The expository titles that open The Eagle emerge from a haze of computerized mist, a figurative fog that envelops the ancient history about to be conjectured upon. Inspired by the legend of the Ninth Spanish Legion, the words tell of how in 120 A.D. 5000 Roman soldiers journeyed into uncharted Northern Britain and vanished without a trace, along with their beloved standard, a silver eagle whose loss seems to have grieved Rome far more than that of its troops. But our story really begins 30 years later, with the arrival of centurion Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) at a remote, dilapidated garrison not far from the dreaded northern frontier. It seems an undesirable post, but Marcus Aquila has his reasons for being there: his father led the aforementioned ill-fated, now infamous, expedition.
Based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1954 novel The Eagle of the Ninth, The Eagle may be set in Roman-occupied Britain, but its trajectory most closely resembles that of a revisionist Western, with its hero, devoted to his flag yet fundamentally an individualist of stoic integrity, traversing hostile terrain rife with primitive yet fierce aboriginal warriors in the name of some grandiose colonialist project. After an act of bravery lands Marcus Aquila a damaged knee, a medal and an honorable discharge, he hears rumours of recent Eagle sightings up in the Highlands and vows to retrieve it, with only Esca (Jamie Bell), his noble native slave, as companion and guide. So this lone ranger and his Tonto go behind enemy lines, off the map, and into the vastness of Scotland’s murky glens on what is surely a pointless quest, a journey into the heart of darkness for a hunk of metal, not even a person, though perhaps the real goal is to apprehend some obscure truth about a long-lost father and vindicate his tarnished legacy.
Reuniting Last King of Scotland director Kevin MacDonald, scripter Jeremy Brock, and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, The Eagle is transporting and richly atmospheric, pulling you in on the strength of its storytelling and gorgeously rugged images, some illuminated only by flickering candles. A moonlight fight is more brutal for its gloom, as is the vision of barbecued invaders resembling rabid hippies and fighting like wild dogs, crazed with the rage of the colonized. Later on the Pict tribes are introduced, the tables turned, Marcus Aquila becomes the slave, and there’s something transfixing in seeing this hulking hero kneel before lanky warriors who decorate themselves so as to look like they literally emerged from the surrounding stone, cold sea and hardscrabble. MacDonald refrains from any fashionable indulgence in gore, but reveals a deft understanding as to how to cultivate our anticipation of violence with close-ups of sharpened spikes spinning on the sides of cartwheels, or a knife about to plunge into a knee to perform surgery without anesthetic.
Brock’s dialogue however is often dry or simply too on the nose. Donald Sutherland turns up for a nice supporting bit, and there’s a scene where he provides amusingly colourless colour commentary to the coliseum fight that introduces Esca: “Look at that. Look at that!” But what’s spoken in The Eagle is secondary to what transpires, and the story itself is fascinating. At least for the first two-thirds. The film’s last act is disappointingly stupid, though in hindsight isn’t hard to see coming. I suppose says something about how all of us, oppressed and oppressors both, are capable of heinous acts and old soldiers never lose their fire. If only the story didn’t reward its genocidal Romans by feeding their vanity and idolatry. You can’t help but imagine the alternate version where Marcus Aquila finds the lost eagle but it’s been consigned to life as a rusty anvil or paperweight, or collecting dust in some closet where later humans will store forgotten bowling trophies and unwanted crock pots.