Film Review: The Eagle

The Roman Empire oversteps its boundaries in this well-made but simple tale of honor redeemed.

Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell and Donald Sutherland star in the mystery tale of what happened to the 5,000 men of the mighty Ninth Legion who disappeared in what is now Scotland.

The Eagle is an engaging, if straightforward and one-dimensional, quest tale set in the wilds of northern Britain during Roman times. Based on a 1954 best-seller by the late Rosemary Sutcliff, one the last century's most popular English authors of books for young readers, this story of colliding cultures and lost honor regained is more intimate and less brutal than most period epics made these days. But while this Eagle may fly in the U.K. and some other international markets, prospects for this PG-13-rated Focus release look iffier domestically, where adult audiences may find it simplistic and teens may not sense enough fun or action within to check it out.

Ironically, practically the first thing one notices is that these are Romans who speak American English. For as long as movies have talked, Romans have been associated with regal-style British speech, while their subjects and assorted rebels were often cast with Yanks. In fact, the choice Scottish director Kevin Macdonald has made is perfectly sensible, in that the occupiers of Britain should sound like outsiders there, and he has the native Picts speak Scots Gaelic, with accompanying subtitles. The decision also carries an edge of political commentary suggestive of the U.S. having succeeded the U.K. in the empire business. Still, the linguistic switcheroo takes a little getting used to, at least for anyone with much experience watching epic cinema.

Both producer Duncan Kenworthy and Macdonald have spoken of having read and loved The Eagle of the Ninth as lads growing up, and there is no question that they have approached this adaptation with great care and thoughtfulness. Distinct from other distant outposts of the Roman Empire, no one knows exactly what Britain was like back in 140 A.D., least of all about the tribes that lived north of Hadrian's Wall, an area considered the edge of the earth. On this score, of conveying an impression of what that world could have been like, The Eagle does a conscientious and entirely plausible job.

But the mystery that drives the adaptation by Jeremy Brock (Mrs. Brown, Macdonald's The Last King of Scotland) is the historical one of what happened to the 5,000 men of the mighty Ninth Legion, who seem to have vanished without a trace upon venturing into Caledonia, as Scotland was called (this episode served as the basis for last year's hyperviolent, commercially underwhelming "Centurion"). Recent archeological finds indicate that the Ninth turned up later in Germany. But this story, set two decades after the disappearing act, is about supposition and imagination, and it is much more intriguing to fantasize that the troops were somehow waylaid in Brigadoon or wandered into their own version of the heart of darkness rather than simply having been reposted.

When young commander Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) takes charge of a modest Roman fort in rural Britain, he is intent upon one thing and one thing only: restoring the honor of his father -- who led his men into the northern wilds and was never heard from again -- by finding the golden Eagle of the Ninth.

No sooner is Marcus embraced by his men for his soldierly intuition than he is badly injured in a battle with local rebels, his eventual lameness emerging as yet another metaphor for a hobbled empire. Relieved of his duties, he is convalescing at the villa of his father's brother (Donald Sutherland) when he learns the Eagle may have been spotted up north. Saving the life of a young Caledonian, Esca (Jamie Bell), tossed like bait into a local gladiatorial contest, Marcus takes the grateful but surly fellow as his slave and, despite warnings that "No Roman could survive up there," makes Esca accompany him on his longshot search for the missing mascot.

The film's remaining hour recounts the two men's journey beyond the wall; "See you in the afterlife," is one guard's parting salutation as Marcus takes his leave. While in the first half, Hungarian locations double for Britain, there is no doubt that, for here on, we're really in Scotland. Deliberately shot in wet autumn for the season's augmented atmospheric hues, the rugged landscapes provide stunning vistas that are as intensely pleasurable for the viewer as they are aggravatingly arduous for the adventurers. Just about all one can wonder about during the journey is how the hell they expect to find the eagle in this haystack of scrub and shrubs and rocks.

However, they run into a bit of luck in the person of Guern (Mark Strong), a former Roman soldier who's now turned into a Jeremiah Johnson of the Highlands, a veritable mountain man in possession of local information in addition to the key as to what befell the Ninth 20 years before (think Vietnam). Although he lays the political parallels on a bit thick -- "All I know is we had it coming" -- Guern is a welcome character very sympathetically played by villain specialist Strong.

Although a nice twist has the master/slave relationship turned upside-down in hostile territory and the climactic encounter with the savage Brigantes tribe brims with tension, the film's overriding limitation is that its story and central concept are so simple and uncomplicated. For all his admirable qualities, Marcus Aquila is no more dimensional than a cartoon superhero intent upon righting a wrong. Tatum embodies such a figure in brawny fashion, to be sure, but there's nothing there except for an unwavering commitment to a goal. Bell has double the pleasure for being able to play two emotions, gratitude for being saved and resentment at being enslaved; effectively, he merges these into an intriguing ambiguity of intent toward Marcus once he gains the upper hand.

With a young audience clearly in mind, the rapid cutting of action and battle scenes keeps actual violence and gore to a minimum, so much so that the grossest moment comes when the two men are reduced to eating a raw rodent for supper. Anthony Dod Mantle's agile camerawork vividly evokes the settings' beauty and danger in equal measure. Michael Carlin's production design and Michael O'Connor's costumes look convincingly hand-hewn, while the mud-caked look devised for the coastal primitives looks like a combination of aspects of American Indians, Easter Island natives and Kurtz's minions in Apocalypse Now.