With Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland, Denis O’Hare, Paul Ritter. Directed by Kevin Macdonald. Rated PG-13 for battle sequences and some disturbing images. 114 minutes.
THE EAGLE is another of those battle films set in ancient times, in this case involving Romans and primitive tribes in Britain. It’s all very picturesque and exciting, in a PG-13 sort of way, but ultimately it’s a film that seems to be endorsing fighting for the sake of fighting, which may be in tune with our times but is disturbing nonetheless. It’s the sort of movie that pretends to shed light on history, but really doesn’t want us to think at all.
Channing Tatum stars as Marcus Aquila, a Roman officer whose father led the 9th Legion, but suffered a horrible defeat at the hands of the natives. Not only were the lives of all the soldiers presumed lost, but the brass eagle that was their symbol was seized by the primitives. As the title suggests, the movie is going to be about the struggle to reclaim this piece of metal. Keep that in mind with every death you witness in the film.
Marcus is assigned to a fort on British territory, behind a wall which marks the edge of Roman influence. Beyond it, the natives run wild. Marcus proves himself to be a capable soldier and leader, winning the respect of his men even as we’re reminded that the legacy of the Romans was of plunder, death and rape. They are the “good guys” in the sense that they are more advanced than the feral tribesmen, but only in that sense.
Eventually Marcus goes off on a mission to recapture the eagle, accompanies by Esca (Jamie Bell), one of the natives whom he has rescued from execution and who is now his personal slave. Esca will be his guide and assistant, in effect betraying his own people. By the time we get to the climactic battle – with much death on both sides – we are to take the bond between Marcus and Esca as the highest form of bravery and loyalty. Marcus even says as much to an effete Roman who hasn’t sullied himself in battle.
However, it’s fair to ask what all this bloodshed was about: The hunk of brass? Marcus’s family honor? Roman power? The manly “virtues” of war? Are any of these things worth it? This is no “Jason and the Argonauts” where we’re dealing with myth and fantasy. Whatever liberties they take with history, the filmmakers want us to accept this as real. And so it’s fair to ask why should we admire Marcus? How many people must die so that he won’t feel bad that his father lost some metal bird on a stick? And if the eagle isn’t recovered, is the shame and loss to Roman power so horrible that it cannot be borne?
It might be silly to put such weight on a sword-and-sandal adventure like “The Eagle.” However, this is a film that wants us to take it seriously, even with Donald Sutherland in a toga (as a relative of Marcus). At the end, when the two sides have finished their slaughtering, we’re asked to respect the bravery and valor of all who fought. Why? It’s not like they were fighting for something that mattered. It’s just an ancient variation of that most pathetic of genres: boys and their toys.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.