The Eagle | Review in The Independent on Sunday

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.

Author: Anthony Lawton

Chair, Sussex Dolphin, family company which looks after the work of eminent children’s & historical fiction author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). Formerly CEO, chair & trustee of various charity, cultural & educational enterprises in UK.

3 thoughts on “The Eagle | Review in The Independent on Sunday”

  1. Lack of familiarity with the original story could well impact on viewer responses to the film. British and Commonwealth readers brought up with Sutcliff’s stories can fill in the subtext and nuances from their personal understanding.

    A shared history and cultural background can also have an effect on our response to a book or movie. I was struck by this comment Ruth Downie made in a recent interview (if you enjoy stories set in Roman Britain, btw, RD’s “Ruso” mysteries are a must-read :))

    “I’m constantly surprised by the gulf that can separate different readers’ views of the same novel. I was deeply puzzled when several people whose tastes I thought I knew well didn’t share my ecstasy over Kate Atkinson’s “Behind the scenes at the Museum”. They agreed that it was funny and well-written, but they simply couldn’t see what the fuss was about. Only later did we realise that most of the enthusiasts in the group had shared the British childhood that was depicted in the novel. Readers who had been brought up elsewhere found it didn’t resonate with them in the same way.”

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  2. Frankly, I find it rather strange to see these very good reviews, all the more when the book occupies such a good place in our hearts (it certainly does in mine), because the ‘spirit of the book’ is rather violated with this modern movie, which indeed shows influences of Apocolypse Now (or other Vietnam movies) – something rather lacking from the book itself.
    The characters are also unrecognisably turned into modern soldiers, their friendship altered into something much more harsh, but oddly undeveloped. A comment such as ‘slaughtering Britons is nothing to be proud of’ is strange, when that same Esca comments that the killing field of the Ninth legion (missing from the book, as is just about everything in the second half of the movie) is a place of heroes, of which he seems very proud.
    But then, there are a lot of scenes which seem not wholly logical, as much of the movie seems no longer concerned with bringing a good story (as Sutcliff did), but on bringing gripping action.

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  3. It’s interesting and cheering to note that the British newspaper reviews of the film tend to be good, whereas a lot of the American ones tend towards the luke warm or poor. Is that because The Eagle of the Ninth occupies such a place of nostalgia and warmth in our hearts? I can’t wait to find out. (Two days to go!)

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