Monday, January 28, 2013

The Eagle (2011)

The Eagle was released on February 11, 2011.  It is based on Rosemary Sutcliff's 1954 novel The Eagle of the Ninth and directed by Academy Award-winner Kevin Macdonald (One Day in September, The Last King of Scotland).  Like Neil Marshall's Centurion, The Eagle deals with the mysterious disappearance of the Ninth Spanish Legion in the second century CE.  I think this film is highly superior to Centurion.  In fact, I really enjoy it!

20 years after the disappearance of the Ninth, Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum) arrives in Southern Britain to command a small Roman garrison.  We learn that he requested this undesirable post because his father was in command of the Ninth.  Aquila hopes to restore his family's honour and to find the golden Eagle standard that his father lost.

When his fort is attacked, Aquila leads a brave fight against the rampaging Celts. His efforts save most of his men but Aquila sustains a serious leg injury that cuts short his military career.  He is sent to recover at his uncle's estate in Calleva. There, Aquila saves the life of a slave named Esca (Jamie Bell).  Esca is then purchased by Aquila's uncle (Donald Sutherland) as a personal body slave.

Esca is the son of a Brigantes chieftain and he tells Aquila that he hates everything Rome stands for.  Despite this, the fact that Aquila saved his life means Esca is bound to serve him.  During Aquila's long healing process the two begin to form a grudging respect for one another.  When rumours surface that the Eagle of the Ninth has been seen in the far north, Aquila decides to travel by himself, beyond Hadrian's Wall to find the Eagle and restore his father's honour.  He brings Esca with him despite his uncle's warnings that Esca will probably try to kill him at the earliest opportunity.

After weeks of searching beyond the wall, the duo find a former legionary who has assimilated into a Celtic tribe.  He takes Aquila to the site of the final battle where most of the Ninth was slaughtered by a combined army of all the northern tribes. He tells him the Eagle was taken by the painted Seal People.  It is revealed that Esca's people, the Brigantes, were also part of the defeating army.  This causes a brief fight between master and slave.  When they finally encounter the Seal People, Esca tells them that Aquila is his slave and they welcome Esca to their home.

The Seal People were invented by Sutcliff for her novel and the filmmakers really run with the concept.  They invented a fascinating culture and intriguing look for them.  The Seal People use the Eagle in rituals.  Aquila witnesses a ritual for young men becoming warriors in which the Eagle is used.  In the wee hours of the morning when most of the tribe is in a drunken slumber, Esca and Aquila capture the Eagle. Aquila kills the king of the Seal People but is wounded in the fight.

Now, there is a great race to get back to Hadrian's Wall.  Esca's horse dies after days of hard riding and they must eventually abandon the second horse as well.  Aquila's wound slows them down further.  They are forced to travel in a river so the Seal People cannot track them.  Finally, Esca must leave Aquila so he can get help.  He returns with the survivors of the Ninth.

The elder Romans bravely fight the young warriors of the Seal People.  Most die, but they do manage to win the day.  In the battle, Aquila must kill the lead warrior to save Esca.  The Eagle is safe and the duo return with it to the south where a senator restores Aquila's family honour.

The Eagle is a great story and it's very well-directed by Macdonald.  His experience as a documentary filmmaker is evident.  He often places his camera directly in the action and there's a lot of interesting foreground elements.  Both Tatum and Bell are excellent dancers (Billy Elliot, Step Up, Magic Mike) and their experience clearly serves them well in the fight sequences.

The other star of this film is the locations.  The crew filmed in some beautiful and extremely rugged places.  It must have been challenging to work in some of these locations but the film benefits greatly from them.

I'd say this is a must-see film.  It's available on DVD and blu-ray.  If you're like me and you love combo packs, seek out the rare Best-Buy exclusive which features a two-sided disc; one side DVD and the other blu-ray.

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