The Eagle (2011) Movie Review: Romans, Seal People, and an Epic Quest

The Eagle will provide male bonding, epic trekking, and blue-painted maniacs, but don’t go looking for historical accuracy.
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The Eagle is directed by Kevin Macdonald and stars Channing Tatum (Marcus), Jamie Bell (Esca), Donald Sutherland (Uncle Aquila), Mark Strong (Guern), Tahar Rahim (Prince of the Seal People), Ned Dennehy (Cheif of the Seal People) and Denis O'Hare (Lutorius). It is based on the novel The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Suthcliff.

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This is one of those highly unlikely stories that really has nothing to do with actual historical fact, other than at a glancing distance and in some ill-realized ambitions. What it does have is entertainment value in the same sense as any old school Sunday matinee swashbuckling movie.

A young Roman centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila arrives in Britain at his first command. He is burdened with the dishonor of his father who carelessly lost the eagle standard, 500 soldiers, and probably his life in the wild North. Marcus swiftly proves himself when his garrison comes under attack, but he is badly wounded and gets sent to his uncle to recuperate. He receives some honors and a honorable discharge for his troubles.

While he is still trying to recover, he is taken for some light entertainment to the local gladiatorial games and there his sympathy is roused by a slave who seems to rather sacrifice his life than fight for the amusement of the local unwashed masses. Marcus’ uncle buys the slave, Esca, for Marcus.

Twisty logic and local rumors then trickle into the household that the eagle is being worshipped by a heathen tribe in the North and Marcus is inspired to take it upon himself to go in search of it with his British slave as a guide. The epic quest begins, as per usual specifications.

The hero and his trusty sidekick/slave travel on horseback to Hadrian's Wall and beyond into the highlands. On the journey they meet the usual mix of good people and bad, some of which are half-naked savage ”wild warriors” trying to kill them.

They fetch up somewhere at the Scottish coast with the Seal People, a gang of blue-painted, Mohawk-sporting warriors who are the most vicious killers of them all. Esca manages to ingratiate himself, because he is of course the son of a Brigantes chieftain who made a name for himself fighting the Romans. The Seal People have the eagle and Esca cleverly declares that Marcus is his roman slave, thus making sure that no one gets killed on sight, even if it's a close thing a couple of times. Marcus and Esca steal the Eagle back and make a run for it, followed by the Seal People warriors who eventually run them to ground.

The big battle winds up being between the remnants of Marcus' father's Ninth Legion who appear in best deus ex machina fashion just as things are about to get really hairy and the Seal Warriors. The Romans are victorious and the eagle gets returned to Rome, Marcus' family honor thusly restored, and Esca given manumission for his loyalty.

When you look at it this way, the holes in the plot are big enough to drive a Roman chariot through. This is a tale of honor, male bravado, and it's all very dulce et decorum est. You sort of have to just go with it and let it be what it is, which is basically more fantasy than history, blue-painted maniacs and all. There is a fair amount of swordplay and some really beautiful trekking through the glorious landscape. I also enjoy the fact that the natives are speaking Gaelic, which adds something to the overall.

It is not, however, a tale that has any intention of going deeper, or hitting on anything other than the tritest of plotlines, and that's fine. The actual ending feels tacked-on as an afterthought to leave the viewer in a lighter frame of mind, which is kind of at odds with the trials and tribulations of the main characters. To best enjoy this I think a big screen is probably the way to go, but all in all you an spend a rainy Sunday afternoon in worse ways, as long as you don't expect this to be anything other than swordplay and the occasional stellar snark from Uncle Aquila played by a perfectly gentlemanly white-bearded Donald Sutherland.

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