“I've brought many Romans back to my camp … but none with their heads attached to their bodies!”
I'd said back when I reviewed the cinema release of Kevin McDonald's superbly atmospheric historical adventure that I suspected there might be a harder version of the film … and here it is on this US Blu-ray presentation. What follows is an extended version of that original review. My liking for the film has only grown over the intervening months, a factor that will be duly reflected in this more comprehensive write-up.
With shades of The Last Of The Mohicans and even Valhalla Rising and Apocalypto, The Eagle is not at all the Gladiator-riff that many have anticipated. And it is far more enjoyable, though much less bloody, than Neil Marshall's CG-hackathon Centurion which, to some, may seem like a prequel. Rosemary Sutcliffe's still stunning 1954 historical novel finally gets the big screen adaptation that it has always cried out for – I remember thinking that Doug Lefler's The Last Legion was supposed to have been centred around the same premise … and being quite disappointed to find that I couldn't have been more wrong. Boundlessly cinematic, highly detailed and thrilling, her novel took a fictional slant on the aftermath of the true story of the mystery surrounding the Roman Ninth Legion that marched five thousand men into the wild, misty mountains of the Scottish Highlands … never to be seen again. Her story was set years afterwards, with the son of the doomed Legion's commander, young Centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila, specifically requesting to be posted to Britain, in order to return honour to his father's name in the savage tribal fighting that occurs at a stricken fort in the South. Veritably cut off and under siege, he takes command of the outpost and has to fight to earn the respect of the men. However, after saving the day, the fort and the remnants of a captured patrol in a heroic last-ditch battle, Marcus is injured and invalided out of the army. Although highly honoured and decorated for his actions, the continued talk of the disgrace of the former Ninth, whose great golden eagle standard, the symbol of Rome and all her power, has never been retrieved, spurs fury in him. Feeling that even his own deeds have failed to remove his father's name from ignominy, Marcus sets about embarking upon a reckless mission to go beyond Hadrian's Wall and into the rugged wilderness of the ferocious Picts to learn the truth of what happened to the Ninth and to locate the Eagle and, if he can, to bring it back.
This has all the ingredients of a rip-roaring tale of Boy's Own adventure, boasting an indefatigable quest for honour, and telling to story of a friendship across the class divide. Marcus, proud of his lineage and a stalwart defender of Rome, finds a strange sort of kinship with a Brigantean slave whom he takes pity on after witnessing his act of defiance in a provincial arena and subsequently saving his life from the verdict of the blood-lusting mob. With the slave, Esca, pledging a reluctant allegiance to his unlikely saviour, the two form a loyal bond, as friends and not as master and slave, as they journey, together, into the bad lands that lie beyond that big stone wall. The Eagle Of The Ninth is a classic yarn, told in a surprisingly visceral style and, for a long time, it was the darling of the school curriculum. Luckily for us, director Kevin MacDonald has a lot of respect for the material and his film adaptation, written for the screen by Jeremy Block (who, besides scribing Charlotte Gray, furnished MacDonald with the award-winning script for the acclaimed The Last King Of Scotland) captures the eerie spirit, the action and the sheer grit of Sutcliffe's mini-epic, and he turns out a rewardingly faithful interpretation of Marcus Aquila's arduous trek north of the border, with Channing Tatum as the Roman avenger and Jamie Bell as the resourceful, though enigmatic Esca.
Now, already there are going to be people reading this and clapping a hand to their head in abject dismay. Channing Tatum! Jamie Bell! Huh? How's that ever going to work,then?
