“The Eagle”: Channing Tatum vs. the savage Brits

"The Eagle" turns a fascinating story from 2nd-century Britain into a politically correct new film

Topics: Movies,

"The Eagle": Channing Tatum vs. the savage BritsChanning Tatum in "The Eagle"

It’s easy, I guess, to come up with explanations as to why our culture remains fascinated with the Roman Empire, 1,600 years or so after its collapse. (Lest you think that this is primarily a contemporary American phenomenon, let’s recall that Edward Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” was published in 1776.) It’s apparently not quite as easy to make good movies about the Roman Empire, or at least good movies that capture the public imagination, since nobody’s gotten it right since Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe’s soapy but memorable “Gladiator” more than a decade ago.

Director Kevin Macdonald’s mid-budget spectacle “The Eagle” captures a memorable vision of life in 2nd-century A.D. Roman Britain, and Jeremy Brock’s screenplay is alive to the Roman obsession with honor and the almost casual acceptance of violent death. But this adaptation of Rosemary Sutcliff’s much-loved 1954 young-adult novel “The Eagle of the Ninth” bastardizes the source material to no good purpose, ending up with a strained combination of rah-rah, boy-bonding adventure and p.c. cross-cultural exploration. Even so, “The Eagle” would be a lot more enjoyable if it weren’t for the utterly incoherent action scenes and the side-of-beef performance from rising young hunk Channing Tatum as its supposedly brooding and wounded hero.

“The Eagle” is the second movie within a year to tackle a historical controversy: The mysterious fate of the Ninth Spanish Legion, once commanded by Julius Caesar, which purportedly disappeared somewhere in Britain around the year 117 A.D. (I say “purported” because some historians think it didn’t happen that way at all.) The first one was Neil Marshall’s underappreciated “Centurion,” an ultraviolent mud-and-blood saga starring Michael Fassbender as the commander of a tiny group of Ninth Legion survivors trying to fight their way home through the contradictions of empire. If “Centurion” was almost too obviously a parable about contemporary America’s overseas misadventures, it was held together by forceful performances, visual intensity and sheer narrative drive, none of which are much in evidence in “The Eagle.”

Tatum plays Marcus Aquila, a young Roman officer whose father disappeared 20 years earlier while in command of the Ninth in hostile northern Britain (aka present-day Scotland). After he’s injured in battle and discharged from the army, Marcus goes north with only his British slave Esca (nice work from wiry young English actor Jamie Bell), in hopes of finding word of his father’s fate and recovering the metal figurine that served as the legion’s standard: the eagle of the Ninth. There’s a lot of great material here, from Marcus’ willingness to die in pursuit of a meaningless symbol to the ties of manly honor that cement the ambiguous Lone Ranger-and-Tonto relationship between Marcus and Esca, a native Celt who is, after all, helping a Roman invader against his own people.

While I have no doubt that Tatum’s football-star physique renders many viewers weak at the knees, his performance as Marcus is delivered in a somber, stoned, one-note manner that I think he means as grave and serious. Macdonald has directed interesting films, including “The Last King of Scotland” and the mountaineering documentary “Touching the Void,” but this one feels rambling and episodic, as if he and Brock had never quite settled on an approach to Sutcliff’s novel and were experimenting with several different kinds of film in one.

More than anything else, “The Eagle” resembles a western — sometimes a white man-among-the-natives western after the fashion of “A Man Called Horse,” and sometimes a war-is-hell western along the lines of “The Searchers” or “Unforgiven.” But like the decision to cast American actors as Romans and British actors as the Celtic slaves (in defiance of sword-and-sandal convention), this feels like an intriguing premise that never quite goes anywhere. In fact, that’s a good way of defining the whole movie, which features impressive Scottish scenery, fanciful re-creations of primitive Celtic villages, and some episodes of disturbing violence wrapped up in a bizarrely lighthearted conclusion, but no discernible reason for existing.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Burger King Japan

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Burger King's black cheeseburger: Made with squid ink and bamboo charcoal, arguably a symbol of meat's destructive effect on the planet. Only available in Japan.

    Elite Daily/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    McDonald's Black Burger: Because the laws of competition say that once Burger King introduces a black cheeseburger, it's only a matter of time before McDonald's follows suit. You still don't have to eat it.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Domino's Specialty Chicken: It's like regular pizza, except instead of a crust, there's fried chicken. The company's marketing officer calls it "one of the most creative, innovative menu items we have ever had” -- brain power put to good use.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Arby's Meat Mountain: The viral off-menu product containing eight different types of meat that, on second read, was probably engineered by Arby's all along. Horrific, regardless.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    KFC'S ZINGER DOUBLE DOWN KING: A sandwich made by adding a burger patty to the infamous chicken-instead-of-buns creation can only be described using all caps. NO BUN ALL MEAT. Only available in South Korea.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Waffle Taco: It took two years for Taco Bell to develop this waffle folded in the shape of a taco, the stand-out star of its new breakfast menu.

    Michele Parente/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Krispy Kreme Triple Cheeseburger: Only attendees at the San Diego County Fair were given the opportunity to taste the official version of this donut-hamburger-heart attack combo. The rest of America has reasonable odds of not dropping dead tomorrow.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Quesarito: A burrito wrapped in a quesadilla inside an enigma. Quarantined to one store in Oklahoma City.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Boston Pizza's Pizza Cake: The people's choice winner of a Canadian pizza chain's contest whose real aim, we'd imagine, is to prove that there's no such thing as "too far." Currently in development.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    7-Eleven's Doritos Loaded: "For something decadent and artificial by design," wrote one impassioned reviewer, "it only tasted of the latter."

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>