The collapse of Western Civilization is pretty in these days. To varying degrees, it colored some of the most important American films of 2007 and 2008: WALL-E, No Country for Old Men, and There Will Be Blood all flirted with Revelations. And if terrorism isn’t the tipping point, or Sept. 11, the Internet, or Iraq, it’s universal healthcare or the climate-change crisis, political upheaval or the snail’s-pace economic recovery, or certainly the rise of Eastern Civilization: namely China. So the story of the Legio Nona Hispana—or the Roman Empire’s Ninth Spanish Legion—has a prescient tingle. Although nobody knows for sure, it was long suspected by historians that the formidable legionnaires had ventured too deeply into the heart of darkness—present-day Scotland—and met their match in the native “barbarian” tribes. Maybe the tale captivated me so much because of the telling; my history professor dressed like the ghost of Hamlet’s father and treated us students like frosty cupcakes that he could devour whole. But, given that the Legion disappeared in the second century, A.D., during the Pax Romana—three-and-a-half solid centuries before the Empire’s eventual decline and fall—their tale has the effect of that little breeze one gets from the swing of a scythe before it hits its target. It’s a whiff of imperial hubris.
The fate of the Ninth is the subject of the movie Centurion, which came out last year and which I have to mark as a subject for further study—okay, whatever, I missed it. But The Eagle, which is based on The Eagle of the Ninth, a children’s novel by Rosemary Sutcliff written in 1954 (another subject marked for research), hurtles us to the next generation; it also makes the historical parallels perpendicular—impacted. (I don’t mean this obstreperously, mind you; the legion’s legend has been disputed in recent years.) Cohort Centurion Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) has volunteered to take a command in that backwater the Romans call Britannia. His ulterior motive is to reclaim the honor that his father lost with the Ninth; his dad was the dude in charge. Much of this is ceremonial: Marcus Aquila wants to return the Legion’s eagle emblem, sculpted in gold, to Rome. It symbolizes the honor and glory of the Empire; and, more importantly, it helps to shape the story into a handy quest narrative.
Now, if you razzed at the mention of Channing Tatum, I’ll have you know that he looks like a brooding bust of Caesar (or Daniel Craig) and has the physique that the legionnaires’ armor was molded for; moreover, he gives the part nothing less than an honorable good try. However, when he kisses his Roman-era rosary, his halo is too dim to pass for devout, and his high-pitched voice betrays him in one key scene. The screenplay (by Jeremy Brock) betrays him and nearly everyone else in others. But Brock, and the director, Kevin Macdonald, have themselves been let down by movie conventions that have been elusive for nearly 50 years. Old-school historical epics look stodgy, square, and fake, and new-style camera free-for-alls come off like a bone-headed Hollywood arrogation. (That said, some anachronisms are infinitely less tolerable than others: say, the soldiers’ “hup 2-3-4!” marching orders, or Marcus Aquila rolling over in his sleep to reveal a freshly laundered pair of tighty-whities.)
The Eagle does not capitulate too much to “modernity,” as Ridley Scott’s action-heavy Robin Hood did; and it’s devotedly sword-and-sandal, rather than lightsaber-and-Crocs. Although at times I wished that maybe Terrence Malick or Francis Ford Coppola or Kathryn Bigelow were behind the camera instead, Macdonald and Anthony Dod Mantle, the cinematographer, sustain the illusion of a magically barbaric Great Britain with mauve sunsets unblemished by smog, lochs swaddled in the mist, russet branches that seem to be tortured into spindly shapes, and mosses that grow green like emeralds. When Marcus Aquila, fervid, weak and wounded, trudges through these exotic brooks and streams, you feel the pull of the tides, the chill of the rains soaking into him. This isn’t Apocalypse Now, or even apocalypse way-back-when—it’s The New World. And yet, during this Roman’s holiday, he only comes to trust one Briton—his loyal slave, Esca (Jamie Bell); and the filmmakers’ overview of the tribe possessing the eagle (the “seal people”—not to be confused with fans of the musician Seal) is wide rather than deep. These warriors sport mohawks and wear an algae-colored paint on their faces even during downtime. (And you thought kilts were a faux pas!) But their only real individual is a freckle-faced child. Tahar Rahim, who plays their prince, has a tragic look that is never allowed to live up to its potential. When the centurion lifts his paw from the limp throat of the royal he’s drowned, the war paint washes off, and there’s something deeply upsetting about seeing this boyish mien laid bare: something that Macdonald seems to sense but fails to articulate.