Well, to be honest, I felt exactly the same way, folks. But I was able to surmount this reservation quite swiftly once the film got under way, and the grungy feel of the location work, the authenticity of the arms, armour and the grim settings, and the gutsy determination of the leads to invest something of their own honour into the proceedings began to shine through. Tatum is no great actor, that's for sure, but he brings a bulky and brooding petulance that adds effectively to the chip on Marcus' beefy shoulder. He doesn't exactly possess much in the way of facial expression, or emotional depth for that matter, but I actually liked him quite a lot in the role regardless of how wooden he may appear to be at times. He is great in the scene when the recuperating soldier is awarded a high honour for his courage in battle but realises, also, that it means he has been invalided out of the army, and that his life-long ambitions have, thus, been shattered. Tatum reins this sort of anguish in with some power and resolve, as we see in several other sequences too. There is a very, ahem, Hollywoodised look about him as he struts around in his meticulously moulded body-armour, but such accoutrements don't adorn him for too long, and he goes casual for his private mission … and the great big irony of this is that, although posing as just a regular Northern traveller, the unmistakable American can't help but stick out like a big Roman nose amongst the scruffy locals. As an action star with the likes of GI Joe behind him, Tatum can deliver the goods, and there are several finely choreographed and pulverising scenes that allow him to smash and bludgeon his way across the muddy landscape, especially his aggressive one-man charge against a speeding war-chariot. By the way, look out for Douglas Henshaw driving the thing! The fact that Marcus carries an injury for the majority of the story is also reasonably well conveyed, even if, at the end of the day, he can readily dismiss the very handicap that threatens to leave him stranded and all alone in enemy territory, and still manfully rise up to the challenge of the final battle. It is also worth mentioning that he looks progressively battered and knackered as the film goes on. In reality a terrible scalding injury coupled with the ferociously bad weather that beset the arduous location shoot up in the wild glens of Scotland took their toll on him … and he truly looks in a bad way. This, of course, only adds to the credibility of the character and the situation.
Jamie Bell is possibly the reason I had most reservations about this film. Personally speaking, I haven't found anything of worth in his résume, including Billie Elliot, and he was, without a doubt the worst thing in Peter Jackson's King Kong. But the lad does a lot better than I expected here, without pushing too hard to be anything that is painfully beyond him. As the orphaned son of Rome's none-too-sociable invasion of Britain, he has a keenly bitter attitude towards all that bear the mark of this sick and hypocritical society – which in this film is a telling chin-strap scar just beneath the jaw - but a believable sense of owing a life-debt … even if it is towards an enemy. The problem with Bell is that he always looks like a rabbit that has been caught in the headlights - unsure what to do, or what to say. Well, he definitely makes an attempt to appear more determined and harder than ever before as the valiant slave who may have more up his sleeve than he is letting on. Plus, he's quite buffed-up for the part, and those dance-moves have been successfully transformed into something infinitely more dangerous. With a cunning, almost feral quality, you don't doubt that his “last of the Briganteans” is capable of running across mountains and launching into the thick of the fight for a second.
To be fair, there really isn't a great deal of soul-searching that goes on between Marcus and Esca as they travel up the wild backbone of the country – signposted with an ancient animated map - but both actors still deliver just about enough to have us understand their growing respect for one another, and also to weather the apparent betrayal that takes place later on. Nobody will be surprised at the ruse, of course, but this is a rare example of when Bell's typical “one-look-fits-all-situations” actually does provide a sense of cold suspicion and unease. We really don't know what is going on behind those dark and skittish eyes. So that's both leads with absolutely immutable faces – which under normal circumstances would be a very bad omen indeed. And, yet, the pair work quite well together despite a certain clumsiness during their frequent little sit-offs by the camp fire, and a preponderance for sullen, guarded silences. Bell also does well when he informs his Roman buddy of what befell his family, exquisitely re-routing the former centurion's misplaced empirical pride and leaving the air heavy with enclosed rage. The final act, which is all escape and evasion and a gallant last stand which has been constructed to mimic the fabled demise of the Ninth, more than makes up for the forced awkwardness of the double-act elsewhere, though. But there will be few watching the film who don't get a slight shudder of the dreaded threat of “further adventures” that almost rears its ugly head right at the very end. Note to self – there's no chance of any further adventures with these two, no matter how hard they work at it.
At first, you will almost certainly rankle at all the Romans having American accents, even our own Mark Strong (who is clocking up an enormous amount of screen credits at the moment) as the grizzled Guern, a lost and wayward soldier who stumbles across the searchers out in the wilds, adopts an American accent, whilst the majority of the Picts and Celts and other indigenous denizens speak with Scottish, old European or clearly English voices. But there is a deliberate reason for this that goes beyond the simple casting of hip, but affordable stars. Glaswegian MacDonald wanted the invading Romans to sound almost uniform – with accents that would be both familiar to us and yet demonstrative of a recognisably superior and indoctrinating force. As the Yanks are footing the bill, along with our own Film4, and since we, as a nation, have undeniably assimilated their culture over the years, this actually makes a warped kind of sense to me. Mind you, even knowing that it is intentional is still going to irritate a great many who come to the film expecting to hear the more usual English accent being utilised for the voices of bygone times. In truth, the Roman forces would have spoken with a multitude of dialects, but this is still a pretty effective device in the scheme of things that sharply delineates them and marks them apart. And there's little point badgering on about such anachronistic traits when, in any case, research in recent years has uncovered a considerable amount of credible evidence as to what really could have happened to the Ninth Legion, rendering much of this saga possibly quite redundant.
