The Eagle (dir. Kevin Macdonald, 2011)

I really enjoyed this movie, a lot more than I thought I would. It dragged a bit in the middle, but was largely entertaining and really nicely – well, skillfully is perhaps a better word – filmed, Kevin Macdonald’s documentary background really contributing to creating a realistic-feeling world. It also helps that the source material (Rosemary Sutcliff’s boys’ adventure novel, The Eagle of the Ninth) provides plenty of opportunities to see different aspects of life both north and south of the wall, so we see more than just Scottish woodlands, pretty as those are. Spoilers follow.

First of all, I suppose it’s necessary to point out for the umpteenth time that scholars now believe the ninth legion didn’t get lost in Scotland at all. I’m not sure how much that really matters – it’s a good story, set in a time and place for which evidence is pretty sketchy, so why not? It’s also worth pointing out that, this being the story of the recovery of the Eagle of the Ninth, one character discusses re-forming the legion at the end, so the Ninth recorded running about in the Rhineland later could easily be the re-formed version.

All the Romans in the film speak in American accents, with the British characters in a variety of British regional accents (Jamie Bell uses a toned down version of his natural Geordie, the British physician is Welsh and the Picts, of course, Scottish). This makes a refreshing change from The Queen’s Latin and also really emphasises the Romans’ position as an occupying force. This could be done by giving the Romans English accents and the Britons Welsh or Scottish accents, but to an English viewer (and I realize the Scots and the Welsh will feel very differently about this!) the use of ‘foreign’ accents to represent a foreign invading force works particularly well. The Picts speak Scots Gaelic, as in Centurion and presumably for the same reason – although Welsh would be more accurate, viewers would probably be confused as to where they were, or why the inhabitants of Scotland sounded Welsh. The film also seems to imply that all British tribes, north or south of the Wall and including all Picts, speak the same language, which seems phenomenally unlikely to me, but there you go.

The film features a gladiatorial sequence which I almost totally loved (thumbs pointing the way everyone understands, accurate or not – see the reasoning behind Scots Gaelic). We got to see something not-fighting happening in the arena, which we hardly ever see, and it was taking place in a rickety, wooden, tiny local amphitheatre, which we also see very rarely (though the small amphitheatre where Proximo is based in Gladiator is similar). But, of course, as always, we had to have a fight to the death, because it’s physically impossible for any TV producer or film-maker to show us gladiatorial combat without fatalities, or near-fatalities, despite the economic craziness of the idea of just about every fight being to the death (a Roman might not care about slaves or their welfare, but they still cost money. The worst place to be a slave was a silver mine – silver was worth even more money. Executions are another matter, of course – there were plenty of those in the arena). Still the story wouldn’t work otherwise, so fair enough.

The film is very well shot, though the opening few shots did appear to be trying to make Romans in Britain into Apocalypse Now, which was interesting. Most British-set historical films try to make Britain look like The Lord of the Rings, which works pretty well because JRR Tolkien was British and it looks right – Apocalypse Now doesn’t fit quite so well. The performances are all fine, though all three of us who saw the film agreed that its biggest flaw was that we couldn’t quite ‘believe’ the relationship between Esca and Marcus. We felt like a whole bunch of character development from the book had been left out (none of us have read the book, but that was the sense we got) and the film played up the hostility between them far too much, making their eventual trust and friendship feel like it came out of nowhere. This wasn't the actors' fault - Bell in particular was very good - more a script/editing problem perhaps.

Mark Strong as a veteran of the Ninth, unrecognisible under Aragorn-hair and a slightly dodgey American accent

I was also genuinely shocked by how much you can get away with in a 12A these days. Back when The Fellowship of the Ring came out, I remember hearing that the orcs had to bleed black blood because red blood would raise the film’s certificate, and poor Boromir manages to die of multiple arrow wounds without, apparently, bleeding at all (he just looks sort of wet). In this film, however, we see a head chopped off – and we see it fall right off and blood spurt from the neck and everything – we see a leg chopped off, we see stabbings and although the camera does cut away from this one, a small child is murdered right in front of our heroes. I was a sensitive child (I’ve only very recently becomes somewhat immune to massive amounts of blood and gore on screen) and would have been completely traumatized by this. Which leads me to another minor problem – the film doesn’t really know what it wants to be. The book is a children’s book, but this is not a children’s film (see above!). On the other hand, as one of my friends pointed out, there were no women in skimpy outfits (no women at all, in fact, at least none with any lines), the blood-letting was relatively tame for a modern sword’n’sandals movie, there was no swearing… (‘and it would have been much better if there was’, he added). It doesn’t quite fit with modern grown-up swashbuckler type films, but it’s too gory for kids, so it sits a bit awkwardly in the middle somewhere (though, personally, I can live quite happily without skimpily-clad women, blood, guts and swearing! I’m an old-fashioned girl who enjoys a good Errol Flynn swashbuckler, where no one bleeds at all). Aside from that, though, the fight sequences were excellent – I especially liked seeing the Roman turtle formation (I think that’s what it’s called – where they all create a sort of box with their shields to protect themselves) in action, and we saw exactly how effective it could be in close combat and how the training and tactics of the Roman army could work against far bigger forces (all in miniature, with a small skirmish, but it worked well).

