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In 120 AD, the warriors of the Ninth Roman Legion marched into unconquered Northern Britain—and disappeared.
Not only were 5,000 legionaries' lives presumably forfeited, we're told in The Eagle, so too was the troop's standard, a golden eagle that symbolized everything Rome stood for. To lose a battle was inglorious. To lose the legion's standard was unspeakably shameful.
So deep was the scar on Romans' collective psyche after the disappearance of the Ninth that they built Hadrian's Wall, sealing out the malevolent barbarian hordes that lurked in Britain's myriad misty gray-green glens. It was a boundary, in the Roman mind, that marked the edge of civilization.
Twenty years later, the memory of the Ninth's loss still haunts the empire, especially a young centurion named Marcus Aquila, the son of the commander of the Ninth, Flavius Aquila. Driven by his desire to erase this blot on his family's honor (as well as Rome's), Marcus requests command of a garrison in Britain. But in his second battle against the forces of a rogue druid leader in that territory, Marcus is wounded, then delivered 200 leagues south for surgery.
He receives a medal for his heroism … and an honorable discharge for his injuries.
Convalescing in the care of his Uncle Aquila, who lives south of the Wall, Marcus struggles to find meaning apart from his sense of calling as a Roman commander … until he begins to entertain a preposterous idea: going after the lost Eagle himself.
It's an idea so preposterous that it amounts to suicide, his uncle insists. And so it would, had Marcus not earned the lifelong fealty of a young slave whose life he saved. With the help of Esca, a native of Britain, Marcus believes he can learn the fate of the Ninth and recover the lost Eagle.
And so Marcus and Esca cross over from civilization into the untamed, exceedingly dangerous territory north of the Wall—in a quest for answers and restored honor.
Marcus is propelled by passionate, earnest zeal regarding the values of Rome. For him, honor and responsibility are worth dying for. "Can you imagine anything more magnificent than to be a soldier of Rome," he asks his uncle, "to serve with courage and honor?" Initially, the men in Marcus' new garrison sneer at what they see as untested naiveté. But when Marcus stands by them twice in combat, leading them into battle and risking his life to confront a taunting druid leader, he wins their respect (and is given official commendation).
While recovering from surgery, Marcus' noble character is again evident at a local gladiatorial event. A well-armed gladiator is paired against Esca, a barely armed slave who refuses to participate in the unfair fight, even though he knows it will cost him his life. Marcus convinces the crowd to spare him.
Esca pledges himself to Marcus as repayment. And it's no small commitment. "I hate everything you stand for," Esca tells Marcus. "But you saved me, and for that I will serve you."
Much of the remainder of the film explores what Marcus has to learn about honor from Esca. Though Marcus believes utterly in an idealized vision of Rome, Esca tells of how Romans killed his family members and took his people's land. And Marcus slowly gains a deeper understanding of honor as he's confronted with the reality that the often despised subjects of Rome believe that their resistance constitutes a noble cause, too. At one point, Marcus praises those who've fallen on Rome's behalf and praises Esca's father, too, saying that both lived, fought and died honorably.
[Spoiler Warning] Esca plays a key role when he and Marcus are captured by the much-feared Seal tribe. Specifically, Esca tells them that Marcus is his slave. Esca also manages to locate perhaps 20 or 25 still-surviving members of the Ninth, including a man (Guern) who admits he deserted Marcus' father when it was obvious that no one would survive the Ninth's defeat. Guern tells Marcus that his father indeed died courageously and was the last man holding the Eagle before it was wrested from the Ninth Legion. The remnants of the Ninth then get a second chance at honor when they defend Marcus from the Seal warriors.
Marcus and Esca's evolving relationship comes to resemble, in some ways, Frodo and Sam's as they make their way across Mordor in a perilous, nearly impossible journey. And Marcus eventually releases Esca from his bond of slavery.
Marcus is repeatedly shown lighting incense and praying to unnamed Roman gods and ancestors for favor in battle. When he assumes command at the fort, he prays, "Please help me, father of my fathers, help me to lead my men well. Do not let me dishonor my legion. Please help me regain my family's honor." Marcus also prays to the "lord of light," asking that no misfortune befall his troops. And in a funeral service for troops who have fallen (one of whom is burned on a pyre), Marcus intones, "Fathers, brothers, sons, may peace and honor follow you. May you know no strife. May your souls soar with the Eagle of the Ninth." Several passing references are made to the Roman belief in an afterlife.
Meanwhile, the druid leader sacrifices one of Marcus' soldiers to his gods by decapitating him (offscreen) and saying, "Our gods will bring us victory today." And an initiation ceremony for young Seal warriors involves an intoxicating mix of drink and drugs before a shaman wearing a deer's horns and face comes across a lake to bestow, presumably, manhood on the new warriors.
