Last year, there was a spate of sword and sandal adventures. From the woeful Clash Of The Titans (Titans Will Clash!) to the rather decent Centurion, it seemed that everyone was queuing up to strap on some leather armour and wave a sword about. That genre saturation could account for the delay of The Eagle (now shortened from its original title – The Eagle Of The Ninth), as it’s very similar to the Michael Fassbender fronted Centurion.
Marcus (Channing Tatum), a soldier desperate to restore his family name and his father’s honour following the loss of the ninth legion and its standard (the titular eagle), finally gets his chance when he’s assigned command of a squad in the wilds of Britain. But when a battle wound forces an honourable discharge, he’s confined to a villa with his Uncle (Donald Sutherland).
While convalescing he becomes frustrated that he might never restore his honour. But when word reaches him that the Eagle still exists in the northern territories, Marcus is determined to track it down to restore his family’s lost honour and takes a Pict slave that he once saved from gladiatorial execution (Jamie Bell) along with him as a tracker and guide.
Tatum is a burly individual and with his thick neck, he makes a convincing solider (it’s a role he should be used to after Dear John and Stop-Loss, indeed, it’s hard to think of a film in which he doesn’t at least hit one person). He’s thrown into some thrilling battles which ably demonstrate why the Legion were a force to be reckoned with.
The film succeeds in its depiction of Roman life – for the most part it pulls no punches: marching in the cold is miserable, exhausting and a constant drain on morale; Marcus and Esca sleep rough, nearly freeze to death and have to eat rats to survive. It’s a bleak outlook emphasised by Anthony Dod Mantle’s faded colour palette.
While Roman life is kept historically accurate, director Kevin Macdonald indulges a more fantastical depiction of the savage northern Picts (including an almost unrecognisable Tahar Rahim). This is only partially successful – their blue skin paint and bone necklaces emphasise their alienation from the civilization of Rome (as well as making them look like terrestrial Na’Vi), but at times they seem too far removed from humanity to be sympathetic opponents.
Crucially though, the film hinges on the relationship between Marcus and Esca. Although Esca owes him an honourable debt of gratitude for saving his life, he is still seething inside because of the massacre of his family – their uneasy partnership should have been the core of the movie. But while we do get a few scenes of them bonding, their friendship never feels completely believable, leaving Esca’s inevitable actions in the last act seem implausible and unsatisfying.
The Eagle has things to recommend it – battles are exciting and fast-paced and the attention to historical detail is impressive but for the most part, it lacks the action to be continuously compelling or the characterisation to be wholly fulfilling.