A Fistful of Denarii
(The Eagle, Kevin MacDonald, US/UK, 2011, 114 mins)
Iraq War allegory? Migration Era western? Swords-and-sandals epic? Roman bromance? Director Kevin MacDonald’s (State of Play, The Last King of Scotland) latest cinematic offering, The Eagle, is hampered by a debilitating identity crisis.
On paper, however, MacDonald’s film, adapted from Rosemary Sutcliff’s boy’s own adventure novel, The Eagle of the Ninth, seems little more than a paint-by-numbers epic in the Gladiator mould. In the second century, centurion Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum), after receiving an honourable discharge due to a grievous injury, heads north of Hadrian’s Wall with his slave Esca (Jamie Bell) in tow, seeking the titular avian standard lost by his father during the Ninth Legion’s disastrous Caledonia campaign twenty years previous.
All the major Roman themes are present – war, redemption, slavery, savagery, honour and freedom – and The Eagle’s first third, complete with Marcus unleashing hell on the rebellious Briton tribes and a gladiatorial duel, adds further credence to the suggestion that MacDonald is channelling every Roman archetype available.
But, as Marcus and Esca move into the rugged highlands, the piece shifts to resemble something along the lines of The Searchers by way of Apocalypse Now, with a dash of I Love You, Man for good measure. Amidst the dark majesty of Caledonia, the two leads tackle the unforgiving landscape, their own mutual distrust, and, most memorably, the pagan locals. Admirably avoiding the traditional portrayals of Picts as mad-eyed, hairy men in kilts, The Eagle depicts the denizens of the north in a style that’s unmistakeably Native American; the Seal People, the current holders of The Eagle, with their Mohawks, bone weaponry and painted skin, seem to have been plucked from the American plains and set down in the wilds of Caledonia.
Further going against the genre grain, the tribe, led by A Prophet’s Tahar Rahim, inhabit the same moral grey area as The Eagle’s Romans. While they lavish Esca with hospitality and friendship, they also tear out the still-beating hearts of their enemies and lop off the feet of the dead to prevent them walking into the afterlife. Noble savages they are not. This, coupled with the Romans’ inferred taste for torture and rape, leaves the world of The Eagle refreshingly free from the clear-cut morality that tends to pervade the genre.
While the contemporary parallels of the tale of the Ninth Legion with the Afghan and Iraq Wars – of the world’s superpower invading the lands of an enemy who it fails to understand and badly underestimates – couldn’t be clearer, MacDonald largely fumbles the opportunity to explore the allegory. Although the Romans speak in American accents, the issue, bar the materialistic, oil-grab-echoing questioning of the need to invade Caledonia (‘There’s nothing there to take.’), is largely sidelined.
What remains is a rather basic adventure hampered by a middling budget, a limiting 12A certification, and, most worryingly of all, battle scenes that veer between frenetic and incomprehensible. Shaky cam, the bane of many a motion-sickness-afflicted moviegoer, is in full use here, with The Eagle at times seemingly filmed by an amphetamine-addled hummingbird. Although the combat scenes are impressively scant in their use of CGI, the need to hide the majority of the blood-letting and the prevalence of over-energetic camerwork renders many of The Eagle’s combat scenes both underwhelming and confusing.
Likewise, Tatum, in full-on stoical soldier mode, is believably battle-worn but rather wooden in the lead role – a fact notably highlighted during his scenes with the cameo-ing Donald Sutherland. On the other hand, Rahim and Bell, playing rough analogues of each other, exude an internalised, feral menace coupled with soulful conviction and a brutal sense of honour.
Also worthy of note is Anthony Dod Mantle’s lensing of the piece that, aside from a fascination with close-up shots of rocks and foliage, grants The Eagle an austere majesty, with Scotland’s fog-skirted mountains, churning skies and ethereal light conjuring some hauntingly beautiful images.
Nevertheless, a few gorgeous shots alone aren’t enough to overcome an underwhelming conclusion that smacks of Deus Ex Machina, the disappointing absence of allegorical weight, and some rather lacklustre scenes of combat. What could have been a brutal, unflinching examination of conquest, honour and empire is instead reduced to a rather muted, by-the-book adventure with a scattering of interesting ideas. What remains is The Eagle, de-beaked and with clipped wings.
For a wider look at the Roman genre, have a gander at The Ooh Tray’s feature on Rome on Film.