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British Cinema, Hollywood

The Eagle (UK/US 2011)

The 'Seal People' – from somewhere in the West of Scotland. That's Tahar Rahim under the white powder.

A beautifully photographed film with good central performances, The Eagle seems to lose its way in the final third. After being engaged fully up to this point I suddenly realised that I couldn’t imagine how the story could end without some kind of implausible outcome – and, of course, that is what we got. That’s a shame but it doesn’t necessarily invalidate the rest of the film.

The Eagle is an adaptation of the first of the famous historical novels by Rosemary Sutcliff. It was written in 1954 and has since garnered a legion (sorry!) of fans both young and old. I didn’t read it as a child, but I think I’ve always known about the stories and this particular title. The premise is simple and concerns a Roman legion that appears to have disappeared somewhere in the North of Great Britain (i.e. the largest of the ‘British’ Isles) around 110 AD. The ‘lost legion’ brings dishonour to the family of Marcus Aquila, a young centurion who vows to find the lost standard of the legion and what happened to his father in the hope that this will restore his family’s honour. In the first part of the film he proves his valour in Britain but is injured and it is only later that he sets out north of Hadrian’s Wall with only his British slave Esca to search for ‘the Eagle’, the large bronze bird which topped the standard.

The problem for the script is that the original story appears to have included a great deal of detail about the routines of Roman military life. The film goes for a downbeat ‘realist’ look (which is nevertheless ‘stylised’, especially through lighting) photographed by Anthony Dod Mantle for director Kevin Macdonald. This isn’t the Roman world of the Hollywood spectacular or even of Gladiator (a film I thought was let down by its over-use of CGI).  Macdonald made his name as a documentary director and at times life in the fort felt like a documentary reconstruction – but there wasn’t enough narration or graphics (save the odd scroll map – in English) to help us ‘see’ how the Roman occupation worked. I think that the film falls between two contrasting aspirations. It isn’t an all-out entertainment film with bloody action and military plotting, but it also isn’t credible as a historical film about a specific period. It opts instead for the other conventional narrative of the son wanting to redeem the reputation of his father, so what we get is a character-driven film about heroism and honour. Perhaps a bit more attention to Kurosawa’s similar historical films might have helped?

Politics are very important in the presentation of the story. In a Guardian feature, it is conceded that Sutcliff’s novel was written when the UK still had an empire and somehow she felt able to side with a Roman character who seems to have a very ‘liberal’ relationship with a British slave. Since I didn’t have a classical education, the Romans for me are just imperialist invaders and I automatically side with the ‘Ancient Brits’ and especially the Celtic peoples of the North. Director Kevin McDonald has emphasised the possibility of this reading by casting Americans to play the Romans. This is an interesting ploy which reflects a more realistic view of which identity represents contemporary imperialism. Just an aside, but it is interesting that the Germans, the French under Napoleon (?) and the Americans have tended to adopt the eagle but the English have usually favoured a lion or John Bull – a way of refuting Roman influence? Anyway it is a nice change to have the Americans as the educated bad guys and the Brits as the guerilla fighters. It was an interesting idea too have the young Frenchman Tahar Rahim (from Un prophète) as a Celtic warrior but he’s hardly recognisable under the warpaint. The other quirk in the casting is that Mark Strong, a British actor, has to adopt an American accent to confirm that he is a Roman.

The ‘star’ of the film is supposedly Channing Tatum who is quite likeable but for me the completely wrong physical shape for a Roman legionnaire. He’s almost square in shape with a thick neck and upper torso that I presume comes from gym work but just looks wrong. Jamie Bell on the other hand looks wiry but muscular. I had my doubts initially but he convinced me over the course of the film. Besides the cinematography itself, the other ‘star’ of the film is the landscape. Budget considerations were presumably the reason why both Scottish and Hungarian locations feature with added CGI. Though it is possible to see differences between the three, overall I was impressed with the way landscape was used.

I haven’t yet seen Neil Marshall’s earlier take on the same story (Centurion, 2010) but it would be interesting to compare the two films. With the appearance of Valhalla Rising last year, action stories set in the British Isles seem to be in vogue. Perhaps somebody should think about a new ‘Hereward the Wake’ film – but not in the mode of Ridley Scott’s strange Robin Hood please.

Guardian editorial commenting on The Eagle

Official US trailer for the film:

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