This tale of courage and fortitude set in Roman Britain stayed in Pissed-off Toff’s mind long after he finished watching it.
From a modern world gone mad there are ever fewer avenues of escape, and I find, nowadays, that almost any film set in the past offers a temporary relief without which life would be close to intolerable. So far advanced is the insanity of our age, that when, recently, I sat down to watch The Day of the Jackal (reviewed elsewhere in these pages), it seemed incredible that there was a time when foreign travel was possible, and when you could board an aeroplane without first having filled in a thousand forms and without being forced to wear an inhuman mask and without being lectured to about the terrible ‘carbon footprint’ resulting from your journey. Going further back, Sense and Sensibility with Kate Winslett or Pride and Prejudice with Kiera Knightley make me weep for a lost world. Also set in the early nineteenth century, Master and Commander with Russell Crowe has much the same effect on me; and going back further still, I can watch Gladiator any number of times.
And so I was glad, late one night, to come across a historical drama set in Roman Britain called The Eagle – a film that I had never heard of, and which has failed to attract the acclaim it deserves.
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‘In 120 AD the 9th legion of the Roman army marched into the unconquered territory of northern Britain,’ we read in the on-screen introduction. ‘They were never seen again. All 5,000 men vanished, together with their treasured standard. Shamed by this great loss, the Emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of a giant wall to cut off the north of Britain for ever. Hadrian’s Wall marked the end of the known world.’
This, of course, is the subject of Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel of 1954, entitled The Eagle of the Ninth, and one could write a whole thesis on the historical premise of the cinematic treat that follows. Suffice it to say that the fate of the ‘Spanish’ 9th legion – or the Legio IX Hispana, as the Romans called it – remains a matter of debate.
In the opening scene of the film, set twenty years later in 140 AD, a band of legionaries paddle up an eerily silent river in the still-hostile province of Britannia. As the mist swirls around them and a young Briton on a white horse observes them from the river-bank, the danger is palpable. The boat carries Marcus Flavius Aquila, here to take up command of a small garrison in the back of beyond.
Like an alien spaceship, the Roman fort with its turf ramparts and wooden palisade squats in the middle of a flat stretch of country, with thick woods covering the hills in the background. Inside, all is basic, the new commander himself lodged in the most spartan of quarters. Nothing is computer generated; nor is this some Hollywood stage-set. It is all solid and real, and must have been built for this film. And are we not looking at the landscape of second-century Britain? But cleverly, it was shot in Hungary: untouched, cheaper, easier, with no accursed wind-turbines to get in the way. From the outset, the authenticity of every detail transports us two thousand years back in time.
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And yet all the actors have American accents. Shouldn’t they have English accents? Well, no, actually. At the time, the Roman overlords of our land spoke Latin, and the natives spoke Brythonic, a form of Gaelic. The English language as we know it emerged a thousand years later. In deliberately chosing to use American English, the director Kevin Macdonald is suggesting that just as the Americans are the imperialists of our age, so the Romans were the imperialists of their age.
As Marcus Aquila immediately realises, this garrison is in bad shape. The men are demoralised, and in the officers’ mess they whisper that it was the father of the new commander who led the 9th legion into oblivion, and that his son brings bad luck. On the first day, Marcus puts the men to work deepening the ramparts and fortifying them with pointed stakes. ‘Dig it deep, boys,’ he says. ‘Your lives depend on these defences.’ Vigorous combat training ensues. None of which makes Marcus very popular. Still less popular is his order, after he is woken by strange rustling sounds in the middle of the night, for the whole garrison to prepare for combat. As thunder reverberates from a pitch-black pagan sky, he looks out into the darkness and wonders whether he has made a mistake. But he hasn’t: with terrifying screams, wild natives now leap over the palisade, and the first battle scene of the film begins.
It is entirely authentic. Again, no Hollywood spectacle, but all-too-believable hand-to-hand fighting, towards the end of which Marcus throws a torch into the oil-filled ditch surrounding the fort, causing all the Britons who have doused themselves in it to be burned alive. The next morning, the doubting garrison is on-side. ‘Sir, well done, Sir,’ they say, as he walks through the fort surveying the aftermath.
The second battle scene, more gruesome still, comes straight away. A patrol sent out in search of a delayed grain convoy has not returned, and led by a charismatic druid on his white horse, the Britons appear again, parading the captured patrol and its red standard. Again, we have authenticity and historical accuracy. We see it only fleetingly, but the standard bears the legend LEG II – the 2nd legion, in other words. Indeed, following the Claudian invasion of 43 AD, there were four legions in Britannia: the 2nd, the 9th, the 14th and the 20th … and we know that by 150 AD, ten years after the time in which this story is set, only three of the four remained; which lends credence to the story of the disappearance of the 9th some time around 120 AD, and reminds us that the makers of this film have done their research.
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“You have stolen our lands and killed our sons,” the druid shouts out in Gaelic to the Romans in their fort. “You have defiled our daughters.” And forcing the first of the prisoners to his knees, he decapitates him. Unable to look on, Marcus offers a brief prayer to Mithras (another accurate detail: the Mithraic cult enjoyed particular favour with soldiers) and assembles a group of legionaries, one of whom vomits in fear as they are about to march out of the fort in double-time. Again, it is so real. And not for the last time in the film, we wonder where our loyalties lie. The modern viewer might have had a classical education, or some diluted version of it; but the Celts, and not the Romans, are our ancestors.
On the flat field outside the fort, we see a testudo in action, with the shields of the legionaries forming a tortoise-like carapace. Then from the side of the Britons, a loud horn blows, the native warriors retreat, and half a dozen war chariots appear, each pulled by two horses, and each with fearsome scythes attached to its wheels. As the Romans flee towards their fort, we see the lower leg of one of them fly off when the scythe slices through it. In the final furious scene, Marcus hurls a javelin at the druid in his chariot, which flies through the air and lands on top of him. After which all is darkness.
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Some time later, Marcus regains consciousness in his uncle’s villa two hundred leagues away, in the thoroughly pacified countryside outside Calleva, or modern Silchester. The uncle is Donald Sutherland … who – like all the other Romans – has an American accent, of which we now see the point.
Looking out over a lake lined with beds of reeds, this villa is perfectly recreated in every detail. Like the fort, it must have been made for the film. The simple terracotta-tiled floor; the bare wooden doors with their wrought-iron strap-hinges; the torches on the walls with their austere geometric decorations … it is pure second-century Britain, but again filmed in Hungary.
Having being invalided out of the army with an award for conspicuous gallantry, Marcus can now hardly walk, and as the rain pours down outside, he shivers in bed and has nightmares of his father’s troops being slaughtered in Caledonia, far to the north (not, in fact, in Britain, as the introductory text says: the Roman province of Britannia lay to the south of Hadrian’s Wall; to the north lay Caledonia, a.k.a. Alba. The terminology can be muddling).
Perhaps in an attempt to distract his nephew, Donald Sutherland takes him to see the games in the local ampitheatre. This again is brilliantly done, and one does not doubt that the place was built from scratch especially for this film. Forget the stone-built Colosseum in Rome. Here, outside a provincial town on the very limits of the empire, we have a small circular wooden structure with the stands for the spectators surrounding a tiny central arena. Again, it is entirely authentic.
As the still impressively masculine Marcus – acted by the all-American beefcake Channing Tatum – is helped to his seat, two attractive local women look on appreciatively … the first women in a rugged film in which there is no place for them. “What was my father like?” Marcus asks Sutherland. “Your father was a perfect Roman, and everything that that implies,” replies his uncle … prompting one reviewer to remark that we can ‘only presume that Donald Sutherland managed the dreadful lines by staying very focussed on the pay-check.’
Which is a little unfair, because this is a historical epic; it is not comedy; and if what you want is clever metro-sexual banter, you don’t watch The Eagle. On the other hand, the film is rich in perceptive touches, so that as a young slave is brought into the arena for a fight to the death with a terrifying gladiator wearing a two-faced black mask, we see Sutherland munching away at some Roman snack … just as nowadays one might eat popcorn in the cinema.
And who is this slave? Oh yes, he’s the actor who did Billy Elliot. Jamie Bell, he’s called. Which is another thing I like about this film. It is not Bruce Willis + Leonardo + Brad. Sure, we’ve got Donald Sutherland, whom one is always glad to see. Otherwise, big Hollywood names are blessedly absent.
But back to Billy Elliot, who is now a young Briton called Esca. After a scene in which he lies on the ground at the mercy of the gladiator, and in which Marcus urges the crowd to give him the thumbs-up, and not the thumbs-down that their baser selves want, Esca becomes Marcus’ slave. “I hate everything you stand for,” he says to his new master; “everything you are; but you saved me, and for that I must serve you.”
Shortly afterwards, a top private surgeon arrives from Harley Street, as it were, to perform an operation on Marcus’ left knee, which was badly messed up by the army butcher who first attended to it. Another marvellous scene, rich in authenticity: “It’ll be over before you know it,” says the surgeon. “I have the best knives in the business.” Whereupon Marcus is tied down onto the table with strong leather straps, and undergoes torture. Horrific though it is, the operation is successful.
Next good detail: at a supper party in Sutherland’s villa, again with no females present, the men exchange Roman handshakes – not clasping each other’s hands, as we now do, but gripping each other’s lower forearm in a virile grasp. As Esca stirs a pot in the dimly-lit background, one of the guests mentions a rumour according to which the eagle of the 9th – the golden standard of the disappeared legion – was seen in the hands of the ‘Painted People’ in the north … and although it is not spelled out, these are the Picts: picti in Latin, meaning ‘painted ones’. (Whereas, muddlingly, scoti in Latin refers to the inhabitants of modern Ireland, who only subsequently crossed the sea to settle in modern Scotland. Picts and Scots, therefore.)
Marcus now knows what he wants to do. “If I can’t win back my family’s honour by being a soldier,” he tells his uncle, evoking values that would cause many people, nowadays, to laugh or snigger, “then I’ll do it by finding the lost eagle.”
“You can’t,” replies Sutherland. “No Roman can survive north of the wall alone.” No matter, replies Marcus: Esca will help; he speaks the language. “He’s a slave,” replies Uncle Donald. “He says what he says and he does what he does because he has to. He’ll slit your throat the minute you’re alone.” Reminding us that around this time, one person in three in the Roman empire was a slave, and not much enjoying it. And again, is this dialogue wooden, as some have suggested? Or perhaps, as in the novels of John Buchan, we have the values of a disappeared world.
As Marcus and Esca approach Hadrian’s Wall, we see what is perhaps the only computer-generated image in the film: the wall itself, winding its way over the rugged hills. When they ask the soldiers in the mile-fort to open the gates to the north, they are met with amused disbelief. “Didn’t they tell you this is the end of the world?” asks one of the soldiers. Then: “See you in the afterlife, Roman.”
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If the first 45 minutes of the film were filmed in Hungary, from now on we are in Scotland; or should I say Caledonia? As we pass from one world to another, the gates open onto a wild, barren, hostile land of savage beauty. After a long ride through spectacular mountain scenery, our heroes come across two decapitated bodies hanging, head-down, from the branch of a tree. Here, Roman law does not apply. And here, we learn more about Esca.
“My father was Cunoval, bearer of the blue war shield of the Brigantes, lord of 500 spears,” he tells Marcus. “Seven years ago you took our lands and we rose against you. My father and two brothers died, my mother also: my father killed her before the legionaries broke through. He knew what they would do to her. She knelt in front of him and he slit her throat.” This is the other side of the glory of Rome of which Marcus is so proud. So whose side are we on? And will Esca kill Marcus, now that he can? Or will he stay true to his oath of fidelity?
From now on, the austere beauty of the scenery is almost overwhelming. Just as there is no trace of modernity, so we are transported into the minds of the ancients. Dark clouds, mist, thunder. An eagle screeching far above reminds us that Marcus Aquila (aquila means ‘eagle’ in Latin) is searching for the lost eagle of the 9th … here we are in a pagan world of danger, omens and superstition.
As Marcus and Esca cook a meal by a brook (I wonder whether Esca’s frying-pan looks a little modern; this being the only tiny physical detail that I can fault in a film which is in every other respect perfect in terms of recreating a bygone era) … as they make their meal, we have the third combat scene of the film, from which they emerge victorious following an attack by half-a-dozen bare-chested rogue warriors. After which their journey takes them to a rain-drenched settlement consisting of a few stone-built huts with turf roofs. No wi-fi here; no mobiles; no TV; just a few freezing-cold people no better-off than the horned cattle they tend. Yes, they say in Gaelic (although they would in fact have spoken Pictish, but let’s not fuss) … yes, they saw a legion march northwards, but they never saw it return.
Another native tells them that “in the great woods beyond the snowy mountains” they will find a man who can tell them what they want to know. After a journey through landscape of awe-inspiring beauty they descend into a forest where they are attacked by the very man they are looking for, who turns out to be a Roman legionary.
“I am called Guern,” he says. “My name is Lucius Caius Metellus,” he continues. We hear how, unable to operate in the open field, the 9th legion was harried as it passed through the forests of Caledonia, and then massacred by a coalition of native tribes. Many Romans fled, and Guern was taken in by the Selgovae. “I have a woman; two sons; my life is here now,” he says.
There follows a set-piece speech, similar to the one previously delivered by Esca. “Why did [the Romans] have to come north?” asks Guern, rhetorically. “There’s nothing worth taking here. Couldn’t they be satisfied with what they had?” Also: “All I know is that we had it coming.”
Just as the fact that all the Romans in this film have American accents invites us to see the Americans as modern imperialists, so we cannot ignore the clearly contemporary reference of this last line. Because not long after Islamist terrorists flew two aeroplanes into the Twin Towers in New York, the ghastly telly-don Mary Beard opined that the Americans ‘had it coming’. This line in the film cannot be casual: in the same way that the Americans over-reached themselves with the Muslims, so the Romans overstepped the mark in their own world, and invited retribution.
We now visit the killing fields where the moss-covered skulls and skeletons of the legionaries of the 9th still lie on the ground. “All the northern tribes were here,” says Guern (impressively acted by Mark Strong, adopting an American accent for this film), but the worst were the painted warriors of the Seal People.” And it emerges that all along Esca knew of this massacre, and of its whereabouts. After which master and slave fight … although in this land outside the orbit of Rome, it is no longer clear who is master and who is slave.
As they roll around on the ground – and despite what one reviewer has claimed, there is nothing homo-erotic about this; it’s a simple fight, motivated by passions in which sex plays no part … as they are thus engaged, they look up to see a prince of the Seal People, surrounded by his wariors, their faces painted blue with woad. Here are the true picti … the Picts, the painted ones.
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Here, too, acting the prince of the Seal People, is Tahar Rahin, later to achieve fame as the murderous Charles Sobrajh in The Serpent. Not until I looked at the credits did I realise that this was he. Is he a new Daniel Day-Lewis? Able to adopt any identity he wishes, he is entirely bilingual, speaking English and French with equal fluency. And here, for the sake of authenticity, we have him speaking Gaelic, with subtitles for our benefit. Rather him than Brad Pitt, any day.
