The Eagle (2010) by Kevin Macdonald

Book Review by Ursus

The Eagle is not a terrible movie, but neither is it a good movie. Those who read the novel on which it was based can relive their childhood fantasies. The rest of us get a plot riddled with cliches but backed up by some action scenes and nice scenery.

Marcus Flavius Aquila is a man who, by his very name, is destined to live and die by the eagle. His father commanded the Ninth Legion who (for some reason) marched into the vast wasteland of the Scottish highlands, never to be seen again. The legionary eagle, as we eventually learn, was captured by a particularly nasty set of barbarian natives who keep it as a trophy to inspire their young warriors.

Aquila endeavors to be a heroic military officer to overcome the family shame caused by his father's defeat. After a pitched battle where he proves his worth, he is discharged due to extensive wounds. With no other way of redeeming his family honor, he heads north to find the lost eagle and steal it back. Fortunately, he is aided by Esca, a newly acquired slave who just happens to be a native Briton (and therefore hostile to everything Roman).

Do they find the eagle? Does Aquila redeem his family honor? Do Aquila and Esca overcome their different cultural heritages to work together? Do natives who live in the frozen north run around with nothing but blue paint and a bad hairdo? The answer to all these, according to the movie, is a resounding yes.

The movie loosely follows a 1954 novel by Rosemary Sutcliff entitled the Eagle of the Ninth, the first and seemingly best known in a series of works by the same author. I myself have never read the book, non-fiction not being my cup of tea. Having read various discussions over the years about the author, I have determined the novel is well received, a work that engendered Romanophilia in the hearts of more than one daydreaming adolescent. The movie therefore had high expectations for that particular crowd, with much of the commentary analyzing how well or how poorly it compares with the novel. Not having that background, I can only analyze The Eagle on its own terms.

And how was it? Well .... I have seen worse. It held my interest for most of the movie (though the chase scene through the river went on for far too long). The acting was sufficient if by no means remarkable (though I did enjoy Donald Sutherland as a somewhat jaded Roman aristocrat). The action sequences were generally well done, though I can't comment on the accuracy of uniforms, weapons and battle tactics. The scenery of the Scottish Highlands is always breathtaking and lends itself well to cinema.

But the plot ... oh, the plot. The plot is basically a string of cliches. Let me list these cliches for posterity.

•A son lives in his father's shadow, and must grapple with his fate by meeting and overcoming his father's legacy.
•A young and untested soldier and leader must prove his mettle to his comrades. He does this by miraculously overcoming the enemy in battle.
•The emotional tension is serviced by a pair of mismatched protagonists. One is the stalwart, establishment type who lives by a code of honor and discipline. The other comes from the fringes of society with a different outlook on life. They must overcome mutual suspicion to gain each other's trust and friendship.
•The member of an invading army is, due to various circumstances, temporarily housed with the natives he has been helping to subjugate, and thus gets to live as a noble savage for a time.
•There is an altercation between the hero and the local tough guy/bully when said hero makes eyes at tough guy's sister or girlfriend (Ok, this was only one minor scene in the movie, but I am still including it).
•Our heroes capture the relic they are looking for, and escape with the bad guys in close pursuit. This is the obligatory chase scene in all action movies. And this leads to the next two cliches:
•One of our heroes is wounded and can't go on. He selflessly urges his partner to go on without him, to save himself. The other partner just as selflessly refuses to abandon his comrade (at least at first).
•A "surprise" rescue at the end from an unlikely source.

Perhaps it is unfair to lay these tired cliches at the feet of Rosemary Sutcliff; as she wrote over 50 years ago they may not have been cliches back then. Maybe she even originated some of these cliches for all I know. But this is 2011, and there was little in the central plot that was honestly original.

One thing that was original was making the central character a Mithraist, and portraying that religion in a more or less neutral fashion rather than as a vile pagan atavism although I am told this is true to the original book. There were some nice scenes there as Aquila prayed to his pagan savior to grant him victory and honor in battle for the sake of his men. In that respect, we've come a long way from an overtly Judeo-Christian view of Roman religion that was manifested in the cinema of the '50's and '60's.

Strangely missing were leading female characters. No damsels in distress for our dashing young hero to rescue? No vile, scheming witch for our hero to outwit? I am told the movie omitted a female companion that was present in the novel, a young girl with whom Aquila may or may not have had a carnal relationship. This omission narrows the focus of the movie to the pairing of Aquila and Esca - but as I found that relationship rather tired and boorish, perhaps the inclusion of a comely lass would have spiced things up a bit.

My greatest condemnation stems from the depiction of the Celts, or the Picts, or whatever the hell the Seal People were supposed to be. They looked like a cross between smurfs and Mohawk Indians. In fact, the local Caledonian culture, including their tribal dance and initiation of young warriors, was so evocative of a Native American ethos that I felt I was watching Dances With Seal People.

The DVD includes an extended release not seen in theaters. Not having seen this movie in theaters, I can't comment on the difference. The DVD also includes an alternate ending and production commentary - you know, the usual crap they stuff in a DVD, which I didn't bother watching. Who really cares? Just take the movie as it is. It's a popcorn yarn. But at least it is a Roman popcorn yarn.

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