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The Eagle (7/10)

by Tony Medley

Run time 114 minutes.

OK for teenagers.

It’s 140 A.D. and Roman Emperor Hadrian is really ticked off. Twenty years previously in Britain in 117, the 5,000 man Ninth legion marched north into Caledonia (now Scotland) and disappeared along with their golden emblem, the Eagle of the Ninth. So Hadrian built a wall across the entire country, sealing off the north.

That’s the story that came out of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s novel, The Eagle of the Ninth, which she wrote in 1954. Sutcliffe’s supposition made for a gripping story, but some research casts doubts on her novelistic premise. Some records can be interpreted as indicating that detachments of the Ninth Legion were serving on the Rhine frontier later than 117, and it has been suggested that it might have been annihilated in eastern Europe, not Britain.

Sutcliffe also based her novel on the discovery of a wingless Roman Eagle at Silchester. But Silchester is in the south, nowhere near Hadrian’s wall in the north, and the eagle that was found is clearly not a Legionary Eagle, but a decorative one. Even given these historical niceties, Sutcliffe fashioned a terrific story out of them and this film captures it nicely.

Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) takes over a small garrison in the southwest, determined to rejuvenate the reputation of his father, Flavius, who commanded the disappeared Ninth.

Saving a slave, Esca (Jamie Bell), from slaughter in the arena of his uncle Aquila (Donald Sutherland in a fine performance), and hearing that the Eagle has been seen in the north, Marcus and his slave take off by themselves to retrieve it.

Tatum and Bell give fine performances as they walk and ride through the wild north looking for the Eagle, encountering various obstacles and native savages along the way. Ably directed by Kevin Macdonald from a fine script by Jeremy Brock, production designer Michael Carlin teamed with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (who won an Oscar® for Slumdog Millionaire) to film Scotland to look as wild and forbidding as it must have in the 2nd Century A.D, maybe even more desolate than it really was back then.

While I liked a previous film set near Hadrian’s Wall, King Arthur (2004), which was speculation about who Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table really were, that film was based on nothing with any historical basis (the story of Arthur comes from old Welsh legends, put into literature by Geoffrey Monmouth in his mostly fictional Histories of the Kings of Britain, written circa 1135-39). This, on the other hand, is an entertaining adventure film made a bit more tantalizing by the speculation based on real facts.