When Marcus and Esca stumble upon the battlefield where many of the slain Ninth legionaries lie, Esca notes that their feet were cut off after they died to prevent them from walking into the afterlife.
The violence in The Eagle splits the difference between the gory, graphic imagery in R-rated, combat-oriented films such as Gladiator and Braveheart and the slightly more sanitized melees in, say, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
Four battle scenes—three between large groups, one between Marcus and Esca and a small band of brigands—as well as Marcus' flashback-like dreams about the Ninth's final battle include all manner of visual depictions of combat and death. Combatants are done in by swords, knives, arrows and clubs. The camera gives us close-up shots of these scenes without, generally speaking, focusing on blood and gore.
A few moments are worth singling out: A Seal prince slits his young son's throat in front of Marcus and Esca after he learns that the boy helped the two outsiders escape. That awful moment happens just offscreen, but there's no doubt about what's taken place when we see the boy's body crumple. When Esca spares the life of a young brigand, Marcus throws a knife at the fleeing boy and hits him in the back. Marcus then has to finish the job. The druid leader offering his sacrifice decapitates a soldier. The moment of impact happens offscreen; later we see the man's head on the ground. At least one man is set on fire. And after each major clash we see a battlefield littered with corpses.
Esca's gladiatorial skirmish involves him receiving several severe blows to the head. Similarly, Marcus gets roughed up by Seal tribesmen, and he's pulled, stumbling, behind a horse. He sustains a number of bloody wounds during various battles. He stabs and kills a Seal leader.
Esca tells Marcus how his father and two brothers were killed by Romans. He also says that his father took his mother's life by cutting her throat so the Romans wouldn't rape her. A surviving eyewitness of the destruction of the Ninth describes how the Britons ripped the hearts out of men who were still alive and sacrificed officers on altars.
Marcus and Esca both take bloody bites of a raw, dead rodent. We also see Esca scooping the entrails out of a boar he and Marcus killed. A horse falls and must be put down (offscreen). Several naked, decapitated bodies are (partially) shown hanging from a tree. We see a mossy cairn composed of skulls and bones.
Crude or Profane Language
One use each of "s‑‑‑hole," "d‑‑n," "a‑‑" and "bloody." Two uses of "p‑‑‑."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Before an initiation ceremony, all the men in the Seal tribe drink an intoxicating beverage and huddle together in a smoke-filled tent; they're clearly hallucinating and/or drunk. Uncle Aquila and several older Roman men drink wine. Marcus asks for wine to help dull the ache of surgery on his leg.
Other Negative Elements
We see a soldier vomit.
Watching The Eagle, I couldn't help but feel that I was experiencing a very old-fashioned film. Certainly the movie—which is based on Rosemary Sutcliff's 1954 historical novel The Eagle of the Ninth—owes a debt of gratitude to Gladiator and Braveheart, both of which it strongly recalls at points. But apart from those contemporary cinematic references, director Kevin Macdonald's constant focus upon honor and Marcus' refusal to compromise it makes the movie feel like something that could have come out at the time of the book instead of in the second decade of our often-cynical new millennium.
Macdonald may still be trying to make a point about the always tenuous state and fate of aging empires. (Read: The United States of America, circa 2011.) Esca serves as a constant foil to Marcus' earnest, unquestioning patriotism. When Marcus brags about the inherent goodness of Rome, for example, Esca counters with a story about Rome killing his family. Esca also wonders why this vast empire even needed to invade the barren landscape of Northern Britain in the first place. "Why did they have to come north?" Esca asks. "There's nothing here worth taking. Why couldn't they be satisfied with what they had?"
Similarly, Marcus wants to believe that his Roman heritage makes him fundamentally superior to other people groups; but when he has to eat a rat to survive, he has another moment of realization that he's not really any different from Esca. In the end, Marcus begins to understand that honor is not a trait owned by Romans alone, but by every other race and tribe that has struggled to defend itself against threats from the outside.
If there's a cautionary subtext here about the vulnerability of a modern superpower, however, it's not something Macdonald seems determined to beat audiences over the head with. Instead, I suspect what people will remember most about The Eagle is the film's unapologetic commitment to honor and integrity.
Like Gladiator and Braveheart, this is ultimately a story about heroism, loyalty and sacrifice—the foundational virtues undergirding a life of honor. And also like those films, a lot of blood gets shed along the way.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Channing Tatum as Marcus Flavius Aquila; Jamie Bell as Esca; Donald Sutherland as Uncle Aquila; Denis O'Hare as Lutorius; Mark Strong as Guern; Tahar Rahim as The Seal Prince
Kevin Macdonald ( State of Play)
February 11, 2011
June 21, 2011