BY ROBERT HAMMERLE, guest contributor to Hammervision
Despite some rather obvious shortcomings, the historical adventure/drama “The Eagle” adds up to some pretty rousing entertainment in much the same fashion as the recent World War II prison escape gem, “The Way Back”. While I won’t deny there are a couple of minor plot twists that come off as artificially convenient, not to mention the fact that you have to swallow ancient Romans speaking perfect English, “The Eagle” slowly but undeniably draws you in to the point where those drawbacks are quickly ignored.
Set in Britain during the second century A.D., we find the emerging star Channing Tatum playing Marcus Aquila, a Roman Centurian battling hoards of poorly clad and dentally challenged local inhabitants who for some reason take offense at the Roman invasion of Britain. While young Marcus wears the honor of Rome on his sleeve, he is also profoundly haunted by the disappearance of his father and his lost Ninth Legion who vanished somewhere in Northern Britain years before.
Wounded in battle and forced to a convalesce at a seaside villa (think Monte Carlo without indoor plumbing), he is cared for by an uncle he never met, Aquila, played with sly understatement by Donald Sutherland. While it is good to see Mr. Sutherland on screen again, he really is called upon to do little more than act himself, namely an aging pixie with a twinkle in his eye and a wry sense of humor.
Central to the success of this film is a chance encounter Marcus has as he watches two combatants at a gladiator match, one a slave played by the woefully underrated British actor Jamie Bell. Moved to save Bell’s life, the two of them begin a quest into the unknown regions of what is now Scotland to try to determine the fate of Marcus’s father, his lost Legion and its emblematic Eagle referred to in the title of the film.
Tatum reminds me of a young Brad Pitt in that he is a classic Hollywood hunk trying to demonstrate that he is more than just a pretty face. To escape his pretty boy image, Pitt followed up his male beauty queen performance in “Legends of the Fall” (1994) with performances of tortured, gritty men with dirt under their fingernails in such movies as “Fight Club” (1999) and “Twelve Monkeys” (1995).
Following Pitt’s example, Tatum was one of the few good things in Ron Howard’s largely forgettable “The Dilemna” where he appeared as a tattooed and completely confused lover of the married Wynona Ryder. Here, while his Marcus Aquila begins as a privileged Centurion, the roles are reversed on an undeniably captivating adventure that finds him becoming Mr. Bell’s slave when they enter the latter’s homeland.
One of the great strengths of “Eagle” is its magnificent cinematography. Filmed on location as the camera follows the journey of Tatum and Bell through the uncharted glens of Scotland, the breathtaking scenery adds an aura of majesty to this film that is as beautiful as it is sensual. Combined with the friendship that evolves between master and slave, including whenthe roles are reversed, “Eagle” adds up to a tiny February film that has an unexpected emotional impact.
If you don’t know who Jamie Bell is, I urge all of you to go rent “Billy Elliott” (2001), where he gave a breakout performance as the young boy from a working class British family who simply wanted to be a ballet dancer. And if you’re interested beyond that, take in “Nicholas Nickleby” (2004) where he joins an ensemble cast led by Jim Broadbent, Anne Hathaway and Christopher Plummer in a spectacular adaption of Dickens’s lively historical comedy/drama, as well as “Defiance”, last year’s overlooked World War II drama that tells the story of three Jewish Eastern European brothers who escape the death squads of the Nazis only to lead a resistance while seeking to avenge the deaths of their friends and loved ones. I think one can safely say that we can expect some intriguing work from young Mr. Bell in the years ahead.
For those of you still wrestling with whether to see “The Eagle”, I think it is a fair statement to compare it to such classic early American westerns as “A Man Called Horse” (1970) and “A Man in the Wilderness” (1971). Both starred the late Richard Harris as an American trapper and explorer forced to come to grips with the indigenous people whose land he was invading. In “The Eagle”, Tatum goes through the same metamorphosis as he sees first hand the destruction that Rome has visited on local tribes in the name of glory and conquest.
And speaking of aggrieved local tribes, “The Eagle” has a great villain in the person of the Seal Prince played by Tahr Rahim, the star of last year’s Oscar nominated “A Prophet”. All but unrecognizable in body paint, he is both sinister and touching as the leader of an indigenous people trying to kill our heroes while defending his home and people.
Quite frankly, I have little doubt that a movie like “The Eagle” could have readily devolved into little more than a superficial soap opera had it not been directed by the very accomplished Kevin MacDonald. Overlooking his recent pedestrian film “State of Play” (2010), films like “Touching the Void (2003) and “The Last King of Scotland” (2006) were the works of a master craftsman.
Yes, “The Eagle” is frequently bloody as it depicts mankind in all of its primeval glory. However, those moments are not exploited, and as a result those of you who get a bit squeamish with unnecessary violence should not be unduly alarmed. Additionally, while the Roman world was a man’s world, “The Eagle” avoids dwelling on the inevitable tawdry romantic relationship that has marred many a previous films.
While I should also add that there is not a single significant role by a female in this film, that also means that you girls need not worry about women once again being reduced to little more than sexual curiosities. And in a backhanded sort of way, that’s really kind of an artistic compliment.