The Eagle is a thoughtful, leisurely paced film on a fascinating period of history—the Roman Occupation of Britain—and a reminder of the hazards of imperialism. In AD 140, when the movie begins, the Hadrian Wall, built by Emperor Hadrian in Northern Britain to ‘separate Romans from Barbarians’ (fierce Scottish tribes), is complete. Rome has understood the futility of occupying the highlands. An expeditionary force, the famed Ninth Legion, has vanished into the mists in the glens, never to be seen again.
Marcus Flavius Aquila is a centurion posted in Britain. It was his father who led the Ninth to disaster. This movie is about the son’s determination to redeem his family name and restore national pride by recovering ‘the eagle’, the symbolic standard held aloft in battle by every Roman legion, and now in the possession of a murderous tribe.
In spite of these clichés on the ‘civilising’ effects of Empire, The Eagle is intriguing because it includes a parallel view of history. Marcus (Channing Tatum) is a patriot and he has a one-dimensional view of the benefits of Roman Occupation. But he is often contradicted by his British slave, Esca (Jamie Bell), who accompanies the Roman on his perilous journey to retrieve ‘the eagle’. The slave, who has lost his family to the occupation, details the suffering imposed on a conquered people.
Later, in a moment of supreme irony, the roles are reversed and Esca is master and the centurion his slave. But at no stage do the men lose their humanity. Nor are they ever disrespectful of each other’s culture. Director Kevin MacDonald looks at Rome with admiration for its military organisation and civic administration, but… cannot see a single benefit for Britain.
The Eagle is well cast, pays attention to historical detail and is free of jingoism, melodrama and sentimentality.