In The Eagle, the damp, foul murky world of the Scottish highlands during the Roman occupation of Britain is something like a mix of Mad Max and Willow. Outside Hadrian’s Wall, the landscape is tough, survival is tougher, and if the elements don’t get you the painted-faced, man-eating savages who feast on flesh and live for the prospect of tearing the limbs off any stray Romans will.
Their ire is understandable. There has been much rape and blood, hacking and murder, injustice and conquest. There is scarcely a female to be seen in the hard-worn world (the film contains no female speaking parts), yet it is impossible not to notice the hyper-eroticism of adolescent angst in The Eagle’s heroics. The movie is a boys’ tale mired in half-baked speeches about honor and glory that seem transcribed from the locker room of a Division 1A high school football team.
Football teams need quarterbacks, and Channing Tatum (Dear John, The Dilemma) is the Roman equivalent of Aaron Rodgers: young, brave, fierce but not ferocious, and as dedicated to strategy and battle as a prized student athlete is to biology and lifting weights. The film opens when Tatum’s character, Marcus Aquila, arrives at his post at a garrison on the British frontier. He is the son of a Roman commander who was lost to the wilderness two decades earlier, losing, in the process, the Roman eagle — the emblem of Rome that each legion bears into battle (think Bevo). The loss of the eagle has been a dishonor on Marcus’ family since as long as he can remember, and despite the boy’s pedigree and promise back home in Rome, he has requested this post in the undesirable British countryside because he has a Charles Bronson style death wish: to seek out the lost eagle.
First, however, Marcus must prove his meddle, and he does this by anticipating a night raid on the garrison by the local, shaggy barbarians. Marcus’ counterattack is a success. They rout the locals and rescue some captured Romans, but Marcus is injured in the process, decommissioning him from future military service. Marcus takes it like a sophomore with a torn ACL, pouting and raging with teeth-clenched manliness. He is taken to his uncle’s villa somewhere in Britain, and when he visits a gladiator match with his uncle (Donald Sutherland), he unexpectedly helps save a British slave, Esca (Jamie Bell) from being bludgeoned to death in the ring. It’s an episode that seems a side story meant to show us — yet again — what a model citizen this Marcus is, but when his uncle buys him the slave, Marcus soon realizes he has a guide who can take him into the hostile country north of Hadrian’s Wall in search of his father’s eagle.
Like the hard-forged men of The Eagle, the film itself seems bent on forming in the viewer the prime virtues exposed by phys. ed. coaches everywhere. We need to be hard, gritty, honorable men — proud of our team, yet empathetic towards our foes. After spending the better part of an hour feeding us nationalistic protein shakes, the violence ensues, and it is surprisingly restrained — especially compared to last year’s Roman gore-fest, Centurion. There are bruises and bumps, chase sequences and acts of heroics, and a general thrusting of virile sincerity that has the thematic subtlety of a linebacker’s shoulder pad in your gut. This is a world where you are beat or beaten, and forming souls requires the hammer of a blacksmith. When the smoke clears (and it is a very smoky, misty movie), honor is bestowed equitably on the movie’s crudely hewn characters. Victors claim the trophy, and victims traipse off the field, bedraggled, but with their heads held high. You almost expect The Eagle 2 to be ready by next Friday.
Images courtesy of Focus Features.