Sunday, February 20, 2011
For some reason, if anyone makes a movie or TV show about Roman warriors, I have to watch it. If asked, I would doubtless name the Middle Ages, specifically the Crusades or the Hundred Years War, as my personal historical fascination, but I am nowhere near as inexplicable drawn to those as to the Romans. I blame two sources for this: the first going to see Ridley Scott's Gladiator back when it first came out. It's still one of my favorite movies and I can watch it over and over without it getting old. The other would be the novels of Rosemary Sutcliff, which I read when I was about thirteen, stirring adventure novels set in or around Imperial Rome. My favorite of all her novels was one about the disgraced son of a Roman officer going north of Hadrian's Wall to recover the gilded standard of the vanished ninth legion. That novel, The Eagle of the Ninth, has now arrived in cinematic form, called simply, The Eagle.
For starters, save at the very end, the book is remarkably faithful to the movie. I was not excited by the trailers, but given my dedication to action movies about Romans, and my nostalgia for Sutcliff's novel, I went to see it anyway. All my doubts were swept away as I watched scene after scene, perfectly and skillfully replicated on the screen. It's worth pointing out that Kevin MacDonald is primarily a documentary film-maker, responsible for, among other things, the excellent mountaineering documentary Touching the Void. I did not know this going in, but it helped explain why I was so impressed with the movie.
The Eagle was filmed mostly in Hungary, with a little bit shot here and there in Scotland, and the location shots are amazing. When Centurion Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) and his Pictish slave Esca (Jamie Bell) go north of the Wall, it honestly feels like they're stepping off the end of the world. Wild mountains, impenetrable forests, and gloomy seashores abound, drenching the viewer in a sense of forbidding isolation. Regardless of anything else, the movie is already halfway to success just because of how amazing it looks.
Despite appearances by distinguished actors like Donald Sutherland and Mark Strong, this one really boils down to a two-man show. While I have never hated Channing Tatum, he has always struck me as a square-jawed meat head with limited range. However, he appears to have improved significantly in this film, although Centurion Aquila's honorable straight-arrow character feels like a throwback to adventure movies of yore, and also probably demands slightly less Thespian complexity. Jamie Bell has a far better acting reputation, and his turn as the conflicted Pictish gladiator turned slave Esca is quite good. The two actors have a good friendly chemistry, and just as in the novel, their friendship is a highlight of the film.
Before closing, I also want to make a few points about MacDonald's interesting decisions regarding the historical portions of the movie. Military formations, sets and props are all fantastic, and he's also made some very interesting anthropological decisions. Given that the Pictish language is long vanished, all the natives of Britain speak Gaelic in the movie, while the Romans all speak American-accented English. This was intended to provide a bit of contemporary political subtext, but to the average viewer it helps to ground the story in a sort of immediate realism. Likewise, his decision to depict the enemy tribe as white eskimos who paint themselves with blue beach mud may not be entirely historically accurate, but it provides an interesting touch which makes them all that more interesting.
Really, The Eagle will probably fall victim to its own marketing. The trailers aren't that exciting, and it's getting dumped in the middle of February, but take it from me, it is a remarkably good film and well worth watching.