If the main characters are portrayed by a couple of usually less-than-reliable actors, the rest of the cast is populated by a mixed-bag, too. After seeing his risible “wheel-on” part in The Mechanic, it is somewhat more reassuring to find Donald Sutherland chewing the scenery as Marcus' uncle in The Eagle. Oh, let's get this straight, he is no more convincing as a Roman dignitary than Colin Farell was as the great Alexander (or Alexander The Great, if you will), but at least he appears to be having fun in his toga and sandals and enjoying the spectacle of the provincial arena whilst caring for his nephew during his lengthy post-combat rehabilitation. It would, though, have been better if we had been permitted to meet him again at the end of the saga, to complete the circle, as it were. Familiar faces crop up elsewhere – although some serious attempts have been made to disguise them. Most acquit themselves reasonably well, and Strong, as ever, brings some much needed gravitas to his role … despite that enforced American twang. But then there is Hungarian Lukacs Bicskey who aims to deliver nightmares with his wrath-filled portrayal of a sadistic Druid chieftain. In fact, there are a lot of Hungarian actors and extras in The Eagle, being as the first section of the film chronicling Marcus' military exploits, was shot over there, whilst, quite refreshingly, most of the Scottish parts were filmed in, well, Scottish parts. A lot of the Hungarian crew stuck around, though, and there's some fun to be had from spotting the same faces popping up in different guises – who was once a Roman can later be seen as a Scottish wildman, and later still one of the Seal People.
With Marshall's largely disappointing “laddus and lagerus” Centurion broaching the same topic – well, as I implied earlier, The Eagle almost feels like some sort of sequel to it – and botching it in the process, MacDonald and his producers sought to remove themselves from a head-to-head, delaying The Eagle's release for a year. Either way, I would say that the two films are sufficiently different to co-exist and, in my opinion, although I prefer my historical action-flicks with a bit more meat on their bones – or hacked off their bones, I should say – The Eagle is the better option. There is a definite sense of having passed from one land to another with this, and a protracted middle-section in which Marcus and Esca find themselves in the company of the weird and wonderful Seal People, the very tribe that annihilated the Ninth twenty years before, attempts to weave some sort of Hibernian magic with sinister moods and rituals evocative of The 13th Warrior and Last Of The Mohicans, and even The Island (the excellently ludicrous Peter Benchley pirate thriller with Michael Caine and not the just plain ludicrous SF clag with Ewan MacGregor), perhaps more so than similarly themed episodes in A Man Called Horse or Dances With Wolves. Plus, we get a belting cross-country pursuit that feels genuinely cold and wet, and properly exhausting.
It is great to see Marcus have his men form a testudo during the big opening battle and actually use it for a specific purpose, other than to merely look cinematically cool. There is even a touch of Errol Flynn about the way that our displaced Roman hero retools a standard for the treasured Eagle and rams it into the ground to make his own valiant Custer-like last stand. Look at the way the defensive formation lines up and acts as one during the final stand-off, as well. Nice touches that reflect upon the professionalism of the men-at-arms, first and foremost, but are also marked out with visual and emotive flair.
The violence is relatively blood-free even in the unrated version that we get to see here, and there is still the impression given that a much harder version of the film exists somewhere out there, but The Eagle feels quite brutal and savage, regardless. The opening battle between the beleaguered men trapped in the Roman fort and the Druid-led tribesmen who have captured their patrol and in are the process of gleefully beheading them, is a terrifically bravura set-piece. Naturally, some audience members are bound to draw parallels between this exciting introduction to Marcus' iron-jawed leader and the staggering opening of Gladiator. But, hey, Sutcliffe wrote this back in the fifties, and MacDonald's film is only throwing her details up there on the screen. For those who love to see such things (purely for historical purposes, you understand), we do get to see a head removed and we also witness a leg sheared-off by a chariot wheel-spike. There are also assorted other little nasties in the unrated cut but, seriously, you wouldn't be marked down if you didn't spot them. But the sight of Marcus leading his rescue squad in that armoured testudo formation right into the midst of blood-curdling pagans and then getting mobbed by them as they leap and climb on top of the roof of shields is quite powerfully and chilling. An ambush beside a river is actually packed with extremely fast and highly intricate fight moves that you should watch, and then watch again closely. This is good stuff – swift and ruthless. The rest of the skirmishes often boast some gore-spattered faces screaming in pain, and combatants are regularly hefted about and run through, so it is actually doubtful that you will feel particularly short-changed in the mayhem department, though there is nothing here that is going to shock or amaze. The sequence set in the arena, where Marcus first spies Esca getting smacked-about by a brute in a black helmet engraved with faces front and back, may seem to some as though MacDonald and his legions behind the camera are merely pandering to the modern-day masses who can't think of a Roman movie without it featuring gladiators, but this is in the book too. A nice touch here is that Sutherland's Uncle Aquila, himself, is explicitly disappointed at the prospect of such an obvious mismatch, and I like the ritualised stance that the victorious gladiator adopts as he awaits the verdict on whether or not he should administer the killing blow via that old thumbs up or down chestnut.
