Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Eagle - And How Was It?

I got out to see "The Eagle" on Friday night.  What do I think?  Well, it's difficult to be objective about a movie like this.  There's one way of looking at a historical fiction movie for a general audience, and another way that wargamers and history buffs see things.  For me, anything set in the Ancient world isn't going to be a complete waste of time - hell, I can even have an enjoyable evening sitting through such absurdities as "Jason and the Argonauts", or even "Xena, Warrior Princess".  But even acknowledging this ambivalence, I have to rate "The Eagle" as a minor disappointment - no better than a B rating when I was hoping for an A.

Yes, there are some problems with the Roman kit and equipment (although I thought the Picts were well portrayed, and even the Seal people were plausible enough), but these wargamer nitpicks aren't really what my objection to the movie is.  It's that the film, even though it is predominantly respectful of the source material contained in the novel, seems to have lost most of the magic and mysticism of Sutcliffe's creation.  I can't really put my finger on it, but the book was so involving, such a vivid portrayal of an Ancient society that a reader could get lost in, that the condensed version shown on the screen is more of a simple adventure story instead of the complex, and conflicted, story on the pages of the original novel.  The movie does make an honest effort to get the history right, and the production strives to get the essence of Sutcliffe's vision, but it simplifies the tale of honor restored while only brushing over the theme of the clash of cultures.  One of the things I found most interesting about the book version of "The Eagle of the Ninth", was that there are no simple answers in life and no easy path to moral resolution.  Here, as Hollywood demands, the good guys win in the end, at relatively little cost, and the protagonists all finally go home happy, just like the ending of a Disney film.  In the book, even though the main character finally gets what he was looking for, it doesn't mean really what he thought it would.  The movie misses the whole subtext of the fleetness of joy, the lasting satisfaction of contentment, and the melancholy sense of dreams lost and redirected.  The movie is most definitely a less mature version of the novel.

That all said, what if one had never read the book, and was just looking for a rousing Sword and Sandal film?  I think that "The Eagle" is satisfactory on that score, if not a classic film.  The action is good and the movie does give a sense of a brutal, alien world that our own eventually actually evolved out of.  The actors do a reasonable job, and the characters have more depth than your typical action movie.  So, even though I was disappointed when comparing this film to the book, if you are a fan of Ancient History movies in general, an Ancient wargamer, or an Ancient History buff, then you should still rush out a see this film - it's the closest thing the film industry will give you to satisfy your tastes.  I don't know how the general movie going public is going to feel about this film though - it's too intellectual for your typical teenage action movie aficionado, but probably won't attract a lot of more mature viewers who aren't also history fans.  I will be surprised if "The Eagle" will be in American theaters for an extended run (but I bet it will do better overseas), so if you are looking to see it - and I surmise that readers of this blog will want to do so - then I would get out as soon as possible to do so or you'll be waiting for the DVD release.


  1. The trouble is with this type of film is that even before watching it, you know your going to be disapointed by wrong helmet, wrong armour, alternate history or some other thing that really gets on your nerves. Saying that I'll see it anyway, I've not rtead the book yet so I'll enjoy it more Hopefully!! Thanks for the write up!!

  2. I'm looking forward to seeing this. I know they'll be 'head shaking' moments but we get to see so few big budget historical things they're all worth a look.

    Re your comment about seeing things with two heads on: the 'normal viewer' and the 'wargamer', I remember going to see Gladiator with an entire archaeology department, all Romanists! They were even critisisng earrings for being out of period!

    Thanks for the review.