“The Eagle” is an epic story, lavishly filmed, but empty at the core. Without a reason to care about the quest, it does not matter how skillfully the battle scenes are filmed.
It is based on The Eagle of the Ninth a classic book for kids by Rosemary Sutcliff, inspired by the real-life mystery of the Lost Legion of the Roman Army, a 5000-man fighting force that disappeared without a trace around 117 A.D. This is the story of Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum), the son of that division’s leader, who goes on a journey to recapture its standard, the golden eagle of the title. Accompanying him is his slave, Esca (Jamie Bell of “Billy Elliot”), loyal to Marcus Aquila for saving his life, but with divided allegiance because he is a Briton who despises the Romans. When they cross Hadrian’s Wall into Briton territory to retrieve the golden eagle, which side will Esca be on?
Director Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”) lets his enthusiasm for the material show. The settings and the design details show meticulous care and the combat scenes are dynamic and sometimes powerful. The evolving respect and friendship between the two men does not translate well from the page to the screen and the pacing is episodic where it should be epic. While it may be a worn-out cliche to have people in ancient times speaking in modern but formal English with British accents, it is a convention that communicates very effectively on screen. Macdonald’s decision to have the Romans speaking American-style English (even the British Jamie Bell) and have the Britons speak historically inaccurate and for most people indecipherable Gaelic, gives it a sloppy, Cliff’s notes flavor. This is underscored further by Tatum’s very contemporary look and build and the attire of the Britons — covered with clay and wearing a sort of animal skin jegging.
The biggest problem is that we just do not care whether they retrieve the eagle because they never make a compelling case that it stands for honor, either relative or absolute. It is the symbol of a failed invasion that does not represent valor or integrity. The film cannot free itself from the modern sensibility of its makers and its audience and therefore cannot demonize the Britons or otherwise justify the Roman attempt to capture and enslave them. The film tries to portray the warriors as heroes next to the politicians who stay at home fighting with words instead of swords. But it just comes across as another pointless road trip bromance. Parents should know that this is a very violent film with frequent sword and spear battle violence, many characters and some animals injured and killed, young boy killed by his father, graphic wounds and surgery scene, and some strong language.Family discussion: How do these characters define “honor?” Why didn’t Esca fight the gladiator? Why did Marcus Aquila save his life?If you like this, try: the book by Rosemary Sutcliff and look online at the theories about what happened to the lost legion.