The Eagle, directed by Kevin Macdonald and adapted from Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1954 historical novel, The Eagle of the Ninth, a bestselling tale of second-century Roman legions and youthful derring-do on the far side of Hadrian’s Wall, is a thunderous boys’ adventure of the old-school type—there’s not a female speaking part in the entire movie.
Scarcely out of his teens, neophyte general Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) assumes command of a British outpost just south of the wall, hoping to redeem his late father who, 20 years earlier, had led the mighty Ninth Legion on a mission across Britannia’s northern frontier into the misty realm the Romans called Caledonia—5,000 centurions vanished, along with their talismanic golden eagle. Two days into the job, Marcus earns props by spearheading a clanging, clattering close-up battle against a mob of tribal Picts led by a ranting, prisoner-decapitating druid. Unfortunately, the wounds he suffers are so severe that he is discharged from service—thus creating a situation in which, in order to fulfill his destiny by retrieving the lost eagle, signifier of his father’s honor, he must travel through the trackless wild highlands to the realm of the aqua-tinted Seal People at the edge of the world, accompanied only by his indigenous slave, Esca (Jamie Bell, the original Billy Elliot).
Native Glaswegian Macdonald, who is an Oscar-winning maker of documentaries (One Day in September) and a director of Oscar-winning actors (Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland), attacks this material with evident gusto. The Eagle is full of action and fleet of foot—it’s a movie of smoky, lowering battlefields and trippy, space-bending flashbacks, pausing only for admiring location shots of Scotland’s wild, craggy vistas. The atmosphere is viscous: Corpses dangle from the trees to spook would-be Roman interlopers, and one almost expects to see a blue-faced Mel Gibson peeking out from behind a bush of wild mountain thyme. The lean and ferocious Seal People (led by Tahar Rahim, last seen in A Prophet) have a generic resemblance to the similarly tinted Na’vi from Avatar but are much, much meaner.
The Eagle is the second recent movie to ponder the fate of the lost Ninth Legion. When horror-film director Neil Marshall’s Centurion opened last summer, New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden cited its warning against imperial hubris: “The indigenous people of whatever region you presume to conquer know the territory a thousand times better than you do.” The Eagle makes a similar point: American actors are cast as Romans, Caledonia is an explicitly useless prize (“There’s nothing here worth taking”), and Marcus is compelled to strategically switch places with his slave. Still, the ethos of militarist patriotic patriarchy prevails. All cultural relativism is subsumed in the climactic Roman-Scottish fusion, anachronistic bagpipes bleating as Marcus calls the martial tune: “Fathers, brothers, sons . . . may your souls take flight and soar with the eagle.”