Thursday 31 March 2011

The Eagle has fallen

I read Rosemary’s Sutcliffe’s The Eagle of the Ninth when I was in my early teens. It’s a bit of a boy’s own historical yarn, though not without some female interest, based on the legend of the Roman Ninth Legion, which supposedly vanished from history into the bogs and myths of first-century Caledonia, that terra incognita in Britain beyond Hadrian’s Wall and civilization. I loved it, a gripping story, well-written, well-plotted and well-told.

Now I’ve seen The Eagle, a movie directed by Kevin Macdonald based on the book, sort of based on the book, since there are some serious departures, including all of the female interest. I understand that the name change was to stop potential American audiences assuming it was a movie about golf!

Did I enjoy it? Well, yes, on one level I did: the cinematography is superb; Scotland has never looked more beguiling, beautiful, mysterious and eerie on film, all at one and the same time. But overall the movie was stolid rather than solid; plodding, literal-minded, poorly acted, and not very inspiring. It’s also quite derivative. I was reminded of movies as diverse as Apocalypse Now, Rob Roy, Brokeback Mountain (yes, Brokeback Mountain!) and, above all, The Last of the Mohicans. The Caledonian tribe called the Seal People even looked like the Huron Indians.

It’s also a road movie with no roads. Marcus Aquila, a completely wooden performance by Channing Tatum, is a man with a mission: he needs to recover the honour of his family and Rome by recovering the golden eagle standard, lost some twenty years before when his father led the Ninth into an unknown fate in the north. Invalided out of the army after a clash with some barbarians, he sets out north with Esca (Jamie Bell), a British slave gifted to him by his uncle (Donald Sutherland).

Esca had previously been saved from death in a gladiatorial show by the intervention of Marcus, with whom he forms a bond based on honour and obligation, not liking and trust. No, Esca, does not like the Romans; Esca would far rather the Romans went home! Road movie, yes, and now buddy movie, of a sort, with the tension between the two becoming the core of the unfolding drama. This might have worked and worked well but there is no real chemistry between the two characters, between the sleep-walking Tatum and the unremittingly surly Bell.

On their journey Marcus and Esca come across one Guern, played by Mark Strong, an English actor who affects a bogus American accent. You see, all of the Romans here are Americans, which is clearly intended to give the audience a not terribly subtle message about the evolution of imperialism. So, there you have it: now you know that Guern is a Roman, one of a band of survivors of the Ninth who have made a home from themselves in this wasteland. It’s on his intelligence that Marcus finds out that the standard lost in battle is with the Seal People, the most dreaded of the local tribes.

Enter the Hurons. Actually, on further reflection, I was reminded more of a band of sinister and overgrown smurfs, given that the warriors of the Seal People have taken to painting themselves in shades of dirty blue. So, on the trek goes and the Sea People encountered, Esca helpfully being able to speak their language, Gaelic, incidentally, which did not appear in these parts for another four hundred years. No matter; some poetic licence has to be allowed, as nobody now knows the language of the people who lived in the north of Caledonia, the people the Romans referred to as the Picts, the painted ones. Gaelic serves as a reasonable substitute.

I’m beginning to tire as I write because this is turning into one big spoiler. You’ve doubtless guessed the rest; yes, the Eagle is recovered and a dash made for the Wall, punctuated by a confusing battle between the old boys of the Ninth gathered together by Guern, looking ever so much like a band of beat-up hell’s angels or hairy roadies, and the Seal people – I simply could not work out who was doing what to whom.

By the end I really didn’t care that much that Marcus with Esca, now a free man, in tow was able to bring the Eagle to Rome to the delight and surprise of a group of Ameri…sorry, Roman senators. There he was, quest complete, walking off Brokeback-style with Esca into a Roman sunset (well, I did say there were no girls!).

The movie is a disappointment, not bad just disappointing. So much more might have been achieved by better direction, frustrating knowing what Macdonald is capable of in movies like The Last King of Scotland. So much more might have been achieved with a far better lead. The Eagle does not soar, it flutters; The Eagle does not land, it plummets.


