The Eagle Dir. Kevin MacDonald

[Focus Features; 2011]

Styles: period action
Others: Gladiator, The 13th Warrior, The Last Samurai, The Last King of Scotland

When the most powerful army in the world invades a hostile foreign land, attempts to impose its style of government and codes of honor on any and all peoples it happens across, and is rejected violently, the only course of action that makes any sense is to wall up the offending area and let the natives carry on with their ancient lifestyles, while keeping a watchful, wary eye on the whole situation. According to The Eagle of the Ninth, the children’s book on which the movie under review is based, this was the logic of the Roman Emperor Hadrian after his campaigns into Northern Britannia (present day Scotland) met with disaster. All would be well with this strategy, unless, a generation later, some macho, insecure young warrior, inevitably the son of a leader who failed in the first campaign, rose to some modicum of power and decided to go back into the unconquered land and get right what his father got wrong.

Believe it or not, this plot outline, which, in case I’m not being clear, doubles as the backstory of American world politics in the 00s, actually describes the 2nd century AD adventures of young musclehead Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum) in the new ancient Rome action movie The Eagle. Further incredulity may follow when I say that the movie seems blind to the subtext it’s presenting, leaving it blissfully unaware of the dismay that its more attentive audience members may experience when they see tribesmen garroted in their homes by a soldier from a huge, foreign army. Of course, it’s only an action movie — blissfully aware of its surprisingly good fight sequences and central love-hate buddy-warrior relationship — that almost, kind of, makes up for it.

The buddies, Marcus and his conquered-Briton slave Esca (Jamie Bell) are headed north of Hadrian’s Wall in search of the titular bird, a gold statue that Marcus’ father lost after he died in battle with the Northern Britons. To Marcus, the eagle is a symbol of Roman power, but so long as it remains in the hands of barbarians, it’ll be symbolic only of embarrassment. To Esca, on the other hand, the gold bird represents the great downfall of the invaders who killed his people, which complicates his relationship with Marcus, to whom he owes a debt of (slave) service, having been rescued from certain death in a Roman gladiatorial ring. Their clash of wills across the Scottish lowlands takes up the bulk of The Eagle’s non-battle scenes.

Being that the movie is, in essence, blatantly neo-liberal, it shouldn’t warrant incredulity to find out that Esca, the slave, will eventually come around to his master’s worldview, even to the point of helping him kill and steal from the people whose plight he supposedly shares. The message is that so long as one single nation-building invader — a hardliner like Marcus — can form a bond (however violently) with a person he’s subdued, the whole invasion must have been worth it. The movie is pretty dumb for espousing this, yet it does its more overt job — setting action sequences against beautiful landscapes — satisfyingly enough, so it might be excused for not having thought deeply enough through its premise.

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