The Eagle looks tremendous on Blu-ray. It is delivered via an AVC encode that provides a simply gorgeous 2.35:1 travelogue of both the superlative Scottish locations and the late summer beauty of the Hungarian countryside that suffuse the opening act of the film.
MacDonald and Anthony Dod Mantle shot the movie mainly on film, but also created some inserts and instances of inspired flourish with the Canon D5 for hi-def stylings. The resulting detail in this print is phenomenal, with close-up textures very impressive indeed. Faces exhibit a staggering wealth of realistic detail, literally looking as though the actors' heads are pushing out of the screen for your scrutiny. Whiskerage may be a touch lacking on the lead actors' faces – mere bum-fluff and some sparse designer stubble – but once we meet Mark Strong and his companions, as well as plenty of the Scottish locals that the film-crew found in these isolated pockets of the Highlands, there are some mightily hoary old visages for the transfer to exploit. As you would hope, all the armour and the weaponry, the material of the costumes, and the finish on the great golden eagle are rendered with a finite eye. And I would say that far-away detail is as greatly defined as that seen in Ironclad – which was shot in similar fashion – although the two films go in for an entirely different look in other regards. We can clearly penetrate far away thickets, rocky walls and the timbers of the Roman stockade. Watch as a group of the Seal People suddenly rise up from the grey/black rocks on the shore, revealing just effective their body-paint camouflage is – the transfer brings this shot to life very ably indeed.
The image possesses some quite astonishing depth too. Far off ridges and mountains, little rugged islets and distant glens are beautifully rendered with a genuine sense of distance and natural spatiality across a landscape that really seems to go back and back, and then back some more. The element of three-dimensionality is rewarding too.
The colour-aesthetic is pushing into blue-green territory. But this is intentional and that's the way that I remember it from the flicks. Colours are well saturated and convincingly thick and heavy, and almost wet-looking. Which is perfectly apt, of course. What really amazes is the variety and splendour found in the hues and shades of the scenery. There are some quite mesmerising blends of natural land and lighting on offer. MacDonald insists that barely any of this was touched-up, and I wouldn't be inclined to think otherwise. Cloud patterns and sly-colours are finely reproduced too, and look at the weird golden stone-face that can be seen just beneath the surface of a flowing stream for a sense of burnished, gleaming clarity that you feel you can almost touch. This is a work of dark infused beauty. Contrast has been occasionally dabbled-with to create some interesting images, but the transfer follows all of this to the letter. Blacks are nice and deep. There may be a touch of crushing going on, but this could also be down to the intense natural shadows that MacDonald and Mantle captured. The gloom in the Roman garrison and in the villa is certainly intentional, and this helps to provide some great contrast with the shafts of light that burst forth from windows and doorways. The reflection of sunlight on water is also caught with fine acuity.
The print has a fine layer of grain upon it. This does intensify for some individual shots, usually brief instances set in subdued light, but it looks unmolested by DNR. Detail is just too good for that. And nor does the grain ever become noisy. The film does look clinically modern and made entirely with the immaculate hi-def image totally in mind, but this does not rob it of a devoutly cinematic feel.
About the only thing that I can complain about is the aliasing that takes place. I clocked this happening on several occasions, but I will say that it is light and probably easily missed unless you are actually looking for it. Some very slight ringing may also be apparent, though this is almost certainly down to the highly contrasted natural lighting and the photography. Banding is blissfully absent and there are no artefacts to distract.
This is a terrific-looking image that wears its unique visual style with honour.
We get to hear The Eagle in a very respectable DTS-HD MA 5.1 track that certainly fits the movie and supplies a lot of thunder and wrath when required, but at the same time seems, on the whole, to be just a little bit reserved.
We have a marvellously wide stereo spread across the front, and plenty of convincing depth is more than capably afforded. Steerage and detail around the environment are impeccable. There is some natural and wild ambience that emanates from the rears, plus the odd sly action effect. As far as whip-around dexterity goes, we can savour the whiz-past of arrows, the hurling of spears and the air-slicing that some swords and clubs make as they miss their intended targets. I actually thought there would be more effects thrown out from the back, but what there is comes across with accuracy and conviction.
There's plenty of bass during the big action scenes, and the sub will get certainly enjoy getting stuck in. The opening two battles are superb with hammering shields, the rumble of chariots, the smash, bash and clash of weapons and the barrage of feet all charging in massed unison. Bodies are slammed and hurled with vigour, and there is an appropriately organic and earthy feel to such impacts. The spinning of the spikes on the chariot wheels, the audible cleaving of flesh, and the rainfall that deluges the escape and evasion sequence towards the climax are also nicely picked-out examples of the more subtle placement of effects integrated within the mix. Movement and panning is also seamless. But even with all of this vigorous activity, the track falls some way down from the more elaborate and aggressive mixes that this sort of thing is usually granted. It's not a track that is lacking, you understand, and I think that it does extremely well with its material. I just don't think that MacDonald and his sound engineers wanted to push too far with the audio. I think they preferred to maintain a constant moody ambience instead … something that the film benefits from and definitely becomes part of its distinction.