  1. You know, you just solved a big mystery about the musical "Bye, Bye Birdie!"

    That aside, it's such a shame when movie producers imagine they must alter a well-loved story line. Why waste money purchasing book rights when you plan to create a new work anyway? The mysteries of the Hollywood Mind!

    I actually enjoyed the Last of the Mohicans - especially the music and location shots. It inspired me to look up my family history from that era, which turned out to be fascinating.

  2. I have not seen this one yet, but the movie "Centurion" was based on the same subject. I think the Romans ran off with the pict women, they found the blue makeup irresistible.

  3. I had high hopes for this one. It DOES sound like a mash-up of plots we've seen before. I saw 'Centurion' recently and had similar thoughts - beautiful scenery and great action sequences, but just missing something.

  4. Calvin, I adore The Last of the Mohicans. That really does soar, in score, in drama, in scenery and in acting. Oh, I would so love Day-Lewis as Hawkeye to find me. :-)

    I'd love to know more about your family history. Have you set anything down?

  5. Anthony, I believe so though I hven't seen that. I'll try and catch it online and let you know what I think.

  6. Matthew, please do go and see it, that is if you had intended to go. It's entertaining enough and you may take a different view from me.

  7. Nothing very organized as yet - and I'm still trying to fill in the many gaps. Then there are the multiple cross-connections of collateral lines, but the American history starts with The Mayflower in Massachusetts, and with a plantation in Virginia named "Merchant's Hope."

    There's a mass of stuff that has been written about Mayflower descendants who now number in the millions and it will take a long time to work my way through all that. The Virginia line is less celebrated, but also less documented . . . it is certainly fun looking, though.

  8. WTF?! Woman where do you get the time!

  9. The Romans could never conquer the Picts and could never cross the Rhine, they were massacred in Germania by Arminius, Heil Hermann!!!

  10. The best entertainment for me targeting Roman history have been the well written books of John Maddox Roberts, starting with SPQR. Cheaper than a cinema ticket and thrilling fun for hours.

  11. Good review. "The Last of the Mohicans" was a paean to the noble savage and the noble white men opening up the frontier
    to house the flood of white savages. The Hurons were in actuality, one of the most vicious and savage defenders of their land that the English settlers faced. No cruelty was beyond them and they did not hesitate to inflict them on anyone that crossed their path including women and children. The Hurons with their tactics could probably have laid waste to a good part of the Legion. However, It all sounds to disorganized and confused a narrative to bother with.

  12. Anthony, it was really a question of effort and returns. It just wasn't worth the efort to conquer Pictland though the tribes were defeated, notably at the Battle of Mons Graupius in 83AD by Agricola. Roman armies crossed the Rhine many times and Armanicus' victory at the Teutoberg Wald was more than avenged by Germanicus.

  13. Elektroauge, I don't know those books but I've enjoyed other fiction set in the Roman period, notably the Claudius novels, so I'll check them out.

  14. Count Sneaky, my thanks. If you go to Google images and type in Seal People you will see exactly what I mean!

  15. The Goths, the Vandals, the Ostrogoths, the Arabs, the Normans, the Imperial Army of Charles V. :-)

  16. Who is sacking western civilization today?


  18. Thanks for that reminder, Nobby. I loved that series.

  19. Hi Anastasia,
    Your comments about roman history are 100 % accurate and your comments about Eagle are too. I've watched both centurion and eagle and thought that Eagle was slightly better. It's such a pity history been given a Hollywood make over which bears no resemblance to the truth.

    Can I ask if it would be possible you would review my book for me?
    It's about the same story but about 80% true. It's taken me 5 yrs to write it and Iam getting it published next month.
    It's called The Eagle has Fallen.

    Kind regards
    Brian Young

    1. Yes, Brian, of course. Will it be on AmazonUK?

    2. Hi Anastasia ,
      Yes out on ebooks and paperback.
      Would it be possible I could email you an advanced copy and could feature it or give comments to.?
      What's the best address to email the book too?

      Many thanks in advance,
      I look fwd to your comments

    3. Brian, if you forward your email address I will respond. I'm a tad cautious here. :-)

  20. Ps my website is

  21. My email is

    Many thanks