Director Kevin Macdonald made his reputation as a documentarian. One Day in September, his 1999 film about the terrorist attacks at the 1972 Olympics, won an Academy Award. Since then, the filmmaker has bounced back and forth between fact (films on Errol Morris and Mick Jagger) and fiction (State of Play, The Last King of Scotland). For his latest, the 120 AD epic The Eagle, he has a wonderful premise to work with.
The narrative focuses on the tribal brutality of an occupied Britain and the goal of one dedicated Roman soldier (Channing Tatum) to preserve the empire and his family dignity. When he’s not channeling fellow Englishmen Neil Marshall or Ridley Scott, Macdonald does a fine job. But there are times throughout The Eagle when intention and execution get muddled, making an otherwise fine adventure into something akin to Rapa Nui with touches of Gladiator and The Centurion thrown in for befuddled measure.
When the famed Eagle of the Roman Legion goes missing, decorated soldier Marcus Aquila (Tatum) requests a post just outside the most savage of England’s territories. When he is wounded defeating a marauding band of angry locals, rescuing many of his imprisoned men in the process, he is given an honorable discharge and the luxury of spending his days in retirement with his uncle/former Senator Aquila (Donald Sutherland).
But Marcus wants to travel deep into the forbidden region, beyond the boundaries of Roman rule and into the No Man’s Land located north of Hadrian’s Wall. He wants to bring back the Eagle, especially since it was his father who supposedly lost it. With the help of Esca (Jamie Bell) a British slave with knowledge of the province and his own indomitable will, Marcus hopes to restore his faded family name and find a purpose beyond being a former member of the mightiest army in the then known world.
The Eagle gets off to a very unsettling start. Between the odd choice of Tatum as a historic hero and the combination of accents and contemporary attitudes presented by the Roman soldiers, we’re not quite sure if things are serious, or an elaborate ruse. Macdonald makes sure that things look authentic, but his actors often undermine his attempt at period. But once the first filthy British tribe shows up, tattooed and terrifying, things finally find a focus. There is an excellent battle scene where the main Roman defense strategy is illustrated, and the directorial flare Macdonald shows here carries him throughout the rest of the film.
Indeed, once Tatum and Bell set off beyond Hadrian’s Wall, The Eagle hits its stride. It’s pure action and adventure, the clash of cultures and motivations making every rainswept highland vista seem all the more menacing. Things do get a bit wonky again when we meet up with the Pictish people. Like cast-offs from Quest for Fire, their nomadic nonsense can grow a bit tiresome. But since we have a goal-oriented narrative in place, and enough movie knowledge to know that a big time final stand-off is in place, we put up with all the mud make-up mannerisms.
As for the cast, Tatum is good, considering he’s not given much to do on the emotional front. Bell is an excellent accessory, both physically and psychologically, and Sutherland survives the obvious aging Richard Harris/Oliver Reed/Peter O’Toole role. But this is really Macdonald’s showcase, a chance to explore the visual elements of such an alien time and place. There are sequences that suggest a much more heroic mythology in the making, but as with most outsized visions, The Eagle can’t sustain its scope. When it’s small, it’s kind of silly. When it’s big, it’s much, much better.