Around 120 A.D., Rome's renowned Ninth Legion disappeared from the records. This gave rise to the legend, immortalized in Rosemary Sutcliff's 1954 novel The Eagle of the Ninth, that the Ninth had embarked on a last campaign to subdue the tribes of Caledonia (now Scotland) and vanished in enemy territory. According to the legend, Rome's emperor Hadrian was so angered by this that he ordered a wall built across the width of Britain, marking the edge of the Roman Empire and, as far as the Romans were concerned, the known world. Parts of Hadrian's Wall still stand today.
The film The Eagle picks up in 140 A.D., with Channing Tatum playing Marcus Aquila, the son of the Ninth's lost commander. A decorated soldier, Marcus seeks to restore his family's honor by venturing beyond Hadrian's Wall to find the gold eagle symbol carried by the Ninth, accompanied only by his British slave, Esca (Jamie Bell), who Marcus saved from execution. Watch the trailer for The Eagle below.
But why would a slave, especially one like Esca whose family and people had been slaughtered at the hands of the Romans, stay loyal to his master once alone and with a homefield advantage? That's a good question -- one that was never answered to my satisfaction, and which, unfortunately, the entire film hinges upon.
Which is too bad, since The Eagle does many things right, especially in the first third of the film. The sets and costumes are high-quality, and the film is beautifully shot in Hungary and the Scottish highlands. Eschewing computer-generated effects, The Eagle does a good job of depicting the brutality of ancient warfare, though the editing during the battle scenes is a bit choppy. The film also illustrates the strategic and technological advantages that helped the Romans win so many battles, as well as the obsessive, almost religious militarism that enabled the Empire's spread and drives Marcus' quest.
And in a bold and deliberate bit of political commentary, all the Romans in the Eagle are played by American actors, drawing a parallel between the Roman Empire and the modern American one, both of which have relied on military might to subjugate much of the world. Characters note more than once that the Romans were exceptionally cruel to prisoners and civilians, perhaps another knock on America's recent descent into immorality and lawlessness as we expanded our empire into Afghanistan and Iraq. In most toga and sandals films, Romans are played by Brits, reflecting England's previous imperial tendencies. In The Eagle, the Brits get to play the oppressed natives for a change, including the Seal People, a fictional coastal tribe whose warriors look very much like Native Americans, whose prince is played by an Arab man, and are, unfortunately, the closest thing to the film's villains.
Esca proclaims that he is against everything Marcus stands for, yet kills several of his fellow Britons during the course of the film. And by helping Marcus take back the Ninth's (and Rome's) treasured eagle standard, Esca attempts to give strength to his oppressors and rob his people of a valuable trophy from one of their greatest acts of resistance. We're told that this is because Esca honors his word to remain loyal to Marcus for saving his life, but c'mon. The Roman Empire, despite its numerous achievements, was a brutal one, enslaving, plundering and killing the peoples of every culture they came across as they ruthlessly expanded their empire. Under those circumstances, breaking a promise to regain your freedom isn't such a big deal.
While The Eagle impresses on many levels, the idea of a slave continuing to aid his master after being handed a golden opportunity to escape and/or avenge his people was simply too much for me to accept, and would be unimaginable if applied to, say, a black slave and a white Southern owner. I realize that keeping your word is important, but if I were a slave like Esca, I would've killed Marcus the very first chance I got. Or, if I really felt indebted to him, would've simply ditched him -- and left a very nice note.
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