We've seen those fierce folks from way Up North depicted in many ways over the years. The (supposedly) bloodcurdling hairy heathens from Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves. Mad Mel's blue-painted, bum-flashing warrior-poets from Braveheart. Rob Roy gave us the more decorative image for those with a penchant for roamin' in the gloamin'. But in this, the enchanted super-savages of the mist, the Seal People, have a rather unique look that depicts them as ghostly Mohawks. Their heads shaven save for a variably coloured stripe of chic punk – kudos for the rather appropriately ginger tuft that one or two of them sport - and their skin daubed with blue/grey chalk, with fetching Panda-eyes thrown into the mix, they cut a bizarre, almost Native American dash as they rampage across the hills and through the glens, their hunting dogs yelping as they come, perhaps in place of their own bestial howling war-cries. One of the tribe of lost children in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome actually had this look as well … perhaps a distant relative. Tahar Rahim, from the excellent French crime drama, A Prophet, plays the Seal Prince, a completely determined and quite relentless villain who is hell-bent on catching up with Marcus and Esca. Having said this, we do discover that he is lot more than merely the big nasty bad guy, and he has a certain and undeniable charisma, even when simply running about the hills at the head of his ghastly pack of avengers, and on the sniff for Roman blood. And there is a pivotal scene towards the end that must have been enormously difficult to film with the right tone, but just watch how Rahim and his director achieve it - you'll know it when you see it. Grave determination and dignity coupled with unthinkable atrocity make it a powerful statement of tribal honour.
Huge praise must also go to the spectral cinematography from Anthony Dod Mantle, the man who had also lensed Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, as well as The Last King Of Scotland for MacDonald, for his wonderful eye and ability to make even the most rain-sodden mires and caves look splendid. He brings a truly wonderful pink glow to the sunsets that sweep across the mountains and the valleys, and some of the battle scenes have that gritty in-yer-face quality that we sort of expect of them these days, yet still seem bewitching at the same time. There is a convincing rawness and crushing bedlam to the first two battles at the fort that really enhance the desperate cut 'n' thrust of it all, but there are definitely a couple of shots that manage to find some beauty amidst the copious mud that is flung in our eyes. The languid opening finds us drifting peacefully down a river in the company of a flotilla comprising of Marcus and his unit of relief troops, and the first view of Hadrian's Wall is suitably foreboding and atmospheric without being bogusly epic and overtly CG-embellished. If Peter Jackson had been interested in this particular wall and not that one over on Skull Island, it would have been traversed, back and forth, with colossal, nausea-inducing CG camera-sweeps from every conceivable angle. Such tricks are relatively few and far-between here. Besides the extension to the Wall, there are the odd arrows whizzing into people and a hurled knife that have been added-in, so this is a pretty liberating visual experience as far as CG goes. Mantle's own eye is the best trick here. There's a great cliff-enclosed river-sequence that has a legion of ghostly figures appearing from out the wall of mist at one end of it, and the quasi-dream flashbacks to the plight of the Unlucky Ninth have a stark, horribly intimate quality to them. The real-life forest in which the film's massacre took place is a wonderful find – full of moss-covered fallen trees and a smothering ground-mist. Some of the downed trees resemble massive arboreal spiders. He's just supplied all the camerwork for the forthcoming Dredd, as well, and going by his visceral standards here, the sci-fi actioner could be quite striking. The film doesn't come adrift in its somewhat gloomy, though exceedingly atmospheric ambience. At the cinema, this seemed ominous, elegiac, mysterious and haunting. On the smaller screen, however, and with a modicum of added violence as well, it loses none of this visual tapestry of the dark quest. I love the way that the film starts off warm, pastoral and lustrous, and then segues into the cold, the bleak and the ruggedly windswept. You really do feel as though you've moved from one place to another.
