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

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