The Eagle belongs to a sub-genre of the adventure and historical film genres that some critics, reviewers, and fans call “sword and sandal” (or “sword and shield” as Roger Ebert calls them). Troy, 300, and Gladiator (the best picture Oscar winner back in 2000) are recent examples of sword and sandal flicks. Like those films, The Eagle is about men of war and about the honor they seek to gain, regain, or retain.
However, this film offers something more. Marcus Aquila is clearly the hero, and his quest to recover the eagle standard is a heroic one. However, the society to which he belongs, the Roman Empire, is not heroic. The film contrasts Marcus’ behavior as a warrior with Rome’s behavior towards the people the empire conquers. The film views the quest for honor from two sides – Rome and Rome’s opponents – is personified by Marcus’ slave, Esca, played by Jamie Bell, who gives this film’s best performance.
What appeals to me about this film is that it is a rousing, manly adventure that is open to different points of view – including those of the antagonists. The Eagle reminds us that while war, even battle, may seem simple, it is complex, indeed, even messy.
The Eagle is not perfect. Marcus’ time at the garrison, the battles, and the chases through the forest are superb cinema, while the character moments are somewhat dull. I for one liked Channing Tatum’s pugnacious performance. It is the movie star sweet to this movie’s determination not to be straight-forward rah-rah about war. The Eagle is a film I’ll come back to many times.