Icelandic composer Atli Orvarsson had also just completed the risible (yet ironically great fun) period chiller, Season Of The Witch, before this, and his score was probably the best thing that the Nicolas Cage supernatural action flick had going for it. This time out, he alternates between moody windswept ambience and psychological brooding, and clashing action. It certainly has its moments and it does help to provide The Eagle with a distinctive and non-generic voice. His work actually reminds me of a unique blend between the moody tones of Hans Zimmer at his most tonal, dark and textured, and the uniquely ancient and rustic melodies and orchestration of Joe Loduca's Brotherhood Of The Wolf. There's old Irish and Scottish sounds present, and a rich variety of Gaelic instruments on offer, such as bagpipes without the bags, weird fiddles and bone-whistles, the ram's horn and the cimbalom and dulcimer. The exquisitely broken lament from a prepared piano (strings altered and tampered with to create a strange and haunting and unconventional harmony) adds a wonderfully spectral cadence of fate and destiny. Atli Orvarsson's sister even sings against some of this, her Icelandic lilt supplying a suitably ghostly quality that ripples back the centuries to a primitive time and place. The main theme that we hear several times throughout is fantastic – slow, driving, ominous and gilded with destiny and yearning. As a separate experience, on CD, this is akin to the power and majesty of Zimmer's The Thin Red Line, albeit ruffled with Scottish lyricism.
Once again, we owe a debt of gratitude to Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe for making the grand, rip-snorting, blood 'n' thunder ancient epic so damn accessible and downright entertaining. Okay, there's been some clunkers that have come along in the wake of Maximus' Oscar-nabbing tour of gladiatorial duty – step forward King Arthur, Alexander and the aforementioned Centurion – but Troy and Kingdom Of Heaven were great bravura outings just so long as you caught them in their full director's cut versions, and Zack Snyder's 300 delivered a powerful visual shock wave that many are still reeling from. And, if anything, the genre of Ancient Rome has since been better served by television with both HBO's intriguing Rome and, of course, the truly awesome, jaw-dropping majesty of Starz's Spartacus, which I have to confess is simply my favourite ever TV show! The Eagle fits reasonably well into this vogue, even if it lacks the more gratuitous slashery and decadence that we may have since become accustomed to.
I previously thought that the downside lay in the film's middle-section which, as important as it is and as wonderfully moody as it looks, tended to sag, but I have to say that it is in this area that the film's rich quirkiness and cultural anthropology shines through. I still stand by my assertion that the final battle is over and done with a whole lot quicker than it should be, which reminded me a lot of how it was with The 13th Warrior, a film I much admire, despite Michael Crichton's editorial mangling of it. I had hoped that this sort of thing would be rectified if an extended version of MacDonald's film was to come rampaging down from the glen at some point … but the changes are slight and largely insignificant and do not add anything to the narrative at all. The book was always intended as being for young teens, so praying for more gore might be like piddling into the wind from atop Hadrian's Wall. As it stands, The Eagle is competent and enjoyable, and I would have no problems in recommending it for fans of the genre. Now that it has arrived on home video, it might even make for a good double-bill with Centurion, perhaps lending Marshall's six-pack and pizza flick a touch of respectability.
Far from a classic then, but still well worth a look if you like your historical romps. The story is great – it’s always been great, even down to Rosemary Sutcliffe’s novel – and, it recaptures much of its mythical majesty and resonance when translated to the screen via MacDonald's dreamy direction and Mantle's simply hypnotic cinematography. The Unlucky Ninth gained what I considered to be a very lucky 7 from me upon its cinema release, and I suspected that I would stand pretty much alone with that score. Now, however, I feel quite proud to stand alongside Kevin MacDonald and the battered and bloodied “lost Eagle” as Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell and the remnants of the doomed legion make their final heroic stand with grizzled honour. Moody, beautiful and haunting, The Eagle may not float everyone's boat, but there is much more going on here than the cast list would have you believe.
I just spent the day watching it with my son … and the score is playing as I write this. There is a spell being worked here, and I'm falling for it more and more. It's no masterpiece, but this will be a grower for some people. It still gets an official 7 out of 10 but, personally, just between you and me, I'm giving it an 8!
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