Ambitiously set in the second century, The Eagle is a codpiece-and-crossbow saga of relentlessly exciting battle sequences sandwiched between tedious, unconvincing chatter about testy tribes, cantankerous centurions, fiery feudal warriors and camera-ready six-pack abs modeled by hunky pinups Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell. It isn’t going to win any awards for artistic excellence, but with two 8-by-10 glossies flexing their glutes from here to the middle of next week and an able support group including Donald Sutherland and Denis O’Hare, it’s not exactly a snore, either.
120 AD. The Roman Empire is divided by Hadrian’s Wall. To the south, there is Rome and the beaches. In the far north, there is Britain, including what is now Scotland, but Roman soldiers are not welcome there since a great Italian general named Flavius Aquila marched into England to conquer it and lost 5,000 members of the Roman Army who vanished into thin air, along with the gold eagle that symbolized their strength, valor and power.
Twenty years later, the warrior’s son Marcus (Tatum), a strapping Muscle McGurk who can crack coconuts with his bare thighs, seeks the post of commander to find out what happened to the lost army, regain the eagle and regain his family’s tarnished honor. Stoic, ripped and fresh from the gym with newly dyed black bangs, Marcus is honorably discharged from his legion due to severe injuries, but with the legions of Rome no longer behind him, he vows to continue his journey into sealed-off territory alone. After a period of rest and recuperation at the home of his uncle (Sutherland) he is joined in his quest by his British-born slave Esca (Bell, who has come a long way, baby, since grabbing world attention as the star of Billy Elliot). Esca hates his master, but owes him his life for saving him from the gladiators and serves him out of gratitude; Marcus is brave and fearless, but depends on his slave to guide him through the hostile territory where only Esca can speak the language.
The film is less about these two men than the reluctant bond between them. There are no women anywhere, and it might not have been anyone’s intention, but there are times when their long, intense looks of longing, closely shared sleeping quarters and mutual rubbing of wounded body parts take on unmistakable suggestions of homoerotic macho fantasies. When Esca holds down his unclothed master during surgery, the innocent romantic imagery in Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel, The Eagle of the Ninth, upon which the film is based, is beautifully realized. Add innumerable hand-to-hand combats and feet stomping over severed heads, and the bloodiest filmgoer’s thirst for violence is also sated. Once they cross over Hadrian’s wall and fall into the hands of the primitive, cannibalistic Seal People, the roles reverse and to stay alive, Marcus becomes the slave and Esca calls the shots. Finally, The Eagle becomes a New World take on the old-fashioned Hollywood Western, where the white man and the savage Indian must learn to trust and love in order to survive.
Despite a leaden script by Jeremy Brock, the Scottish director Kevin Macdonald, who scored with the historical Idi Amin drama The Last King of Scotland, knows how to keep the pulse throbbing, the narrative focused and the physical action churning. I don’t know enough about the Dark Ages to challenge the accuracy, but the events depicted are cinematic enough to hold interest, and from the icy mists of the Scottish highlands to the punishing wilderness of ancient Italy (played by Hungary), the visuals enthrall.
The golden eagle represents the lost and stolen power of the oppressor in much the same way that the imperial neo-Nazi flag in small extremist right-wing German villages today substitutes for outlawed swastikas. Like Colin Farrell as Alexander the Great or Brad Pitt as Achilles, Alabama-born Tatum is not exactly an inspired choice to play a Roman warrior, but the critics who keep throwing rocks at his loin cloth don’t seem to mind the fact that a Swedish Jew named Kirk Douglas played Spartacus.