The Eagle, a solemn and muscle-bound tale of valor and brutality on the northern fringes of the Roman Empire, treads the boundary between old school and retrograde. Following a Roman military commander’s lonely mission to retrieve the golden bird of the title, the movie, directed by Kevin Macdonald, plays less like a 1950s Technicolor sword-and-sandal epic than like a western of the same era, but with foggier visuals and skimpier political and sexual subtext. Lumbering along for a bit less than two hours, which passes like three, it feels more like a chore than like an adventure.
It is strange to witness a spectacle of exaggerated manliness so determined to avoid any hint of camp or homoerotic implication. Like the 1954 Rosemary Sutcliff boys’ adventure novel from which it was adapted, The Eagle imagines the wilds of ancient Britain as a preadolescent treehouse world of loyalty, rivalry and adventure. Macdonald and the screenwriter, Jeremy Brock, observe the “no girls allowed” rule with literal-minded rigor. A few women appear briefly on screen, mostly to cast flirtatious glances in the direction of the hunky hero, played by Channing Tatum, but none are given names or a line of intelligible dialogue.
Anything more would intrude on the chaste bromance between the hero, Marcus Aquila, and his sidekick, a British slave named Esca, played by Jamie Bell. The bond between them is formed when Marcus, moved by Esca’s self-sacrificing courage in the gladiatorial arena, persuades the bloodthirsty audience to spare the young man’s life. Things are a bit awkward between them, since Marcus is the representative of an occupying army that has dispossessed and slaughtered Esca’s people. Nonetheless, a debt of honor must be upheld, and they set off into the Scottish hinterlands beyond Hadrian’s Wall, where Marcus’s father had commanded a legion that vanished, along with its eagle. Since then, no Roman has ventured into this territory, which is populated by savage Seal People.
Photo courtesy of Cathcplay
With their Mohawks and body paint, the Seal folk look like punk rockers, in contrast to the rebellious tribes down south, who call to mind a Jethro Tull reunion tour. What both the marauding southern tribes — which besiege the garrison where Marcus is stationed at the beginning of the movie — and their northern counterparts evoke, of course, are the Indians in an old western. They are at once victims and villains, oppressed by the cruel authority of Rome and willing to commit gruesome atrocities in the name of freedom. If they are noble savages, the emphasis falls more on the savagery than on the nobility. This is not Braveheart, with its glorious Scottish rebels.
Nor is it The Searchers, or even any of the lesser westerns that mine the psychological and ideological complexities of conquest and territorial struggle. Esca does seem to grapple with a sense of divided loyalty, since his devotion to Marcus makes him a traitor to his own people, but this identity crisis goes no deeper than a few scowls and pouts from Bell. Though there are some nasty Romans, and some tales of Roman nastiness, the film is saturated with the romance of empire to an extent that feels more than a little anachronistic.
That anachronism is not entirely a bad thing, at least when Macdonald delivers some of the traditional pleasures of the archaic-combat genre. There are some rousing scenes of flight and battle, and it is always fun to watch Tatum fighting (though it was more fun in Dito Montiel’s ridiculous and delightful Fighting).
As is often the case, the best moments belong to supporting players, who toss bits of sharp acting into the blunt and muddy clangor. Denis O’Hare is the anxious human face of the Roman military bureaucracy, while Donald Sutherland embodies the warmth of its decadent patrician class.
As the Seal Prince, the young French actor Tahar Rahim (A Prophet) plays the villain with such startling and soulful conviction that you may be tempted to switch sides and root against the square-jawed, sad-eyed Roman who is supposed to be the hero.
DIRECTED BY: Kevin Macdonald
STARRING: Channing Tatum (Marcus Aquila), Jamie Bell (Esca), Donald Sutherland (Uncle Aquila), Mark Strong (Guern), Denis O’Hare (Lutorius) and Tahar Rahim (Seal Prince)
RUNNING TIME: 114 minutes
TAIWAN RELEASE: Today
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