The part where the excellent realism-style filming falls down comes as the story goes on and we drift into the less plausible parts of what is, in its origin, a light adventure story. Our hero has a leg wound that is slowly killing him and he can’t walk any further… but after a night sitting in a freezing river (full of lovely gangrene-carrying bacteria, presumably), cuddling the titular Eagle (this is a man badly in need of a teddy bear) he is magically made well enough to fight a bunch of crazy Picts and end up one of the battle’s few survivors, then walk all the way home and cheerfully present the Eagle with nothing more than a limp. The serious tone of the fight sequences also brought home rather sharply the notion that the old Ninth Legion soldiers’ wives and children are probably not very impressed that they’ve run off to die in defence of a shiny metal bird (I mean, if it was the owl in Clash of the Titans maybe it would be worth it, but this one doesn’t even click…).

The Seal People's body paint makes more sense when you see how well it camoflages them against the rocks where they live

I’d recommend this film, because it is an entertaining story and offers a nice slice of first century life, beautifully filmed (the shot as our heroes pass through the gate in the Wall and head out into the wild lands on the other side is particularly effective). Just be prepared for a slightly over-long mid-section, slightly too-silly finale and slightly too gory product for a 12A certificate!


  1. Glad you liked it. I was a little nervous about it- it's terrible seeing films of books you love completely murdering the story- but I will go to check it out.

  2. I haven't read the book (yet) which I think helped - a lot of people I know who have read it were quite disppointed, so I'm afraid you may not like it as much as I did!

  3. That's an interesting thing they've done with the accents and go them. I suppose for Britons, the American accents makes them foreigners but familiar. Of course, for the American audience it means they will identify much more strongly with the Romans.

    I suppose you could put Mark Strong's slightly dodgey accent down to his character having been among the Picts for all those years. Frankly, though, the only actor who can defy Peter Cook's dictum that British actors should not do American accents for an American audience (and vice versa) is Hugh Laurie.

    I think you also play down the importance of the eagle to the legions. It was essentially a religious icon and legions would go to extraordinary lengths to protect or recover them. Maybe that also explains the hero's recovery: it's a miracle.

  4. I suppose it's almost cliché any longer to sigh about the fact that it seems perfectly all right to show images of people slaughtering each other to children is fine, but the idea of showing them naked humans or people engaging in sex is somehow unthinkable. But sigh I will.

    Of course, for the American audience it means they will identify much more strongly with the Romans.

    And I'm going to resist making the comment I desperately want to make right here... See?

  5. Meh. Some crap editing, there. Apologies.

  6. @DemetriosX, I wasn't doubting how strongly the legions felt about the eagle - it was their Pict wives and children who I suspected wouldn't be too impressed that they'd just gone and died for the sake of a bit of metal!

  7. @NomadUK - yes, I sigh with you. I can't believe how much violence is apparently OK, but sex and words the kids hear every day in school will get you a 15

  8. I haven't seen it yet, but I am looking forward to it. The book, by the way, is excellent and I'm glad I've read it before seeing the film.

  9. I think I'll leave it a while so I can't remember the film so clearly, then read the book! :)

  10. It does sound as if the tone of the film is quite different from the book, which is one of my all-time favourites.

    (spoilers if you've not read the book:)

    In Sutcliffe's version, the heroes are still very young - at the start Aquila's an enthusiastic Boy Scout in his first cohort command and still more a boy than a man, which makes him easier for Sutcliffe's juvenile readers to identify with. He's a gentle and thoughtful soul, albeit psychologically scarred by the consequences of his wound. He and Esca never have any character conflict: they get on great, Esca has important things to teach him about how the Roman world-view isn't the be-all and end-all, and Esca enters their quest as a free agent who chooses to accompany his former master, now friend. But this is a film - we need CONFLICT! and character arcs!

    There's also a peripherally important female character, to whom Aquila proposes at the end of the book - they're going to settle down and farm with freed labour, and this sets up (so I understand) for a couple of Sutcliffe's other historical novels, set in the declining Roman Britain of the late empire.

  11. That makes a lot more sense of the scenes in the Seal People's home and Esca's loyalty to Marcus. In the film, they've set up their beloved conflict so well, you're left wondering why on earth Esca suddenly changes his mind and decides to help Marcus. (I wish current writers/filmmakers didn't have such an obsession with the idea that drama=conflict, some of us happen to like stories about friendship!)

  12. This is a very well written review. I do not agree with all of your points about the film itself, but I very much admire your writing.

  13. I've just come across your blog and have spent a happy hour plus wandering through various entries. I'm minded to add a comment to this one just to make a couple of points. Rosemary Sutcliff and Stephanie Plowman did much to inform my early understanding of Romano British history... although in Frontier Wolf (Sutcliff 1980), for example, you can read into the story influences from John Ford's cavalry Western mythos to Vietnam. One final point... though I guess you would have to been a certain age to recall it now, the BBC did a very good (to my mind rather better than this film) TV adaptation of The Eagle of the Ninth in the 1970s which they never repeated and is, sad to say, not available on DVD.


Post a Comment