Ambitiously set in the second century, The Eagle is a codpiece-and-crossbow saga of relentlessly exciting battle sequences sandwiched between tedious, unconvincing chatter about cantankerous centurions, fiery feudal warriors and camera-ready six-pack abs modeled by hunky pinups Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell. It isn’t going to win any awards for artistic excellence, but with two 8×10 glossies flexing their glutes from here to the middle of next week and an able support group that includes Donald Sutherland and Denis O’Hare, it is not exactly a snore, either.
One twenty A.D. The Roman Empire is divided by Hadrian’s Wall. To the south, there is Rome. To the far north, there is Britain, including what is now Scotland, but Roman soldiers are not welcome there since Italian general Flavius Aquila marched into England to conquer it and lost 5,000 members of the Roman Army; the soldiers vanished into thin air, along with the gold eagle that symbolized their strength, valor and power. Twenty years later, the warrior’s son, Marcus (Channing Tatum), a strapping Muscle McGurk who can crack coconuts with his bare thighs, seeks the post of commander to find the lost army, regain the eagle and restore his family’s tarnished honor. Stoic and ripped, with newly dyed black bangs, Marcus is honorably discharged from his legion due to injury, but with Rome no longer behind him, he vows to continue his journey into sealed-off territory alone, save for his British-born slave, Esca (Jamie Bell, who has come a long way, baby, since grabbing world attention as the star of Billy Elliot). Esca hates his master, but owes him his life for saving him from the gladiators; Marcus is fearless, but depends on his slave to guide him through hostile territory where all things Roman are despised and only Esca speaks the language. The film is less about these two men than the reluctant bond between them. There are no women anywhere, and there are times when their long, intense looks, closely shared sleeping quarters and mutual rubbing of wounded body parts take on unmistakable suggestions of homoerotic macho fantasies. When Esca holds down his unclothed master during surgery, the innocent romantic imagery of Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel The Eagle of the Ninth, on which the film is based, is beautifully realized. Add innumerable hand-to-hand battles and feet stomping over severed heads, and the bloodiest moviegoer’s thirst for violence is sated. Once they cross over Hadrian’s wall and fall into the hands of the primitive, cannibalistic Seal People, the roles reverse and to stay alive, Marcus becomes the slave and Esca calls the shots. Finally, The Eagle becomes a New World take on the old-fashioned Hollywood western, where the white man and the savage Indian must learn to trust and love in order to survive.
Weighed down by Jeremy Brock’s leaden script, the Scottish director Kevin Macdonald, who scored with the historical Idi Amin drama The Last King of Scotland, nonetheless keeps the pulse throbbing and the narrative focused. I don’t know enough about the Dark Ages to challenge the accuracy of the documentation, but the events depicted are cinematic enough to hold interest, and from the icy mists of the Scottish highlands to the punishing wilderness of ancient Italy (played by Hungary), the visuals enthrall. The golden eagle represents the lost and stolen power of the oppressor in much the same way that the imperial neo-Nazi flag in extremist right-wing German villages today substitutes for outlawed swastikas. Like Colin Farrell as Alexander the Great or Brad Pitt as Achilles, Arkansas-born Channing Tatum is not exactly an inspired choice to play a Roman warrior, but the critics who keep throwing rocks at his loincloth don’t seem to mind the fact that a Polish-Ukranian Jew named Kirk Douglas played Spartacus.
Running time 144 minutes
Written by Jeremy Brock
Directed by Kevin Macdonald
Starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland