Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Hollywood Romans #8 -- Cleopatra

Cleopatra – The Eternal Queen

“Whether we like it or not, Cleopatra was not really that important. Her world was one utterly dominated by Rome, in which her kingdom had at best a precarious independence.”1

This may indeed be the case, but given recent events it would seem the Queen has never been more popular, a fact that would please her to no end.

Last year saw the publication of two new biographies on Cleopatra and this year the release of a YA novel about her daughter.2

Likewise, Hollywood has not been idle on the Cleopatra front with two new films currently in development. 

Capitalizing on the publicity of Stacy Schiff’s book being the first biography of Cleopatra to be written by a woman, and thus bringing a new perspective to the Queen, Cleopatra A Life was optioned by Sony Studios for a new film starring Angelina Jolie.  This helped to push Schiff’s book up the NY Times Best Seller list where it has remained for several months now. Of course Hollywood then proceeded to under cut themselves, as is usually the case, by hiring Brian Helgeland to write the screenplay and David Fincher to direct.3  So much for the female perspective.  Worse still, Sony plans to film Cleopatra in 3D.

While Sony’s film might be the first 3D Cleopatra, Steven Soderbergh’s will be the first musical Cleopatra. 

Set in 1920’s Chicago and staring Catherine Zeta-Jones as Cleopatra and Hugh Jackman as Mark Antony, this project too, like the Sony film, currently sits in Development Hell. However, unlike the Fincher film, Soderbergh’s project may never make it before the cameras.  Last year Zeta-Jones cut back on her schedule to care for her husband, and this year she is herself undergoing treatment for a bi-polar disorder.  Although Soderbergh might recast the parts, he was hoping to capture the same energy of his hit film Chicago so it seems unlikely he will drop Zeta-Jones.  Like the Sony project, Soderbergh’s Cleopatra will also be filmed in 3D.

What has attracted Hollywood to Schiff’s book in particular is her supposed “revisionist” view of the queen.  No longer the sex kitten, oriental temptress or emasculating whore, she is now the shrewd politician, the able statesman and the steadfast warrior.  The idea that this is a ‘revisionist’ or even enlightened new view of Cleopatra is patently false. Schiff’s portrait of the Queen is largely the same as that painted by Goldsworthy or the one presented by Michael Grant in his excellent 1972 biography.  Schiff adopts a somewhat more romantic view of Cleopatra’s position in a world dominated by Rome than does Goldsworthy who presents a more realistic, and historically sound view of the Queen.

What is different here, or so we are lead to believe, is Hollywood’s view of Cleopatra, with the Sony film being, if not a repudiation of the 1963 Fox film starring Elizabeth Taylor, then at least a film with a new emphasis on Cleopatra the astute politician rather than Cleopatra the femme fetal.

A Hollywood icon with more than 80 films to her credit, Taylor will always be, for better or for worse, associated with Cleopatra and with the Fox film that has become legendary for its excess and its failure. 

Indeed, never one to miss an opportunity to capitalize on any event, good or bad, the Fox Movie Channel has taken full advantage of Taylor’s death last February by showing the longer “Premiere” version of their film on a semi regular basis, several times a day, on different days of the week (the last being Easter Sunday just past).  So it seems appropriate, given all of this recent Cleo activity, that we say a few words about Hollywood and Cleopatra, and in particular, the 1963 Cleopatra.

Cleopatra The Vamp

Of course, Shakespeare set the tone first, and influenced heavily by both the Bard and by Shaw, Hollywood has turned out over 50 feature films and TV shows about Cleopatra beginning in 1917 when Fox released Cleopatra staring Theda Bara.  The screenplay, by Adrian Johnson, was based upon the stage play Cleopatre by Victorien Sardou and Emile Moreau.

At the time Ms. Bara told the press, “I felt the blood of the Ptolemys coursing through my veins.” And Fox for their part capitalized on Bara’s reputation (manufactured by the studio of course) calling Cleopatra the “greatest vamp of all time” to which Bara added obligingly, “I Live Cleopatra, I breathe Cleopatra, I am Cleopatra!”  4

With that kind of endorsement you would expect the film to be a major success and while it did turn a profit, it was not the blockbuster Fox had hopped for. 

Filmed in Southern California, with pyramids built in Ventura County, the city of Alexandria in the beach community of Venice, and the Battle of Actium staged at Balboa Beach, it is rumored that the “lengthy script was solid and historically accurate.”  However, we will never know for ironically, the last person to ever watch this film was Cecil B. DeMille who screened it in 1934 while preparing for his own film about Cleopatra.  The 1917 film was then returned to the Fox film vault in New Jersey where a nitrate fire destroyed the majority of Fox’s pre-1935 film collection.5

The DeMille Treatment

Perhaps we see echoes of that earlier film in DeMille’s 1934 production for Paramount Studios.  Certainly, DeMille was a known stickler for historical accuracy and, like many productions before and since, he spared no expense to bring Egypt to life in Southern California.

His quest began with the purchase of the 16 volume French Military Survey of Egypt commissioned by Napoleon and ended with the use of a live asp to bite the actress playing Cleopatra (the venom having already been removed).  In between DeMille went to great lengths to get the “look right” including having the crew scrape the frost off of the studio’s refrigeration pipes because the Romans used snow to cool their wine, or flying grapes up from Argentina, where they were still in season, after the ten crates already on hand had gone bad.  Indeed, DeMille could be a tyrant about details:

At one point he saw that an extra was wearing a belt that was not historically accurate.  Using his trademark megaphone, he demanded
before the entire company that his secretary send a memo to the
production department complaining about the error. 6

For the part of Cleopatra DeMille cast Claudette Colbert, an actress he had worked with before on The Sing Of The Cross.  He felt that her sophistication, beauty and sense of humor were attributes that made her perfect for the role of
Cleopatra. 7   Indeed, Colbert brought those strengths to bear in her performance but, in a foreshadowing of Cleopatra films as yet unmade, Colbert was in “fragile” health, having suffered appendicitis, and she missed most rehearsals, being replaced by her stand-in.

As Julius Caesar, DeMille cast Warren William who gives a marvelous performance.  He invests Caesar with humor, intelligence and a certain ‘world-weariness that seems in keeping with the historic Gaius Julius.  Henry Wilcox, in his first leading role, plays Mark Antony and although he brings a good deal of energy and bravado to the role, he does not impress in quite the same way as does William or Colbert.

The film was a box office hit here in the US, bringing in $120 million against a production cost of just over $12 million (in 2005 dollars).  American audiences enjoyed the lavish spectacle and appreciated the historical detail, but Europe was not impressed.  At the 1935 premier in Rome, Daily Variety reports the film was met with “boos, catcalls and derisive laughter.”

Cleopatra as Comedy

It would be almost ten years before Cleopatra again appeared in a major feature film, an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play Caesar And Cleopatra starring Vivian Leigh as Cleopatra. True to its theatrical source (the screenplay was written by Shaw himself) the film is played for laughs and though the cast is a capable one it is Claude Rains, as Caesar, and Flora Robson, as Fatateeta (Cleopatra’s major domo), who show the best comic timing.  There is no attempt at realism and the film looks very theatrical both in production design and cinematography. 

Although one can appreciate Shaw’s wry sense of humor, and at first glance his play would seem to reinforce the stereotype of Cleopatra as sex kitten, Shaw has written the Queen as a young woman much smarter than her friends and enemies give her credit for. Aided by Fatateeta, the Queen uses that underestimation to advantage, and is able, in the end, to secure her position and her future, for the moment at least.

As with all films about Cleopatra, this production too spared no expense on costumes and sets in an attempt to “get the look right.” The resulting look, while obviously expensive is typically “Hollywood Roman” and not historically accurate by any stretch of the imagination.  Reportedly the most expensive film ever made in the UK (to that date) it was a box office failure and nearly ended the director’s career.  What’s more, in yet another ominous foreshadowing, Vivian Leigh suffered a miscarriage during the shoot that delayed production for several weeks.

Flora Robson, Stewart Granger and Vivian Leigh

If for no other reason, this film is worth watching for the ample display of George Bernard Shaw’s prodigious wit, and while I am personally not enamored of Vivian Leigh’s performance, there are many who find it to be not just enjoyable, but actually better than her turn as Scarlet in Gone With The Wind.  That said, in terms of historical fidelity, there is no need to look here.  Enjoy the humor – ignore the lack of history.

With the box office failure of Caesar And Cleopatra, the Queen took a hiatus from Hollywood until 1963 when she returned in a big way.

Cleopatra the Extravagant

Much has been written about the now legendary and infamous 1963 Fox production, and reading through the list of woes it is a wonder any film emerged at all, good, bad or indifferent. 

A Few highlights:

Cost: Originally conceived of as a “B” film, a modest re-make of the 1917 Cleopatra, starring Theda Bara, with a budget of $1- 2 million, the production quickly grew, the budget ballooning to a then astronomical $44 million.

Cast: Although the first director originally wanted Dorothy Dandridge for the part of Cleopatra, Taylor was cast early on and for a very handsome salary including profit participation and overtime.  The first cast also included Peter Finch as Julius Caesar and Stephen Boyd as Mark Antony.  I must say that this casting seems far more interesting and I would love to have seen that production.  However, delays caused by Elizabeth Taylor’s ill health, including an erroneous announcement of her death, and weeks in the hospital, compelled both Finney and Boyd to withdraw from the production.  The weeks of footage already shot with those actors was now useless.  As with the health related delays on the 1917, 1934 and 1945 Cleopatra productions, so too did 1963 suffer from bad luck, or Cleopatra’s curse, depending upon how romantic you are. 8

Dorothy Dandridge

 Directors:  When the production shut down due to Taylor’s hospitalization, Fox fired the first director, Rouben Mamoulian (almost as if this bad luck was his fault) and started casting about for a new one.  They first approached George Stevens but he declined and so they settled on Joseph L Mankiewicz who already had several Academy Awards to his credit and had actually directed a previous film about Caesar and Antony, the 1953 film of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.  Mankiewicz quickly re-cast the parts of Caesar and Antony with Rex Harrison and Richard Burton respectively.

Location: The Mamoulian production was working on lavish sets in England despite warnings about the weather.  Mankiewicz heeded the warnings, moving the entire operation to Rome and using locations throughout the world including Spain, Italy, Egypt and even Malibu in Southern California.  This ran production costs up considerably.

Writers: After the change in directors the first screenplay was scrapped and Mankiewicz set about rewriting the entire film, shooting during the day and writing through the night Although giving story credit to Plutarch, Suetonius, Appian and “other” ancient sources it is difficult to believe that Mankiewicz actually read any of their works, so at variance with history is his screenplay.  His take on Caesar’s final days in Rome is, to be kind, fanciful.

Lovers: That Antony and Cleopatra were lovers is well known, and it quickly became well known that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were too.  However, unlike Cleopatra who was not married when she and Antony “joined forces” Taylor was married.  In fact the spouses of both Taylor and Burton were on location and this resulted in all sorts of fire works including a bout of fisticuffs between Taylor’s then husband, Eddie Fisher, and Burton.  Of course like Octavian, who used the Cleopatra – Antony affair to boost his fortunes, so too did Fox use the fire works, on screen and off, to promote the film.  In Hollywood all publicity is good publicity.

The Final Cut:  After throwing out the several weeks of film shot by Mamoulian, Mankiewicz and his team still shot 633,000 feet of film over a 200 day shooing schedule.  Even then, Darryl F Zanuck, who was once again running the studio, sent Mankiewicz out to re-shoot the opening battle sequence, which looked too cheap.  That was after Zanuck had fired and then re-hired Mankiewicz to finish editing the film.  It seems that no one else could make anything out of the 120 miles worth of footage. 9

The rough cut that Mankiewicz screened for Zanuck and Fox executives was just under 6 hours in length.  Mankiewicz wanted to release two films of about 3 hours in length each: Caesar And Cleopatra followed a year or so later by Antony And Cleopatra.  But Zanuck was having none of that.  Besides, the Fox publicity department wanted to cash in on the Taylor – Burton affair while it was still hot.  They could not wait a year or more.  So Mankiewicz cut his film again to a still epic 243 minutes.  This is the version that premiered in New York on June 12, 1963.  It was subsequently re-cut several times but has, thankfully been restored to the full 243-minute length.  This is the version currently showing on the Fox Movie Channel.  In fact, there is talk of finding the missing elements and restoring the film to Mankiewicz’s original 6-hour cut.  So far a few minutes have been found, but this is a task that will take Fox many years to complete.

Contrary to popular belief, the film did not bankrupt Fox, or even come close to doing so.  Although the film did cost $44 million, Fox had taken out insurance on the production and received payments of over $13 million bringing net production costs down to $31 million.  Still, despite being Fox’s highest grossing film of 1963 the studio did not make a profit on Cleopatra until 1966 when ABC paid the then hefty price of $5 million for the broadcast TV rights.  As of 2005, Cleopatra has enjoyed a US Box Office take of $435 million (in 2005 adjusted dollars).

The film received nine Academy Award nomination and won four, including Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design and Special Effects.

However … What about the film itself?

I wish I could say that this is a great film, an epic that will stand the test of time, a DVD that belongs in every home video collection -- but I cannot.

Frankly, this film is a mess.  Yes, it is a feast for the eyes, and as spectacles go it might be worth sitting through at least once for the sheer experience of it, but films are nothing more than another medium for story telling and this film of Cleopatra manages to take a great story and render it not only barely comprehensible, but frankly rather boring.

The epic film, in the hands of a master, can be a truly great work of cinematic art.  A number of Kurosawa films come to mind, as do the works of Stanley Kubrick, David Lean, and Francis Ford Coppola.  No doubt each viewer would add his own favorites to the list and given the subjective nature of art personal likes and dislikes defy scholarly criticism or popular tastes.

For me, having watched the 1963 Cleopatra several times, I would, if given a choice, not sit through it again. 

Since 1963, Cleopatra has appeared in several TV series, most notably in the 1999 mini-series, Cleopatra, starring Leonor Varela as the Queen paired with Timothy Dalton and Billy Zane as Caesar and Antony respectively, and in the HBO-BBC series Rome, where Lyndsey Marshal played Cleopatra opposite Ciaran Hinds as Caesar and James Purefoy as Antony.

In both of these TV productions the actors playing Cleopatra do a reasonably good job, in particular Ms. Marshal, though once again history took a back seat to drama and neither character, as written, garnered much praise for accuracy.

So, given the somewhat checkered results, both box office and critical, for Cleopatra films, why would Hollywood want to embark on yet another trip down the Nile?

Cleopatra is such a compelling character, and her life and times filled with such momentous events that it is wonder more films about her are not in the works.  It may well be that, like Alexander the Great, Cleopatra is simply too big for the screen and no film is up to the task of capturing her.  One might as well attempt to capture lightning in a bottle.  Yet Hollywood will continue to try and we will continue to watch those attempts in the hope that maybe, just maybe, this next film will get it just right.

The “Evolution" of Cleopatra’s appearance:

As Goldsworthy points out in a recent article from the Guardian, Cleopatra would be dressed not in the Egyptian style of a thousand years earlier, but rather  "She would have dressed more in the Greek style and the problem for Hollywood is that Greek dress looks pretty much like Roman – lots of people in sheets." 10

Indeed, when shown the photo of Ms. Marshal (above) and asked “Who is this?” my ten year old grandson answered without hesitation, “Cleopatra!” 

