Adapted from Rosemary Sutcliff’s much loved novel ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’, The Eagle is a handsomely mounted but flat and unmoving experience in large part because the relationship between Channing Tatum, miscast as a Roman officer on a quest to restore his disgraced father’s reputation, and the always reliable Jamie Bell is simply not interesting enough to make us care about them or the mystery they are seeking to solve.
In 120 AD, as the legend (recently discredited) has it, the 5,000 men of the Ninth Legion under Flavius Aquila marched north in an attempt to subdue the rebellious tribes of Caledonia, and were never seen again. This humiliation led Emperor Hadrian to build the wall which bears his name, sealing off the northern territory and becoming in effect the edge of the known world. 20 years later, his son Marcus Aquila (Tatum) arrives in Britain to take command of a small fort, while quietly harbouring a personal agenda to discover what became of the Legion and their golden Eagle standard, the loss of which was perceived as a great blow to Rome. After a battle in which he is seriously wounded while successfully defending the fort from attack, he is told he has been given an honourable discharge and will return to Rome, but Marcus is determined to find the answer to the Ninth’s disappearance. Responding to a rumour that the Eagle has been seen in the far north, Marcus sets off across Hadrian’s Wall with his slave Esca (Jamie Bell), who feels honour bound to serve him but harbours a burning hatred for the Romans.
It is clear from interviews that the key players in the filmmaking team (producer Duncan Kenworthy (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill) and director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland)) share a nostalgic affection for the The Eagle‘s source novel. On the surface, the novel seems like a good choice for adaptation, putting aside the lack of success of ‘sword and sandal’ films apart from Gladiator over the past couple of decades (the expensive BBC/HBO co-production ‘Rome’ was a critically acclaimed series that did not find enough viewers or DVD buyers to justify its continued production after season 2). However, if the primary audience for the film is young men aged say 13 to 25, the film feels (as the novel possibly does now) a bit out of time in 2011, lacking the requisite amount of lurching thrills or CGI mayhem that this audience seems largely (somewhat sadly) addicted to. There are no female characters in the film, and with the film’s core relationship an odd bromance that fails to engage, it seems unlikely that young females in large numbers will be interested either. The film may appeal though to a less demanding younger demo (boys and girls 9 to 12) that are too young for more violent multiplex fare, as the fighting is largely shot and edited to downplay blood and gore; it remains to be seen too whether those who read the book as teenagers and are now adults will be drawn to the film.
The actors portraying Romans speak with American accents; it’s been stated that this decision was made to make a clear connection between the invading Romans and contemporary invading Americans, although I’m not sure many will make that connection if it isn’t pointed out to them. This works to Channing Tatum’s advantage of course, as I’m reasonably confident a Roman with traditional RSC diction is beyond his scope, and it allows for the casting of a couple of great Americans in supporting roles, namely the ubiquitous Denis O’Hare (Milk, ‘True Blood’) and Donald Sutherland, who seems to be settling nicely into old age with great TV roles and solid supporting parts in features. Tatum certainly looks like the beefcake stars that one would have seen in this genre in its hey day (I’m thinking of Steve Reeves here), but his emotive qualities are limited, which lets down the relationship with Bell’s Esca and the film as a whole. If we don’t feel sympathy for and empathy with these two as they ostensibly bond while facing danger (as one does for example with Frodo and Sam in the LOTR trilogy), we pretty much don’t feel anything, which was unfortunately the case for me.