'The Eagle' has Landed

  Roman swords and sandals epics have become more frequently seen attractions on the silver screen ever since the major success of Gladiator. ‘The Eagle’ is another such tale, based on the true story of the disappearance of the Ninth Legion (Hispania) in what we today call Scotland.  The time is 140 A.D., Hadrian’s wall divides England from Scotland,  and for one hour and 54 minutes we are presented with the tale of  Marcus  Flavius Aquila  (the last name in fact means eagle) who has come to Briton to redeem the honor of his family name, for his father had been the leader of that lost legion.   The  movie chronicles the search of Marcus for the lost Eagle, the symbol of Rome, a search which takes him well beyond Hadrian’s wall where he must deal with Brigantes and the Seal people and others.   What shall we say about this ‘history’ film with epic sweep, that appeals to the virtues of ‘honor and faithfulness’  (honores/ fidelis)?

Firstly I must say that the visuals of this film are excellent, especially the beautiful scenes from the highlands of Scotland. And for the most part, the film makers have tried to give us an authentic look at Romans in Briton during this period, and the tribes they encountered.  Secondly, despite some laments from some film critics,  this movie is not too long at an hour and 54 minutes.  It builds momentum slowly as Marcus and his slave  Eska make their long and winding journey in search of what happened to the Ninth Legion and its standard.  

It was Paul Tillich who once said that the difference between a sign and a symbol is that a symbol participates in that to which it points,  say like the American flag.  So it is that if ‘the eagle is lost, honor is lost, and if honor is lost, all is lost’,  as one Roman in the film says quite rightly.   Festering in the heart of Marcus is the need to win back the honor of his family name by finding that eagle and finding out what happened to his father and his legion.   And so, he will not accept an honorable discharge after serving bravely in Briton, no he will go and try and regain honor.  In an honor and shame culture,  honor,  not truth not even life is the top value in the ethical hierarchy of values, something you would give your life for, and even tell a lie for.

Some critics have also complained about Channing Tatum’s some what stoic and stolid portrayal of a leader of a Roman legion, but then many such military leaders were and are like that.  I actually thought he did a good job of not over-acting, but rather letting his bravery and honor speak for him.  He portrays a noble Roman more than adequately,  and complaints about his accent are absurd. This is a movie in English for the English-speaking world.  And whether the soldier has an American English accent or a British English accent or an Aussie accent is quite beside the point— none of them sound like ancient Romans speaking Latin, so there isn’t an authenticity issue at all, unless you complain it’s an issue with everyone in the film. I also enjoyed the role Donald Sutherland plays in this film as Marcus’ friendly uncle who looks after him as he convalesces from a wound.

The heart of this film, and it does have a heart, is the growing relationship between Marcus and Eska, the Brigante whose life Marcus saved in the Roman games he was forced to participate in against a gladiator.  But Eska refused to fight, refused to co-operate with making someone’s life a game or sport for others to watch, thus showing his own nobility.  Marcus is so impressed he insists he must be spared the sword.  My one historical complaint is that when the crowd spares him it should have been thumbs down, not thumbs up, because in the Roman arena actually thumbs down meant spare the man, not thumbs up, despite our own modern interpretations of that gesture.  

What we see develop as Eska and Marcus journey north is a growing relationship of respect and comradeship, and eventually of loyalty and kindness in the midst of mayhem and danger.  Both men prove true to their word and as good as their word.   While this is by no means a great film,  in the dead zone of movies that usually appear in January or Feburary, this is a decent film, worth watching if you care about the Greco-Roman world in which Christianity became the dominant religion.  It is a film the men who fought at Iwo Jima in WWII could readily identify with— find the lost flag and raise it, and defend its honor.  That approach to life is as old as Rome  and as new as today.

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  • http://www.oscarsflickpicks.com Oscar

    Ben, I saw this film over the weekend and I can mostly agree with you: visuals are excellent, the portrayal of pre-Christian Scotland is grim, and the theme of honor and faithfulness is strong. But what I take issue with is you failure to mention the great performance of Jaime Bell as the slave/friend Esca.

    It is Esca who displays the bulk of the honor and faithfulness, after all, he is the one with the least to lose and most to gain by dealing treacherously with Marcus Aquila. He COULD have betrayed him at any time and gained his freedom from Rome, but he CHOSE to keep his word, even to the point of death.

    Sure, Marcus WAS operating on an honor/shame code by trying to clear his father’s name, but that wasn’t as compelling as Esca’s personal sacrifice.

    The movie was just “OK” as far as I was concerned. It took too long to get moving and the ridiculous Seal people tribe was an artifice used to spice up the movie. They were not an historical people but, rather, the creation of the movie’s writers. They were a direct ripoff from any number of American western movies involving Native Americans. And humans that could outrun horses? PLEASE! And why was it that their face paint did not come off in the rain or from sweat? Hm?

    The chase scene and the final conflict were no surprise, and what COULD have been a GOOD movie was only a mediocre one. If I hadn’t of gotten the senior discount for my ticket I might have been disappointed in the film but, as it was, $3 off made it worthwhile.

  • Ben Witherington

    Oscar I don’t really disagree with any of your criticisms here, I don’t think this is a great movie, and you are right that Esca deserves more ink…. except that, he has very little to say in the movie. It’s his actions that speak loudly. As for the Seal people, have you actually studied the northern Celts? Apparently not.


  • Sean

    Hi Ben, I was just wondering if you could list your top picks of movies to help students understand the Graeco-Roman world?

    Just trying to do everything I can to get into that world.

  • http://www.oscarsflickpicks.com Oscar

    My dear BW3: Apparently YOU have not read what the film makers said about their OWN movie. The screen writer was very specific in an interview that the Seal people were a creation of his own imagination.

  • http://www.oscarsflickpicks.com Oscar

    My dear BW3: Apparently YOU have not read what the film makers said about their OWN movie. The screen writer was very specific in an interview that the Seal people were a creation of his own imagination, the gray paste, Mohawk cuts, etc. There is no doubt that people lived such lives, but the portrayal of the Seal people was strictly imaginary.

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    Oscar I don’t care what the writers thought they imagined. In fact northern Celts did paint themselves, and did do some hair shaving, and did live as primitively as some American Indians. So, imagination or no imagination, it turned out o.k. on that score—- except of course for the we can run as fast as horse farce.


  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    Sean there are not a lot of Greco-Roman movies worth recommending, but there are some TV miniseries that were on HBO or elsewhere that come to mind. The recent HBO epic Roma is pretty good, especially in getting pagan attitudes about family and ancestors right and the rivalry conventions. Old but still good in places is I Claudius (though there are some bawdy scenes you couldn’t use with students). Gladiator is o.k. and in fact Peter and Paul are not bad for giving an impression of how hostile or indifferent the Greco-Roman world might be or welcoming to the Christian faith.


  • Jeff

    Ben, finally re-found your always enjoyable blog. Appreciate the movie review (great to see a fellow Bible student who also has a similar love for all things film! ;)

    Thanks for the review. Will check this movie out.

  • Random reader

    Just a random observation, at no point did they say the ‘Seal people’ could run as fast as a horse, Eska did however point out they could take routes a horse could not – quite true in rough terrain. As far as the Native American ripoff, yes and no – they were very much like what stylized natives are portrayed that’s definitely true. Historically though, the Gaelic and Germanic tribes weren’t a lot different excepting being more technologically advanced and larger. Only real gripe I had was they ate a rat but didn’t appear to take any meat from the fallen horse.