriller to Hollywood buddy movie. This is unfortunate, for this is otherwise a taught and gripping tale with a strong underlying message about the dangers of being a world superpower and not learning the lessons of history.