THE EAGLE is a literate slog through Roman-occupied Britain. It’s a gritty, atmospheric experience where honor is the goal, and finding it takes some unexpected turns. Based on the novel of the same name by Rosemary Sutcliff, it starts with actual historical incidents, adds artistic license, and comes up with a metaphorical tale that speaks to the struggle between private and public honor, personal and tribal. Tribe, in this sense, not just the native Britons scampering through the hills of the Scottish Highlands, but also the tribe mentality of Rome at the peak of its power. The parallels, while not surprising, are nicely drawn, and find an excellent vehicle for exploration in Marcus (Channing Tatum), a Roman officer trying to restore his family’s honor, and Eska (Jaime Bell), the British prince enslaved by Rome after his family was massacred by same, trying to do the honorable thing by living up to his obligation to Marcus.
Marcus’ father led the lost Ninth Legion, which marched into the wilds of Scotland and never returned, losing in the process the legion’s honor, and as the symbol thereof, the golden eagle that was its standard. Twenty years later, Marcus arrives in the region as the commander of the most northerly outpost of the Roman Empire. Though he acquits himself well, earning the respect of the grizzled veterans with little faith in the young man, he is wounded and discharged from the army with the thanks of a grateful empire. Fate intervenes, in the form of Eska when Marcus saves his life in a mismatched gladiatorial duel, and the two go on to form a strong, if complicated, bond. One that is tested when Marcus, galled by a politician’s perfumed son, determines to use Eska’s knowledge of native languages and customs to retrieve the eagle or to die trying. Either, it seems, would satisfy honor.
Once on the quest, there are interesting cues to the role reversal that master and slave experience without Marcus being fully aware of them to begin with, and nicely throwing Eska’s motives into question. By the time they have reached the Seal People, the reversal is complete. The quest has taken on more complicated implications, and what other people think, whether in Rome or during a shaman’s ritual of altered states on the coast of Scotland, is revealed for exactly the importance it should have in the grand scheme of things, and in the hearts of the two protagonists.
Director Kevin Macdonald sets a suitably mythic mood with forbidding landscapes and a native population that is operating in a different, alien reality to the one Marcus had always assumed to be not the only operative one. It evokes the sense of ever-present danger, and Marcus complete vulnerability. If the pacing is set at a metronome beat or three too slow, Tatum’s performance helps take up the slack. He shows the needed Roman virtues of stoicism and gravitas, as well as the signs of a wounded soul, but there is a subtle complexity here that mirrors the story’s themes as a whole. He makes honor more than a concept, he makes it as necessary as air, rendering Marcus slow but certain shift in paradigm about what that means exactly palpable and entirely engrossing. Bell is his equal, slighter of stature, but just as subtle in his understated fierceness and in making Eska’s caginess open to many conflicting interpretations. Donald Sutherland is doleful with a dash of tart as Marcus’ uncle whose job it is to provide exposition to the audience and moral support to his nephew. A role that would have been redundant without Sutherland’s quirky touch.
THE EAGLE is a piece of filmmaking that should have been more compelling. Still, it’s intelligence, as well as the light touch in drawing parallels with modern America’s adventures abroad, is something to be admired, even if it is never quite as stirring as it should be.