Kevin MacDonald’s The Eagle actually starts off quite interesting. The images on the raft, plus the theme of an untamed land, made me think that this film was going to be a take on Heart of Darkness set in Ancient Roman times. Now THAT would be a film worth seeing, I thought, as I settled in, expecting to thoroughly enjoy the film.
But the film I dreamed about is not what The Eagle is. Before it can really explore the themes of untamed nature and the fragility of the human psyche, The Eagle decides that such ideas are far beyond its grasp. By the third act, it is content with borrowing many of its scenes from Return of the King. It looks good (especially for its small budget) and features some wonderful ideas. But it chooses to sacrifice them in the names of becoming a Lord of the Rings rip off.
The film takes place in 140 A.D. or so. A young soldier named Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) is assigned to command a garrison in the North of England. Most Romans hate this area of the world – so close was it to the barbaric savages that Emperor Hadrian had to build a wall separating Roman land from the untamed Scotland. But Marcus is seeking to redeem his family’s honor – his father had commanded a legion that was destroyed by these tribes. Anyway, some Brittons attack the fort. Marcus saves his men, but is gravely wounded in the process. While recovering, he meets a slave named Esca (Jamie Bell) and hears about how his father’s treasure, a golden eagle, has been spotted amongst the tribes in the north. Marcus then takes Esca on a quest beyond Hadrian’s Wall to recover it.
One thing that I was missing the most during the film was how the Roman culture was never shown. Oh sure, certain characters wear togas, and the Roman attack squadron shown in the film uses historically accurate fighting tactics. But that is as far as it goes. One thing that I always did admire about the Hollywood epics of the past was the sense of the land they gave. It was an excellent example of studio artificiality. When characters watch a gladiator match, one gets the sense of an actual gladiator match. Yes, in most cases, character development and scripts were not given adequate attention, but the worlds that were recreated were worlds that I loved exploring.
The Eagle doesn’t really have any of those qualities. A gladiator match is shown, but it does not transcend the film the way, say, Spartacus’ matches do. The camera, in fact, stays focused on the characters and their faces through the first half of the picture. It does not go beyond this gaze until the characters go to Scotland. I must admit that these shots were breathtaking, but it was a feeling of “too little, too late.”
So, it fails as an epic. Doe sit succeed in any way? Well…it does succeed at creating an adequate adventure film. There is a chemistry between the leads, and an actual sense of danger when the tribes are encountered. Normally, I would not really pause and mention these qualities (all films are supposed to have them, aren’t they?) but it does work here. If all blockbusters had that sense of chemistry and danger, they would be much better. It’s simple, but quite effective.
The problem is that the film decides to remain simple. Just when it seems that The Eagle may explore darker themes, it decides to sit firmly where it is. It’s the equivalent of sitting on a roller coaster that never goes past the initial hill. There is something very exciting about this material. To admit otherwise would be foolhardy – it’s strange then that the film is first in line to do so.
If one thing characterized this piece, it is fear. The Eagle is afraid to let the material be about what logic dictated it SHOULD be about, and was even more afraid to try and recreate ancient Rome. Instead of relying on the great Hollywood epics of the past, it relies on the more recent films in order to tell a simple story as easily as possible. From a technical standpoint, it is well done and somewhat satisfying. Like a hamburger from McDonalds, The Eagle is fine at satisfying certain desires, but just cries out for something more.