The Eagle (2011)

February 17, 2011

I remember when King Arthur (2004), the Clive Owen movie about how legendary English heroes were really Roman legionnaires, first came out. It was the first time I was introduced to the Hadrian wall-type period flick. It was an interesting concept at the time, but I have to admit, as open minded as I was to it…It was rather cheesy. Man was that dialogue melodramatic, even for a major Hollywood flick.

Since that senario didn’t seem to go anywhere for a long time after King Arthur, I had long assumed the Romans in Britain schtick wasn’t meant to be. And then this new film comes out, starring a cast of relatively young and mostly unknown actors, about a bunch of legionnaires “north of the wall”. I started having deja vu big time. The ads looked like typical Clash of the Titans material. My expectations were rather low.

Fortunately, The Eagle surpasses King Arthur in every way. In fact, I dare say the Eagle is a thinking man’s King Arthur, if for no other reason that it makes the Roman frontier movie a surprisingly cool concept. Of course, this might be because the story doesn’t portray mythical characters in a peculiar new way while taking itself too seriously, but I digress.

The story of the Eagle is that a young centurion commander named Marcus Aquila (played by Channing Tatum) has taken command of a neglected fort near the edge of the Roman Empire. There’s always a Marcus in movies about ancient Rome, isn’t there? He specifically wants to serve in this part of the world, because his father commanded a legion that mysteriously disappeared without a trace. Naturally, not knowing what happened to his old man drives our young hero crazy, but the Roman elites also regard the father as a failure or even a coward, because he failed to bring back the golden eagle his legion carried as their standard. Such symbols are especially sacred, at least in this movie. I kind of think it as being like the flags soldiers would bear during battles in the 1700s and 1800s.

Marcus, enraged by a rude aristocrat who insults his family name, takes his British slave, Esca, (Jamie Bell) and ventures beyond the Hadrian wall in search of the lost eagle on a quest to restore honor to his family, and prove his father and he are good Roman soldiers. Of course, this isn’t a simple and easy task. the idol could be anywhere in the northern hills, and the various tribes and cultures are all venomously intolerant of unwelcome Roman invaders. If he is discovered, he would be immediately killed, and thus he must rely on his native slave, whose trustworthiness is questionable. After all, one slit of Marcus’ throat, and little Esca isn’t a slave any more.

I didn’t expect this movie to have as good as a plot as it did, and it was written pretty well. There were a number of twists and turns, and some of them were surprises. There are some issues with it, particularly some plot holes near the final climax, but even then the ending is still kind of neat. I’m not sure I believe that the Romans were quite as obsessed with the golden eagle symbol as the film makes them out to be, but it works for the purposes of this movie. It does seem though that there would be more motivation for actually finding out what happened to the people in the lost legion, but I guess the logic is that they are probably long dead since those soldiers had been missing for decades. If you see this film, you will see why the situation with the missing legionnaires becomes problematic. However, the convenient plot devices honestly didn’t bother me too much that I didn’t enjoy what was going on.

Whereas King Arthur had some strange ideas of what constitutes a proper weapon of warfare (Bors and his silly little knives come to mind) and had Clive Owen and company don some baudy suits of armor, the Eagle actually looks really good. The armor looks great, the locals look grim and exotic. A lot of the locals have that Boba Fett appeal. Boba Fett never really had a big part in the Star Wars films, but he looked freaking awesome. His mystique gave him so much character that in spite of only having one or two lines in the whole movie, he actually developed his own niche in the geek world. Well, there are quite a few characters that kind of have that mysterious cool look about them that spice up the dull, muddy northern countryside. Guys in big cloaks and manly beards. The blue seal people are kind of new and strange to me, and kind of look like the Na’vi from Avatar, but they fit the bill as far as being scary bad guys and all.

The biggest complaint I have was Donald Sutherland. He was the biggest name in the picture, but he was very out of place. Its odd enough that for whatever reason Romans are always played with a British accent when it makes more sense for them to be played by Italians (I must admit, that’s one thing King Arthur did do right), but it really messes things up when you suddenly get a Roman noble with a thick North American cowboy accent. That’s random.

This movie isn’t perfect by any means, but I think that for what it is, and for the post-King Arthur Romans-in-Britain theme it has bravely adopted, this is actually well worth a watching. If you don’t want to pay for movie ticket now, at least get it on Netflix, but a film this pretty deserves to be seen on the big screen.

7.9 out of 10.

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