There have been a few films lately about Roman soldiers caught behind enemy lines in ancient Britain (Centurion, The Last Legion, King Arthur), but none of them comes close to Kevin Macdonald’s The Eagle – for atmosphere and spectacle, at least. Like the same director’s Touching the Void, it’s about two men being battered by nature at its most unforgiving, and, like The Last King of Scotland, it has someone venturing far out of his depth in an exotic foreign land.
Macdonald’s best idea is to show Channing Tatum and his fellow Romans as modern men. Instead of addressing each other with quasi-Shakespearean formality, as movie Romans are wont to do, they chat in American accents (although Tatum sometimes has a stab at an English one), usually complaining about the state of the latrines. They may be the bad guys from a British perspective, but Macdonald lets us see them as homesick infantry stationed in a foggy wilderness surrounded by tattooed hostiles. And as Tatum travels north of Hadrian’s Wall in search of the golden standard his father lost in battle 20 years earlier, both the locals and the terrain get stranger and scarier. The Eagle is inspired by Apocalypse Now as much as it is by Spartacus.
The story, though, isn’t as impressive as the world Macdonald has created. It may be rip-roaring in the source novel, Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth, but on screen the quest becomes a picturesque though hardly urgent montage of hiking and horse-riding through the Highlands. You can see why it’s important to Tatum to retrieve the standard, but the audience is more likely to side with his slave, Jamie Bell, when he remarks that it’s just a hunk of metal, and that slaughtering Britons is nothing to be proud of, anyway. By the same token, it’s hard to accept these two historic enemies as fast friends. Most Roman centurions in this sub-genre tend to go native, but Tatum is a true-blue Pict-butchering imperialist to the end.