Epic military films, even those set in the past, aren’t anything new, and “The Eagle” is not particularly groundbreaking. It is a film whose characters are all either Roman soldiers (current or retired) or local guerrilla fighters (current or captured). It’s filled with lush historical details and was shot partly on location in Scotland. It isn’t particularly action-packed, but if you like military epics, it might be right up your alley.
The setup for the plot is straightforward: 20 years ago, the ninth legion went into the North of Britain and were never seen again. Their standard, one of the golden Eagles of Rome, was lost along with them. Now, young Marcus (Channing Tatum), the son of the man who led the doomed legion, is determined to restore his family’s honor. After he is wounded so severely in combat that he’s honorably discharged, he struggles back to health and sets off to find the Eagle on his own, accompanied by his slave, Esca (Jamie Bell). But Esca is a Briton by birth, and once they cross into the unconquered North, can Marcus trust him?
This entire film is essentially a protracted meditation on honor, and the slow meeting of the minds between the thoroughly Roman Marcus and the thoroughly British Esca. This is not a fast-paced film, though the battle scenes are decently shot. Like most films these days, the combat is all shot very close-up so that it’s hard to appreciate, but there is the occasional long shot to enjoy. As a casual student of Roman history, it was a pleasure to see that the Roman clothing and tactics were relatively historically accurate.
Very little is known about the history of the tribes who lived in the British Isles during the Roman invasion and occupation, so the filmmakers may perhaps be forgiven for turning the main Pictish tribe, “The Seal People,” into oddly-garbed barbarians. Even they have their honor, though — by the end of the film it’s fairly clear that all sides in the conflict are made up of human beings.
The first third or so of the film, where we get to know Marcus as the young commander of a distant outpost in Britain, is well-crafted and enjoyable. Once he and Esca are off on their own in the North, however, it begins to lag. They are assailed by the Seal People and Esca informs everyone that Marcus is his slave so that the pair can avoid simply being executed. Here, things stall. Many of the Seal People are so painted in pale mud that their acting ability vanishes, and one can only watch Marcus be frustrated and angry with Esca for so long before it becomes dull. Once the story picks up again, it becomes mildly predictable, but after the dull middle even predictably laid-out action is enjoyable.
The cinematography and costuming are the popular blend of lush and grimy. This is not a film with fresh-scrubbed soldiers on the battlefield. It is, however, PG-13, so it doesn’t have the horrible bone-crunching sound effects and gouts of blood a lot of films have; the squeamish don’t have too much to worry about here.
In the end, whether or not you like “The Eagle” will probably be down to whether the words “epic tale” and “honor” have positive connotations for you. If you like that kind of thing, you might like “The Eagle.” If you just want hacking and slashing and less in the way of character studies and perambulation, stay away.