Whoever pursues righteousness and kindness
will find life and honor.
I presume that Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1954 historical juvenile novel The Eagle of the Ninth was written for boys, because director Kevin MacDonald’s film includes no woman with a speaking part. This “men only” adventure tale starts out in 140 A.D. in Roman-ruled Briton when the young Roman officer Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) assumes command of a small Roman garrison at Hadrian’s Wall, the great barrier built to keep out the pillaging tribes to the north. His great desire is to find the golden eagle standard and the fate of the lost legion commanded by his father 20 years earlier. He has long suffered under the cloud of the loss and is anxious to restore his father’s and his family honor.
Shortly after arriving, he senses during the night that all is not well, and so orders his troops to man the walls at full alert, much to their displeasure at losing a night’s sleep. However, the Briton’s do attack in full force, so that all become aware that he has saved them from being massacred. At daylight they see that the soldiers dispatched earlier on a scouting mission have been captured. Before their horrified eyes the men are slaughtered. Marcus leads a band out of the fort to confront the Britons. Although it looks as if they are outnumbered 100 to 1, the disciplined Romans interlock their shields to form a phalanx that withstands the barbarian’s onslaught, and from which the Romans can strike with their spears and their swords. (Fortunately for sensitive adults and youth, the blood and gore are not as graphic as most other historical epics.) When the Britons bring up their chariots with wheels armed with spinning blades, Marcus prevents a rout by standing and demolishing with a large spear the lead attacker, into which the other chariots crash, and the day is saved for the Romans.
However, Marcus is seriously wounded, requiring a long convalescence and discharge from the army. During this time he lives with his Uncle Aquila (Donald Sutherland). They attend gladiatorial games in the colony’s pitiful wooden stadium, a far cry from the stone ones in Rome. A Briton is brought out to face a professional gladiator, but he refuses to fight. Knocked down numerous times, he gets up, facing his confused attacker unbowed—a sequence which reminded me of the boxing fight in Cool Hand Luke. Knocked down for a final time, the gladiator, sword poised for the final blow, looks to the crowd for their verdict. Everyone is yelling with thumbs down. Everyone, that is, but Marcus, who manages to persuade the crowd to vote with him, thumbs up.
The prisoner turns out to be Esca (Jamie Bell), who becomes a slave to Marcus. When the latter hears a report that the eagle was sighted in the far north of Caledonia (Scotland), the ex-soldier decides to travel north with Esca, who is able to speak the language and knows the country, as his guide. Uncle Aquila and everyone else try to dissuade him, declaring that no Roman could survive long in the land that is regarded the edge of the world.
Marcus, of course, pays them no heed, setting forth on horseback into the wild and craggy land. What happens, how they meet Guern (Mark Strong), a survivor of the lost legion, then meet up with a party of Picts led by the Seal Prince (Tahar Rahim) and find their positions reversed, Esca now master and Marcus his slave, fills the last hour of the film.
Although the characters are not well rounded out, the story is interesting, and the production values are well tended to. We can understand Marcus’ motivation to reclaim the honor of his father, but those of Esca are more ambiguous. At first I thought his refusal to fight in the arena might be due to his being a Christian, a thought that seemed supported when later he gives a boy a small carved fish, but there were no other references to Christ or God, so I doubt this. His refusal to fight probably stemmed from his hostility to his Roman captors (we learn that Romans had killed his family), his not wanting to play their game of savage entertainment, (One of the ironical statements in the film is when a Pict, maybe the Seal Prince, refers to the Romans as “barbarians” because of their brutal dealings with the native peoples.) Anyway, for those wanting an action/adventure film that is not too graphic in its battle scenes, The Eagle will provide a couple of hours of enjoyment.
1. How does this film compare with other films set in ancient Rome? What place did honor have in Roman society or culture? How would Marcus, as the son of the man who had lead the “lost legion,” have been regarded by others when he was growing up?
2. What do you make of the refusal of Esca to fight? How was it obvious that he is not a coward? Do you think that this is why Marcus decided to save him? Did you wonder if Esca might have been a Christian, and thus refused to fight because of the teachings of Christ? What was the state of the Church in 140 A.D.?
3. What did you think of the Pict’s declaration that the Romans are “barbarians” ? We don’t see much of the cruel oppression of the natives the Pict is referring to, but how does the existence of the gladiatorial games support this assertion?
4. What do you think of the retort of Esca to Marcus: “Why did they [the Roman lost legion] have to come north?… There’s nothing here worth taking. Why couldn’t they be satisfied with what they had?” Do you agree with those who say that this is a condemnation of modern day, as well as ancient, imperialism? And yet, how does the ceremony at the end undermine this, the rewards given to Marcus, restoring the honor of his father and family, suggest that it is the Romans, and not the native peopled defending their land against an invader, who are the heroes. Compare this film’s treatment of “the natives” with that of the film Avatar.