“Please help me regain my father’s honor”
The case of Kevin Macdonald’s The Eagle is one of preconceptions and a desire to sound important on behalf of critics. With below average notes across the board and an almost universal slamming of lead actor Channing Tatum, the biggest surprise to me watching was how much I enjoyed not only the stunning cinematography in dream sequences tinted amber and the kinetic masses of muscle, blood, and swords in frenetic fight sequences, but also the central performances of a Roman soldier and the British slave sworn to help him. I don’t care that I shouldn’t like Tatum, the ex-collegiate football player turned stripper turned dancer/model. While his first few roles leave a lot to be desired, work with Dito Montiel, an emotional turn in Stop-Loss, and the flexing of his comic chops in The Dilemma prove he is by no means worthy of the laughing stock label most put upon him. His stern, brooding visage is actually perfectly suited for a Roman legionnaire, that mix of power, ego, and strength to both make him a born leader and never allow him to sit at home when the opportunity to clear his family name is in reach.
I equate the film—formerly titled The Eagle of the Ninth, after Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel on which it is based—to the film Centurion from last year. Both take historical accuracy with a grain of salt, doing their best to reach the aesthetic of the chaos in a Roman-ruled Britain, the painted savages fighting for freedom, and the gorgeous fog-filled forests of trees and sprawling hills while also bringing their audience an ample amount of blood and sweat, the sword fight action being what people truly paid their ticket price to see. The story behind Rome’s conquest, the British enslavement, and both sides’ hubris in constantly looking to war rather than diplomacy to earn the right to claim this land is merely background exposition to the journey Jeremy Brock has crafted. Yes, we need a cursory knowledge, cultivated throughout the runtime as Roman (Tatum’s Marcus Aquila) and Britain (Jamie Bell’s Esca) clash, to understand their complicated relationship, but really our only objective is to watch and see if Marcus’s dream of regaining the Eagle of the Ninth lost by his father, forever sullying their name, can be achieved.
Once an early fight—one that proves his honor and leadership to a contingent of soldiers who had all but written him off as boy too wrapped up in the want of success to ever be one—leaves him badly wounded and honorably discharged, we wonder if the fantasy has ended before it could begin. Sent to live with his uncle (Donald Sutherland), a future of sitting around with politicians and watching gladiator fights while barely able to walk without help only reinvigorates his desire, threatening to darken his soul with the anger of inability and the revulsion of men in robes telling him what he can and can’t do. But behind the coarse fighter’s instinct lies a compassionate heart, one necessary to rally a battalion of men. He would never leave a soldier to die and he would never run when the fight had ceased to conclude. It is this capacity for bravery that he sees in the slave Esca when throwing down his sword in the ring with his killer while all watching clamor for his execution. There is respect in this man’s willingness to die rather than be a spectacle for lazy men, beginning the unlikely kinship necessary to fulfill his life’s goal.
You assume by the muddied metal and dark skies of men in armor on the poster, along with the epic scale of an early defense of a Roman fort, that The Eagle will be full of action and battles. And while there are a fair share of such things, the glue at the core is watching the growth of Marcus and Esca as their eyes open to the senseless murder on both sides and the acknowledgement that while they fight for honor and survival, so too does the other. As master and slave leave, they for the north of England to wander through a land with men who would kill the Roman as soon as he spoke in search of the metal eagle standard once held high at every victory of Rome’s empire, we experience their evolution as human beings, as men who have seen too much death in the name of nothing. Esca goes along—in debt for his life—and eventually shows Marcus what it is to be the slave. He sees the joyful glow as Marcus talks of Roman victories the eagle had seen and is unafraid to tell of his family’s destruction under the same golden watch. No matter the conquest, each also held its share of rape, theft, and murder.
There are some wonderful supporting turns from the likes of stalwart Mark Strong as Guern, the one man hidden in the northern fields that holds answers to where the eagle has gone and Tahar Rahim’s Seal Prince, a savage with hatred in his soul and a need for retribution when betrayed by a guest he trusted. But The Eagle truly revolves around the relationship of Bell and Tatum and it lives or dies by how you feel it works. Bell has never disappointed, oftentimes stealing whatever movie he is in, and his conflicted slave out for survival with a willingness to frustrate and anger those who could kill him in order to achieve his goals continues the trend. It’s a strong performance that should show Tatum’s inferiority—if there were any—but the simple fact the two coexist as equals proves many are too quick to judge. His Marcus is a man looking to complete a mission, never wavering to kill his enemy, no matter how young. Nuance is left to Bell, Strong, and Rahim simply because they have roles full of regret, pain, and suffering. Tatum’s is one for them to rally around, his steady hand a beacon of unwavering strength. And to that end he succeeds.
 Channing Tatum (right) stars in the Roman epic adventure THE EAGLE, a Focus Features release directed by Academy Award® winner Kevin Macdonald. Photo Credit: Matt Nettheim
 Tahar Rahim (left), Jamie Bell (center) and Channing Tatum (right) star in the Roman epic adventure THE EAGLE, a Focus Features release directed by Academy Award® winner Kevin Macdonald. Photo Credit: Keith Bernstein
 Mark Strong stars in the Roman epic adventure THE EAGLE, a Focus Features release directed by Academy Award winner Kevin Macdonald. Photo Credit Keith Bernstein.