Reviews Too Late: The Eagle

by wjw on February 21, 2012

I finally got around to seeing The Eagle, which was one of two films released in 2011 that dealt with the disappearance of Legio IX Hispania north of Hadrian’s Wall sometime around 117 CE.  (I offer a brief review of the other film here.) Which just goes to show you that when it’s Legio IX Hispania time in Hollywood, it’s Legio IX Hispania wherever you look.

This is by far the better of the two films, in part because it’s based on Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Eagle of the Ninth.   I read this classic YA when I was twelve or so, but I haven’t revisited it since, and my memory of the book is rather sketchy.

Channing Tatum stars as Marcus Flavius Aquila, a young centurion commanding a fort in a remote part of northern Britain.  Turns out he’s the son of an NCO in the Ninth Legion who has been blamed for the loss of the legion and its eagle standard.  Marcus is determined to regain his family’s honor.

(The film seems a little confused about Roman ranks.  As I remember the novel, Marcus’ father was the aquilifer, or standard-bearer, of the legion, and there fore it made a kind of sense that he was blamed for the loss of the eagle.  In the movie, he’s just a senior NCO, so blaming him for the disaster seems a little excessive.  No one at any point seems to think of blaming the upper-class twit who actually led the Ninth Legion into the ambush and got it wiped out.)

Marcus saves his fort from being overrun by a horde of shrieking Brigantes, but is wounded in the action, decorated, and honorably discharged.  Since he’s depressed at the termination of his military career, his wise uncle, Donald Sutherland, decides to cheer him up by taking him to a gladiator show.  (Nothing buoys an ancient Roman like the sight of a slaughter.)  Marcus is impressed by the bravery of a Brigante slave, Esca, and buys him.  (Esca is played by Jamie Bell, who I last saw larking about in Billy Elliot.  He doesn’t get to do much dancing here.)

Marcus hears that the eagle of the Ninth Legion is being held as a trophy north of Hadrian’s Wall, and decides to go with Esca to find the eagle and retrieve it, along with his family honor.  As I recall, Marcus-of-the-novel disguised himself as a Greek ophthalmologist or something, which made a kind of sense.  Marcus-of-the-movie is really, really thick, so he goes north disguised as Marcus Flavius Aquila.

After many adventures in which Marcus demonstrates his (a) courage, and (b) general lack of brains, he discovers that the eagle is being held by the Seal People, who seem to be Iroquois transplanted north of Moray.  (I mean, they’ve got scalplocks and stone tools and live in wigwams.  At times, when the Seal People were chasing our heroes, I wondered if I’d walked into a showing of The Last of the Mohicans.)

The only way our heroes can infiltrate the Seal People is for Esca to pretend to be the master, while Marcus is forced to be his slave.  Marcus, being thick, doesn’t much care for this, so of course Esca is forced to kick his ass in order to demonstrate who’s the new boss.

All is set to rights when our heroes steal the eagle and hightail it back for the border, pursued by the Iroquois or Seal People or whoever.  Marcus’ wound acts up, and he orders Esca to return without him, but in a scene of near homoerotic intensity, Esca professes his devotion and refuses to leave.   And then there’s the ending, which I won’t give away.

The film’s greatest strength is also its weakness, in that it makes no concession to modern values.  Marcus is a freakin’ Roman, and nothing else.  He likes gladiator shows.  He is a sincere devotee of Mithras, to whom he prays not to disgrace his unit.  He has no problem with slavery, so long as he’s not the slave.  He’s a member of the master race who is there to kill the enemies of his people and to redeem his father’s name, and he has no respect whatever for the value of human life, particularly British life.  The brutalities of the Roman conquest are not at all minimized or glossed over.

And above all, Marcus cares about honor, and not much else.

Honor, honor, honor.  A lesser movie would give him a girlfriend or something, but this one is entirely about military and masculine virtues.

For this reason it’s rather hard for a modern viewer to warm up to Marcus.  He’s so uncompromisingly of his own time, and he stands in complete contrast to our own.

