The historical epic has been mistreated. With Troy and Oliver Stone’s Alexander utterly failing to capture the physicality and broken honour codes that made films like Gladiator compelling, the space that Ridley Scott’s film managed to open up for Greek and Roman adventures has been largely squandered. With comic books now the dominant player in the male adventure stakes, only the inexplicably successful Clash of the Titans has made any kind of case for swords and sandals in the multiplex.
In that context the arrival of The Eagle comes as something as a surprise, and a welcome one at that. Based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s much loved 1954 children’s book The Eagle of the Ninth, the film stars Channing Tatum as Marcus Aquila, a young Roman centurion who requests to be posted to Britain in 140AD in the hope of recovering the Eagle, the standard of his father’s legion that disappeared 20 years before in the wilds of Caledonia. An embarrassment that prompted the Empire to build Hadrian’s Wall to mark the edge of the ‘civilised’ world, the event has been a source of shame for Aquila’s family, and he uses the first opportunity available to travel into the wilderness in search of it, with his slave Esca (Jamie Bell) his ticket into a new land.
The Eagle is impressive for its rough hewn physicality. Early set piece battles with local tribes boast both claustrophobic tension and a sense of all-encompassing perspective, effectively inhabiting the chaos of the moment while offering a keen sense of how Roman soldiers act as a unit. The team behind the film have spoken of their aim of making a stripped down ‘Roman documentary’, and while this may be stretching it a little, these scenes have a hard hitting, realistic feel for both blows and tactics that other similar pictures conspicuously lack.
Tatum, in his most demanding dramatic role to date, is a physically imposing presence, and Jamie Bell, playing his Briton slave, also achieves a kind of convincing, wiry toughness. The chemistry between them works effectively throughout, with the two remaining torn between mutual respect and enmity. Esca has been enslaved by the Romans, yet his life has been saved by Marcus, and their conflict is interestingly explored in a sequence where Marcus has to act as Esca’s slave when they are taken in by a Gaelic tribe. There is real drama in the moments where Esca is visibly wrestling with going along with the con for good.
It has become something of a cliché to praise the cinematography of Anthony Dod Mantle (Antichrist, Slumdog Millionaire), but his phenomenal use of natural light combined with director Kevin MacDonald’s feel for imposing environments (developed on The Last King of Scotland and especially Touching the Void) creates an onscreen terrain that convincingly needs to be battled by its leads. The film’s feel for its tough, imposing wilderness is its major strength, and a subtext of civilisation and savagery, underlined by clashes with intimidating, mud-caked tribesmen, gives The Eagle a New World-esque quality. Neither does it shy away from some of the more unpleasant moments of warrior life: one scene sees Esca force Marcus to eat a dead rat while hiding in rain-soaked ditch.
The Eagle, though, is a film beset by tonal problems, veering from an impressively mature portrayal of violence towards the simplicity of its children’s book roots. The script decides to avoid the brusque formalities of military men and the codes of master and slave, but while this is excusable up to a point, the broad American colloquialisms in which characters speak to each other is jarring, failing to create a convincing interior world. Bell and Tatum are persuasive as two people struggling to get along, but not as owner and property, and Tatum doesn’t quite manage to put across Aquila’s emotional journey. Most damningly, the plot essentially collapses in the final third, switching from the visceral to the faintly silly. The impression is of a film unsure of its audience.
The Eagle’s portrayal of warfare and wilderness offers thrills and intelligence, managing to be impressive while also offering glimpses of a deeper, better film. A lack of plausibility and uneasy shifts between serious battle drama and Boy’s Own Adventure may leave MacDonald’s vision both too dark for childr en and not meaty enough for older audiences, ultimately making it a victim of its own inconsistency. In the end The Eagle’s flight is often striking, but a little erratic.