By Susan JAMES
Scottish scenery dominates director Kevin Macdonald’s Roman adventure film “The Eagle,” and this, as it turns out, is a good thing. Based on a book by Rosemary Sutcliffe, the story follows the legend of the 9th Roman Legion that vanished into the wilds of northern Britain about 120 AD. The film was made on location in the bleak and magnificent Scottish Highlands and Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography is quite literally breathtaking. It manages to keep the film moving forward through slow pacing, a predictable plot and a less than stellar performance by Channing Tatum as centurion Marcus Aquila, Roman solider extraordinaire. To be fair to Tatum, it’s very difficult to erase the memory of Russell Crowe’s iconic Roman soldier Maximus in “The Gladiator,” but Tatum never really takes ownership of his role.
Marcus Aquila is the soldier son of a renowned commander who marched 5,000 men into the Scottish north and vanished without trace, together with all of his troops and their eagle standard. Family dishonor and whispers of cowardice circulate back in Rome and young Marcus grows up determined to clear his father’s name and recover the legion’s lost standard. He requests the command of a border post near Hadrian’s Wall, the northernmost perimeter of the Roman world, and through courage and cunning fends off an attack by local Britons unhappy with the on-going Roman invasion of their country.
Badly wounded by the Britons, Marcus recovers but is forced to accept an honorable discharge ending all opportunity to find out the truth about his father. In the process he saves the life of a young British slave named Esca (an effective Jamie Bell), son of a local chieftain slain by the Romans. Marcus hears rumors of his father’s eagle being worshipped by a tribe called the Seal People to the far north and decides to take Esca and steal the eagle back.
What follows is a fairly predictable journey quest to recover the eagle, discover the fate of the lost legion and restore a man’s good name. A buddy movie as well, Marcus and Esca bond and discover their mutual strengths.
If you’ve seen the 1992 version of “The Last of the Mohicans” with Daniel Day Lewis, you’ve seen what “The Eagle” attempts to be. Roman soldiers stand in for British troops and native Britons for rampaging Iroquois. The Seal People have been painted and coiffed as if they were Iroquois, something those old Picts and Scots of 120 AD would have found mighty bewildering.
While surprising story twists are few and the authenticity of the Seal People questionable, the attention to other surface details in this film is meticulous. The sights and sounds of frontier Rome and native Britain have an almost National Geographic feel to them. Mud, blood and raw, skinned rats for supper never looked so real. As Marcus and now brother-at-arms Esca march away from a room full of astonished Roman legates after having plunked the recovered eagle down before them, the boys argue over what to do
next. “You choose,” Marcus tells Esca.
I see sequels.
See you at the movies!