“How do you know it’s Cleopatra?”

“By her headdress,” he replied.

And so it is, like the Hollywood Romans, whose costumes continually drive the historians crazy, so too Cleopatra will continue to be costumed in ancient style otherwise we might not recognize her.

End Notes

  1. Antony And Cleopatra by Adrian Goldsworthy, c2010 pp. 10-11. 

This is by far the best biography of this famous pair to be published to date.   In fact, the thirteen page introduction alone is worth the price of admission.  Goldsworthy writes in a lively and fluid style that, coupled with his solid researcher and command of the source material, makes for an entertaining and informative read.

2. Those books are:
Antony And Cleopatra by Adrian Goldsworthy, c2010
Cleopatra – A Life by Stacy Schiff, c2010
Cleopatra’s Moon by Vicky Alvear Schecter, c2011

3. David Fincher is only the latest director selected to helm this project.  Also on board at one point or another were James Cameron and Paul Greengrass.  There is a rumor that Jane Campion was under consideration and though intriguing, it remains unconfirmed.  At this point the only female still involved with the project, besides Jolie, is Amy Pascal, the Sony Studio chief in charge of production.  As for Fincher as director, this too could change but the film’s producer, Scott Rudin, worked with Fincher on The Social Network so this could be the team that sees this project through to completion.

** It should be noted that Jolie has asked Ang Lee to direct the film and, fresh from his Oscar win for Life Of Pi at the 2013 Academy Awards , it seems that Lee will accept the offer and direct the new Cleopatra film.  Considering how many directors this project has seen, it might be best to wait until the premier to see who the actual director is.

4. George Lucas’s Blockbusting edited by Alex Block & Lucy Wilson, c2010 p47.

5. George Lucas’s Blockbusting, p47.

To misquote Austin Powers, “It is amazing how much southern California looks just like ancient Egypt.”

6. George Lucas’s Blockbusting, p185

7. George Lucas’s Blockbusting, p185.

8. Antony And Cleopatra by Adrian Goldsworthy, c2010 p

Paired with the broadcast of the 1963 Cleopatra on the Fox Movie Channel is an episode of their in-house movie news magazine, Fox Legacy, hosted by Philip Roth.  Roth is a former Fox studio executive whose credits include Titanic.  At one point during this half hour show Roth mentions that Dorothy Dandridge was considered for the role of Cleopatra and comments that this might have been a more historically accurate casting, thus raising yet again the bogus question of Cleopatra’s ethnicity.

There is no question about her ethnicity.  The issue was dealt with by Michael Grant in his 1972 bio of the Queen, and once again by both Goldsworthy and
Schiff in their respective books published last year. 

The announcement of Jolie’s casting in the role of Cleopatra occasioned a new round of chest thumping and pontification about Cleopatra’s ethnicity that generated a lot of heat but very little light.

As for the coins that Antony & Cleopatra issued to pay Antony’s army, Goldsworthy notes:  "A coin image was a statement of power intended to prove you were the rightful ruler, which meant you wanted to look like a Ptolemy,"

9. George Lucas’s Blockbusting, p184

10.  “Jolie's Cleopatra will show Egypt's queen as more than a sex kitten”
By Vanessa Thorpe, The Guardian, January 9, 2011  See: Link above in Note #7

Books & Links Of Interest

Cleopatra by Michael Grant, c1972, ISBN: 0785818286

Antony And Cleopatra by Adrian Goldsworthy, c2010, ISBN: 9780300165340

George Lucas’s Blockbusting edited by Alex Ben Block & Lucy Autrey Wilson, c2010, ISBN: 9780061778896

This Review was first posted on the Ancient Warfare Magazine web site, May 2011.

(c) 2011 by David L Reinke

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Hollywood Romans #9 -- The Eagle

The Eagle of The Ninth – MIA In Hollywood

The Eagle (2011) 114 minutes
Director: Kevin Macdonald   Screenplay: Jeremy Brock
Starring: Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Mark Strong, Donald Sutherland

"There are only two American novelists who should be grateful for the movies made from their books. I am one of them (for Slaughterhouse-Five). The other one? Margaret Mitchell, of course." 
- Kurt Vonnegut, Palm Sunday1

When it was announced, several years ago, that Hollywood was embarking on a feature film adaptation of Rosemary Sutcliff’s YA novel, The Eagle Of The Ninth, there was cautious optimism that a much beloved book would finally give viewers a more authentic vision of the Roman Empire than heretofore had graced the silver screen.  There was good cause for hope.

The creative team of director Kevin Macdonald and writer Jeremy Brock had just received well deserved accolades for their film The Last King Of Scotland, and although the myth of the Ninth Legion’s disappearance had long since been put to rest, Sutcliff’s novel told a rousing story that seemed perfectly suited to the big screen.2 Casting announcements and early on-set photos sounded notes of caution concerning authenticity, both to history and to the source novel, however it was the decision to change the film's title from Eagle Of The Ninth to simply The Eagle that sounded the clearest alarm.  Why change the title?  Now, having seen the film, the answer is obvious: This is not The Eagle Of The Ninth.

Without resurrecting the entire Film Vs. Book argument it is important to note that Sutcliff wrote what is essentially a mystery novel in which subtlety and detail are critical, while Macdonald has made an action film where movement and brute force are the order of the day.  Beyond the broad outlines of the plot and the character names there is little of the novel in the film.

This is not to say that The Eagle is a wholly inadequate film, for it is not, and yet in making his action film adaptation one has the impression that Macdonald missed the essence of the novel.  Missing too are the wit and the intelligence of both the story and the characters.  Sutcliff was writing a story of reconciliation, of acceptance, of redemption, of honor lost and regained, and of the common humanity of all.  The film touches on some of these themes but with seemingly little understanding and even less heart.  Indeed there is hardly any room for humanity when there is so much action to fit in.

If Book Vs. Film arguments tend to be fruitless, then the Film Vs. Historical Accuracy comparison is equally troublesome, particularly for The Eagle, and almost from the first frame.

The film begins with a printed preamble telling us of the Ninth Legion’s march north to oblivion.  This is followed by a second title card that begins: “Shamed by the lost of the Ninth Legion, the Emperor Hadrian built a wall …” While “The function of the wall continues to be hotly debated” to claim that it was built out of a sense of shame over the loss of one legion is an exaggeration.3

The ancient sources suggest that there was no clear defensive or offensive
ethos, but rather a range of opinions.  More importantly they make it clear
that the Romans were more concerned with power than the physical occupation
of land, and dealt with political entities, states, kingdoms and tribes.
The Roman Empire extended as far as the Romans were able to make
peoples do whatever they desired or, perhaps more accurately, deter them
from doing anything which the Romans did not want them to do.4

Beyond these larger issues, the historical accuracy of The Eagle is, as with most films set in the ancient world, a hit and miss affair.  While the Costume Designer, Michael O’Connor, has an impressive list of period film credits, this appears to be his first set in the ancient world.  On the other hand the Military Technical Advisor, Paul Hornsby, whose area of expertise seems to be World War Two, has worked on two noteworthy films set in the ancient world: first, as a stunt man on Alexander, and then as the senior military advisor on The Last Legion.  The results of their efforts here are mixed.

To their credit, Macdonald and O’Connor do convey, more convincingly than many recent films, the professional discipline of the Roman Army.  The effort to rescue the Roman prisoners being held before the gates of the fort is a case in point.  The Romans favored an “active defense” and would often attack out of a fort under siege to turn the tables on the besiegers.  

In the film, Centurion Marcus and his rescue party are instantly set upon once they exit their fort.  The Romans adopt the testudo formation and work their way through the attackers to rescue their fellow Romans.  It is at this point that the Britons spring their trap and attack with chariots.  The Romans retreat toward their fort, but it quickly becomes evident that the chariots will overtake and slaughter them.  Realizing this, Marcus turns to face the on rushing chariots and, finding a previously thrown pilum lying on the ground, proceeds to stop the enemy chariot attack with a well-aimed pilum. The fact that the Roman pilum was specifically designed to prevent its reuse in this manner is perhaps a minor point, for the scene does show quite well just how effective this signature Roman weapon could be, and more to the point, it is an exciting sequence.

Likewise, the use of pitch in the moat to create a wall of fire to protect the fort makes for exciting cinema but dubious history and likely falls into the Ridley Scott School of History: How Do You Know This Didn’t Happen?  You Weren’t There.5

It was said of Akira Kurosawa that the battles in his films were confused without being confusing.  That is a rare gift and although the battles in The Eagle are excitingly choreographed, the use of medium to tight close-ups almost to the total exclusion of any wide shots limits our vision of the entire scope of the battle.  The director is attempting to give us a “you are there” feeling, but in doing so he does not use the full canvas that a cinema screen offers.

Costumes are standard issue Hollywood Roman, with bracers all around, lots of leather segmentata, metallic rather than painted shield emblems and a rather eclectic array of helmets.  While his helmet looks pretty good, Centurion Marcus wears a muscled cuirass instead of chain mail.  Impossible?  No, but unusual, for as Graham Sumner points out:

            It is therefore somewhat ironic to discover that not a single example
            [of muscled cuirasses] from the Roman period has ever been recovered.
            It was often believed in the past that cuirasses could have been made from
            molded leather, this would certainly account for the lack of surviving evidence.
            A more likely explanation is that despite their popularity with sculptors,
            who depicted all classes of Roman troops wearing them, they were as far as one can
            tell the exclusive preserve of the senior officers.6

More egregious is the depiction of the Seal People.

Here Macdonald is standing on firmer creative ground for there is, essentially, no historical ground.

Since the history of the Picts has been described by the historian Michael Lynch as “a mystery story with few clues and no satisfactory ending”, Macdonald has a fairly free rein in recreating his ancient tribe; but he is determined to be as authentic as possible, with the tribesmen in the movie all speaking Gaelic.7

For the Seal People, the film’s main antagonists, Macdonald has adopted a look very reminiscent of the North American Mohican tribes, though painted gray and wearing both seal skins and bones.  This is all fine and good, and while the use of Gaelic may not be completely accurate, it does work to differentiate the Romans from the Britons.  This same linguistic strategy was used in Centurion where it worked equally as well.

More problematic are the actions of the Seal People, and in particular the killing of a young member of the tribe.  Without giving anything away, the scene is used to give the audience proof that the Seal people truly are barbarous and smacks of the AVS (African Village Scene), so common to Hollywood films.8  This is yet another unfortunate departure from the book, which went to great lengths to depict the tribes north of the Wall as real people, but is in keeping with the action film formula.

There has been much carping about the acting, or lack there of, but on the whole the cast performs well enough, but not outstandingly so.  Macdonald has cast Americans as the Romans (in the speaking roles at least) to further emphasize the divide between the Romans and the Britons.  Although some of the line delivery is flat, the film does seem to come alive whenever Donald Sutherland is on screen.  He brings a level of natural ease and humanity to his character that the other actors seem unable to.  This may be due in large part to Sutherland’s long years and experience as an actor, allowing him to rise above the material. 

Also, it should be noted that in keeping with Goldsworthy’s First Law Of Hollywood Romans: There Shall Always Be Gladiators – Even When The Story is Not About Gladiators, we are first introduced to Jamie Bell’s character, Esca, at the local arena where he is matched against a gladiator in a fight to the death.  This scene does appear in the book, but is played there quite differently and far more effectively.  In the film Esca refuses to fight and submits himself to death.  Sutherland’s character salutes his courage but is dismayed that a slave would be matched against a gladiator.  This is an odd sentiment considering that gladiators were slaves.  Interestingly, the protagonist in Neil Marshall’s film, Centurion, was the son of a gladiator, further confirmation of Goldsworthy’s 1st Law.9

As with last year’s film about the Ninth Legion, Centurion, the look here is dark, featuring a somber color palate of blues and grays with few exceptions.  In both films much emphasis is placed on the rugged beauty of the Scottish landscape, though Centurion does make better use of it.

In the end, the real question is: Should you spend your time and money on this film? 

This film will do well enough with the target demographic of 10 – 29 year olds.  There is plenty of action and the story moves along swiftly enough to hold their interest even when they are waiting for the next battle scene.  Macdonald manages to put a lot of action and production value on the screen despite the film’s modest budget.  Not as graphically violent as Gladiator, parents can feel safe letting their teenagers watch this film.

On The Other Hand…

If you are a fan of the book then you are likely to be very disappointed.  Likewise, if you are a fan of films set in ancient Rome, The Eagle will serve, but only just.  Indeed, for the price of a pair of tickets you could easily purchase the DVD and enjoy the film in the comfort of your own living room.  Like Centurion, The Eagle will likely enjoy its biggest success as a DVD rental or purchase.


1. From the introduction to the book Palm Sunday.

2. For an explanation of what happened to the Ninth Legion Hispana and the debate surrounding this myth of its disappearance see Duncan B Campbell’s excellent article, The Fate Of The ninth, in Ancient Warfare Magazine, Volume IV, Issue #5.  You may down load the article here:

3. I am recalling these quotes from memory so please excuse the rough paraphrasing.

4. See The Complete Roman Army by Adrian Goldsworthy, c2003,
ISBN: 0-500-05124-0, the chapter Frontiers pp 152-161 and in particular the section on Hadrian’s Wall pp 157-161.

5. Scott elucidates his approach to history in the audio commentary on the Gladiator Director’s Cut DVD.

6. See Roman Army Wars Of Empire by Graham Sumner, pp 62-63 for his observations on the muscled cuirass.  This is one of several excellent books by Sumner on the uniforms worn by the Roman Army, and it leaves one to question if the film’s costume designer did any research at all, as the correct information is so readily available.  It is very likely the case that in fact he did and may even have gone to the costume rental house with this information in hand and every intention of “getting it right.”  However, he may well have discovered that the stock of available costumes fell far short of the ideal, but short of having new ones made, getting costumes that were close, though not perfect, was the only financially reasonable course left open to him.

This does not, of course, explain the use of bracers.  As there is no evidence that the Roman Army ever used these then why go to the trouble of including them?  Perhaps it is the case that without the bracers the audience might not recognize the soldiers as Roman.

7. From the article, Kevin Macdonald Will Bring To Film Pre-Celtic Clash Of Cultures by Magnus Linklater in the Sunday Times of August 3, 2009.

8. Russell Means, founder of AIM and a featured actor in the film Last Of The Mohicans, coined this phrase while working on that film.  Means was appreciative of  director Michael Mann’s sensitive portrayal of the native tribes, but objected strongly to the inclusion of the scene at the Algonquin village where the British officer is burned alive.  He called it the film’s “African Village scene” that though dramatic, was not historically accurate.

In the same way the killing of the young member of the Seal People by their leader is both gratuitous and unnecessary.  It is included not only to assure the audience that the barbarians truly are barbarous, but as a motivation for the character of Esca to side with the Romans.  However, by this point in the film, Esca has made common cause with Marcus and has cast his lot with the Romans.  He needs no further motivation, and yet the director feels the need to give him a good sound moral reason for hating the Seal People.

9. Adrian Goldsworthy mentions this quirk of Hollywood films about Rome in a lecture he delivered at the Kansas City Public Library in 2009.  A link to a podcast of that lecture may be found on the KC Public Library web site.

 This review was first posted on the Ancient Warfare Magazine website in February 2011.

(c) 2011 by David L Reinke