We also get to hear a hodgepodge of accents – from Frenchmen performing ancient Pictish (with an Arabic slant in some cases!) to undisguised Yankees performing Roman. The dialogue is strong and consistently delivered, with no trouble extending from either the battle bombast or the environmental elements that could have threatened to drown, swallow or muck around with it. Voices are pin-sharp and clear throughout. Atli Orvarsson's wonderful score permeates the soundscape with some fine heft, too. His music isn't exactly warm and symphonic, but there is good detail and clarity to the weird and wonderful ancient instrumentation that he employs, such as the bone-whistles, pipes and horns. The eerie vocals on some of the cues resonate well across the mix, and the haunting sound of the prepared piano is presented with subtlety and a delightfully shimmering echo.
So, overall, this is a great track. It is just that it doesn't ever really go-to-town with the bombast like you expect it to, and the rears don't offer too much that will genuinely make you sit up with admiration. Still, The Eagle soars when it needs to … and certainly offers a haunting, eloquent and atmospheric experience.
A great commentary from Kevin McDonald runs across the Unrated Version only. The director does a fine job of detailing the movie that he made. He discusses the locations, the weather, his actors, the weather, the outstanding photography, the weather, the brilliance of the Hungarian stunt-team, the weather, the evocative style of the score … and, erm, the weather. McDonald comes across very well, with an amiable and infectious warmth towards his cast and crew that doesn't sound at all like simple backslapping. He watches the film with us, actively scene specific in his commentary, and genuinely praising the work of his performers and pointing the moments that he loves. This is good stuff and certainly illuminating about the whole shooting process. He even mentions those deleted scenes and the original ending that we get to see as a separate feature.
Of huge interest is the Alternate Ending. Now this was actually the original climax of the film and, for my part, it is the superior one. I can understand why it met with less enthusiasm when tested, however, and can certainly see why McDonald and co then went back and re-shot the ending that tails the finished movie. This is definitely worth seeing though. Get back to me when you have … and we'll discuss it then, eh?
We get to see two interesting Deleted Scenes.
The first, and the best, features a massive chariot race through the woods with Marcus going up against Douglas Henshall as a Briton warrior/charioteer. It is Henshall who is driving the chariot at Marcus during the big early battle, with Marcus using the spear to take him out and crash the vehicle. As McDonald says in his commentary, it is a shame to have lose this expertly filmed and quite exciting sequence, but it really doesn't add anything to the film and slows down the pace.
The second scene takes place after Marcus and Esca have been boar-hunting and are sitting beside the river. Basically, what has happened is that MacDonald has simply shunted the speech that Esca gives about his background and the loss of his family and his tribe to the much later sequence when the two are heading off on their quest. This makes a lot more sense. Hearing the speech at this more peaceful moment is considerably less effective than it is later on.
The Making-of is only 12 minutes long and it is plainly promo material. That said, we get some decent(ish) comments from the director, his stars and the sword-trainer along the way. Of its sort, this isn't that bad, but its no substitute for a proper chronicle of what went into the production.
I had feared that watching this after the bravura slice of medieval derring-do that is Jonathan English’s ferocious Ironclad would make The Eagle feel too safe, and too juvenile. The very things that its naysayers had been warning of even before they’d seen the finished film. But you know, the more I see The Eagle, the more I enjoy it. Full of brooding, full of guilt and suspicion, the story feels old and primal, feels gritty and authentic. The anachronistic accents bother some people, I know, but for me they work well as the signature for the invading force … and this is perfect for the collision with the ancient languages that everyone else embroiders the film with. There isn't a lot of difference between the two cuts of the film, but the unrated one is definitely the way to go, with just that essential little bit more violence and blood to toughen things up, although it is important to remember that The Eagle is not trying to offer the sort of experience that Ironclad or Gladiator delivers.
The two leads are an unexpected treat. I've never liked either of them before this, but both have grown on me immensely with their performances in The Eagle. The Hollywood spark is blissfully absent and there is a pleasingly awkward section in which we really don't know if they are friends or foes. Plus we some cultural detail and depth afforded the Seal People, which is something that Rosemary Sutcliffe didn't actually do.
The film looks fantastic on Blu-ray, that awesome landscape really being given the sort of treatment that the Scottish Tourism Board will surely applaud. There are only a couple of very slight misgivings about the AV transfer – nothing that will bother anybody who isn't looking for such things – and the extras, as few as they are, actually offer quite a bit of worth. The commentary is excellent, as are the deleted scenes and the alternate ending.
A lot of people have written The Eagle off as being dour, dull and dreary. The thing is, the film is conceivably all of those things, and yet I still find myself continually drawn to it. Despite the two unlikely leads, Kevin MacDonald’s film is genuinely exciting and full of dark and troubled intensity.
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