Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Eagle

The Eagle was a film that, despite a fairly aggressive marketing campaign in the UK at least, sort of slipped past most people’s radar.  This is a shame.  I’m not sure what I expected before I watched it, but I know there is a buzz surrounding Rosemary Sutcliff’s work.  I personally very much enjoyed her novel Outcast.  The fate of the Ninth Legion—a Roman legion in Britain in the 2nd Century (CE)—has fascinated writers for centuries, so Sutcliff’s take (1954) was not the first (nor will it be the last).  However, hers must be a particularly good one, as it has been adapted on TV and radio by the BBC numerous times.  So it was waiting for a good film treatment, and the joint Anglo-American effort has served it well.  However, the breakdown between Anglo and American traditions can be seen in the film’s discarded alternate ending, about which I’ll write more in a minute.

It’s an adventure story at heart (which is Sutcliff’s specialty) but set in a relatively unknown period, giving the filmmakers a good deal of freedom.  The director himself has cited the lack of available factual certainties and has used this to make leaps of faith that are, on the whole, successful (a similar technique, I think, was employed with the interesting but marginally less successful Beowulf & Grendel).  Set in 140 CE, it follows young Marcus Flavius Aquila, a Roman soldier who has grown up in the shadow of his father’s disappearance in Britain with the Ninth Legion.  Determined to reclaim his family record and regain the symbolic Eagle which disappeared with the legion, Marcus proves a courageous and effective tactician.  Inheriting a Celtic slave, Esca, last of the Brigantes, Marcus goes rogue and disappears past Hadrian’s Wall, to the edge of the known Roman world, in an attempt to physically regain the Eagle (and learn some answers about how exactly his father died).  

Almost all of the elements of the film come together beautifully for me.  Channing Tatum may be far from my favorite actor, but he reflects the director’s intentions well:  by using actors with American accents to portray the Romans[1] and actors with British accents to portray the Celts, director Kevin Macdonald makes the point that although our cultures can never be considered stand-ins for one another, there are some sympathetic, cohesive elements—Roman attitudes toward combat, military glory, and family honor, for one (in the commentary, Tatum, perhaps unconsciously, linked being in US Army training to that which he had to undergo to be a legionary).  Marcus is not Channing—the most difficult customs to reconcile are Marcus’ cult of Mithras and the Roman attitude toward entertainment—but I think Tatum makes quite a convincing—and sympathetic—Marcus.

Rome is vilified in Gladiator almost entirely in the person of decadent psychopath Commodus, while it is lauded in the characters of Marcus Aurelius and (Spanish-Roman) Maximus himself.  No one in The Eagle, however, comes out smelling like roses; certainly, effete characters like out-of-touch Roman senators are scorned, but the brutal ways of the various Celtic tribes are contrasted with the deeply-felt wrongs of Esca, standing in for all Celtic tribes who do not assimilate well with Rome.  I knew Jamie Bell’s name well enough from his unforgettable turn in Billy Elliot, and although I had heard him play Tintin in the animated version, I thought it interesting that he had chosen this role.  The Eagle is kind of a buddy film, but with both young men quite taciturn and distrustful, a lot of ground work has gone on to establish their relationship.  Both actors are believable for the physical demands of the roles; Esca, as the slave, victim, and ultimately, the one with all the power, emerges as both the most mysterious and interesting of the two.  I absolutely adored this character and almost wished the movie wouldn’t end so we could observe what happened to the two after their discovery of the Eagle.  It was interesting to me that Bell used his northern accent, which he obviously didn’t in Tintin (though this makes sense given that the Brigantes were based in Yorkshire). 

As the filmmakers admitted, Sutcliff invented a tribe called the Seal People, Celtic warrior/fishermen who lived in the northwest of Scotland.  The filmmakers have chosen—no doubt with their own rationale—to fashion this tribe so that they look like a crossing of cultures between the maritime native peoples of Canada and the Woad-painted Picts.  This is a bit far-fetched and difficult, at times, to take in (after all, as the most vicious of the tribes that ambushed the Ninth legion, they effectively take on the mantle of the Other, so with a heavy visual reference toward Native Americans, it makes it easier for the audience to want Marcus, Esca, and the others to defeat them—they are Other, they are savage, they are not like Us).  Interesting, the Seal Prince was played by a French-Algerian actor whose command of Gaelic is, it must be said, flawless. 

Like many films that I really like—Master and Commander, for example; the first two Nolan!verse Batmans—this is a man’s movie. By that, I mean, that there are no women characters of any consequence.  While I understand why the filmmakers would choose to focus on the Marcus/Esca friendship and would not wish to cloud the issue by bringing in secondary characters—Marcus’ uncle’s role is highly incidental—it would have been nice to have had some female voices, either Celtic or Roman.  That said, I had a gut-feeling that slash-ficcers were going to zero in on this as a possible pairing, and visits to fanfiction.net and deviantART confirmed this.  Sometimes slash-ficcers annoy me, whipping stuff up with no pretext whatsoever, making assumptions (Frodo/Sam and Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin being my pet peeves).  Slash-fic just isn’t really my cup of tea. 

The haunting music and beautifully-filmed sequences (shot in Hungary and Scotland) lent a great deal of atmosphere, and in general I think the script sounded neither too modern nor too archaic.  However, back to the discarded alternate ending.  The one ultimately chosen—without providing too many spoilers—would be your stereotypically “Americanized” ending:  upbeat, providing finality.  The discarded ending would have seen Marcus reject his quest and would have been altogether more lowkey.  I’m not sure which one I prefer, but I understand why the filmmakers ultimately went with the more “Americanized” one.

While Lincoln may have been the best film I saw this winter, The Eagle was the one I enjoyed the most (even more than The Hobbit!).        

[1] To the point that Mark Strong—that perennial character actor who has only gotten one chance at leading man fame, to my knowledge, as Mr Knightley to Kate Beckinsale’s Emma—adopts an American accent to play one of the gone-native Romans.  However, his accent is so convincing, it helped me to pick him out later, again playing an American, in an ad for the highly-anticipated Zero Dark Thirty. 

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