Mind, I think this is a good thing in a historical film.  The movie does a good job of showing why Marcus thinks the way he does, and it demonstrates his virtues as well as what a modern audience would consider his flaws.

The film wasn’t a financial success, though at least it made most of its money back.  A shame, because I’d like to see more of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s novels turned into films.

Mastadge February 21, 2012 at 11:29 am

“Esca is played by Jamie Bell, who I last saw larking about in Billy Elliot.”

He was also played Tintin, so you kindasorta saw him larking about behind some mocap there, too.

I thought it was fun to think of this movie as Centurion: The Next Generation.

DensityDuck February 21, 2012 at 6:08 pm

Sounds like something David Drake would enjoy, or at least have written.

Paul Weimer (@princejvstin) February 21, 2012 at 6:47 pm

A lesser movie would give him a girlfriend or something…

I was wondering how uncompromising the movie was going to be that way.

Ralf The Dog. February 21, 2012 at 11:28 pm

I was wondering if you had gotten around to watching Scott Pilgrim? It is a movie I think you might like. It is about they days before Crosby Stills and Nash form the band Crosby Stills and Nash. There are a few blips that infringe on alternative lifestyles and the music is probably not the style you would like, however, I would greatly like to know your opinion. (Note: One thing you need to understand about the movie that is not directly expressed is, Scot Pilgrim is dating a teenager.)

wjw February 22, 2012 at 8:16 am

DD, David Drake might have written it, but Rosemary Sutcliffe wrote it first.

=A lesser movie would give him a girlfriend or something…=

You know, Marcus must have got a girlfriend at some point, because half of Sutcliffe’s output was a long series about the adventures of Marcus’ descendants.

I got curious, incidentally, and found that a few of Sutcliffe’s books are available via Kindle. So I downloaded a couple that I don’t recall being in my junior high school library, and will enjoy them when the opportunity presents itself.

Not Todd February 23, 2012 at 5:37 am

Even my mom liked this flick. The better of the two films by a fair amount I thought.

S.M. Stirling February 24, 2012 at 8:39 pm

I reread the Sutcliff book, and in that he DOES have a girlfriend.

She’s also British, though free and upper class and with Romanized relatives; after he gets the Eagle he settles down in Britain, marries her, becomes a gentleman farmer, and fathers a large family who go on to careers in Roman and post-Roman Britain in later books.

(Incidentally, this is perfectly accurate. Roman soldiers did often marry “native” women, and ex-soldiers settling in the provinces was a well-established career path, one of the ways the provinces became Romanized.)

But Walter’s right, the main focus is on Marcus and his redeeming of the family honor. Mind you, by -Roman- standards he’s a very nice guy. He genuinely likes Esca, and does save his life.

Esca is also preoccupied with honor, by the way — he’s a warrior aristocrat by birth, the son of “a lord of five hundred spears”.

His attachment to Marcus is precisely because of that; Marcus rescued him, so he owes Marcus bigtime. He -can’t- not help him. The only way he can even things up is by being willing to die for Marcus.

Incidentally, I don’t find either Marcus or Esca in the least unsympathetic. I totally agree that honor is more important than life in a situation like that; people who don’t value honor are worms.

Sutcliff was a British army brat. Her Romans are essentially Edwardian early 20th century British military types with some Roman stuff added — the gladitorial shows and so forth… 8-).

S.M. Stirling February 24, 2012 at 8:46 pm

Note on Roman ranks: centurions weren’t NCO’s, they were officers. The optios and decurions and file-closers were the equivalents of corporals and sergeants.

A junior centurion was equivalent to a lieutenant; he commanded about 80 men. The more senior ones would be equivalent to captains and majors.

The senior centurion of a legion, the Primus Pilus (“First Spear”) was the second in command of the outfit and perfectly capable of commanding the 5000-man unit. Effectively he was a colonel, or lieutenant-colonel.

Legionary centurions on detached duty also commanded units of auxiliaries, forts, and so forth.

Centurions could be either promoted from the ranks, or commissioned directly — in the Imperial period, a lot of them did a hitch in the Praetorian Guard first.

Socially they were middle to upper middle class — a senior centurion would be fairly automatically an equestrian, even if he didn’t start out as one.

The Legate of a legion and his five tribunes were -nobiles-, from the Senatorial Order, but they were actually fairly dispensable. They usually weren’t professional soldiers in the sense the centurions were, but in Roman society if you had a public career you more or less had to have military experience.

wjw February 25, 2012 at 5:39 am

I’m disinclined to label a centurion straight off as an “officer,” because there are so many association we have with an officer that don’t apply in the centurion’s case. A centurion commanded a unit the size of a company, so we think of it as a captain’s job; but then a centurion couldn’t be promoted to higher rank. How many captains do we have who can’t be promoted to major?

Whereas a tribune could be promoted to legate, and a legate to general.

We could label a centurion as an NCO because he did all the crappy jobs sergeants do today: supervising training, discipline, and grooming; making sure the soldiers cared for their kit. And of course he was almost always promoted from the ranks, and during the empire he was pretty much a professional.

In actuality there is no modern equivalent to the centurion. I’m just reluctant to label them as “officer” because we have different expectations for someone with that designation.

Anthony Lawton February 25, 2012 at 10:40 am

Glad to see you getting to The Eagle; and interesting to note comments. Just to emphasise that it is Rosemary Sutcliff sic) without an ‘E’ who wrote the book The Eagle of the Ninth.

SMStirling comments that “Sutcliff was a British army brat”. If you mean by that, son of an army man: actually not quite accurate. He was a decorated navy commander, who served in both World Wars. She was indeed brought up in and around various navy depots, including in Malta. And this military context certainly influenced her. For myself, I think her soldiers are much more than “essentially Edwardian early 20th century British military types with some Roman stuff added” … but a debate another time! And I should declare an interest, I grew up with her in my life as a close relative.

wjw February 25, 2012 at 8:51 pm

Anthony– thank you for your comments. It must have been interesting having such an accomplished and well-traveled writer in the family.

And sorry about the misspelling. I’m running on forty-year-old memories here.

I’ve had a chance to dip into “Frontier Wolf,” one of the Sutcliff novels I downloaded from Amazon, and I have to say I was impressed. In the first chapter we’re introduced to the hero, introduced to his problem, introduced to his rather exotic milieu (he’s a gladiator), shown what he feels about all of it, and then plunged into deadly gladiatorial combat, all in a very few pages. It’s a substantial technical achievement, all made possible by the fact of Sutcliff being such a fine stylist that you don’t see the seams (unless you’re an old pro like me).

And this dude is not an Edwardian gentleman by any means. Or even a Roman gentleman. He’s a freakin’ =gladiator,= albeit a rather dreamy one.

Anyway, I’ll look forward to seeing more Sutcliff available for download.

blake March 25, 2012 at 6:12 am

I prefer “The Centurion” with Micheal Fassbinder to “The Eagles” Most of it has to do with attention to detail. In Fassbinders movie, the armour and uniforms follow what historians believe the armour fits like as well as pointing out the difference in uniform between say an auxillia and a legionnaire. Having read your description, it fits for the most part, Where the Centurions took more power however was when they were promoted to command a cohort (legions divided into cohorts, then centuries) or were placed in charge of the first cohort which was a fair bit larger than the other cohorts. This was usually given to a man with a good amount of time in the harness (proving his worth with other cohort commands). Finally the Primus Pillus was the senior centurion. One can hardly imagine a man such as Julius Ceasar or Trajan paying little or no heed to a Primus Pillus’ suggestion. As well, many top centurions were given commands of forts with either a Cohors Equitata or Cohors Millaria. these men were probably referred to as an equivallent as an officer, but finding an exact approximation is almost impossible. Check out Simon Scarrows novels (Eagle series)

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