Once Esca has persuaded the Seal prince that Marcus is his slave, we proceed through more severely beautiful landscape to a small village by the sea, where fish are hung out to cure in the wind. Here, the chieftain emerges from his stone-walled hut with its roof covered in animal skins. A wild-looking female appears from the darkness behind him. “You wish me to eat these people, too?” he says to his son, the Seal prince, as the tribesmen laugh at this witticism with its clear suggestion that these people are cannibals. After which “Esca, eldest son of Cunoval, chief of the Brigantes,” as the chieftain addresses him, is made welcome.
Is Marcus really Esca’s slave in this northern world? Or will Esca keep faith with his own slavemaster? We do not know. In the meantime, Marcus is thrown into a hut occupied by children and older women, one of whom offers him food and wipes his brow … a scene which makes various points to the modern viewer. Even beyond the limits of the world, there is human decency. And the low status of females: little better than cattle. How would Germain Greer or Susan Sontag have fared here? Badly, one suspects.
There ensues an all-male feast in a large hut. Still not quite sure of his guest, the Seal prince asks Esca why he is there. “I came north to be free of Rome,” he replies, as the chieftain looks on suspiciously. And indeed, the reply is pretty futile. What does Esca intend to do in Caledonia? Where will he settle? How is it that he has a Roman slave? He’s skating on thin ice.
Later, after a wild tribal ceremony at which we finally see the golden eagle of the ninth, and when all the Seal tribesmen are lying drugged on the ground, Esca shakes Marcus awake. “It’s time,” he says. “We have to do this now.” And like Marcus, we now understand that Esca is true to his oath: he is with Marcus, and they make their way to the watery grotto where the eagle is kept, surrounded by torches. Here, Marcus slays the chieftain of the Seals, and the two of them make off with their trophy … but not before the young prince’s son appears, asking to go with them. “Don’t wake your parents,” says Esca, as he gives the boy a carved wooden fish.
Are we now asked to reflect on the nature of religion? Perhaps. Just as a Christian today worships Christ, so Marcus worships Mithras. Just as we venerate the Cross, so the Seal people worship the captured eagle of the ninth. And is not the fish a Christian symbol too? Are we now reminded, perhaps rather tritely, that the religious instinct is always there, merely taking different forms at different times and in different places?
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Soon enough, the Seal People discover that their guests have fled, and now the chase is on. More shots of stunning Highland scenery; Marcus’ old wound opens up; the Seal People reveal themselves to be expert trackers; gagging with disgust, Marcus eats a raw rodent, a fire being too risky; Esca’s horse collapses from exhaustion; then Marcus and Esca are standing up to their necks in freezing water as the Seal People search for them, only yards above.
At the end of his tether, Marcus starts hallucinating. Nor is this only on-screen. The film was shot in sub-zero temperatures during the winter months, with the result that Channing Tatum (Marcus) got hypothermia, and Jamie Bell (Esca) almost collapsed. At this stage in the film, Esca disappears to get help, and just as we hear the dogs of the Seal People barking nearby, he reappears, striding along the river-bed with a band of legionaries from the ninth. For the first time, we must suspend our disbelief; because how could Esca have known where to find these men, and how could he have returned with them in such a short time?
There follows the last battle scene in the film, in which the shaggy legionaries prevail and at the same time redeem themselves from the sin of desertion; after which, Marcus lights a funeral pyre for Guern. “Fathers. Brothers. Sons,” he says as the flames consume the warrior’s body. “May peace and honour follow you. May you know no more strife. May your souls take flight and soar with the eagle of the ninth.” Yes, Channing Tatum is rather too similar to Tom Cruise, and like him tends to act by clenching his jaw muscles. But this pre-Christian ceremony in its wild northern setting is nevertheless moving.
Perhaps the film should have ended there. Perhaps the director was in a hurry to finish it off. Because the ending is a terrible letdown. Back in Londinium (we presume), Marcus and Esca deliver the eagle to a stunned Claudius Marcellus, who now seems to be not just the legate of the 6th, as he was introduced to us when we first met him in the villa of Marcus’ uncle, but also the governor of Britannia. “Your family’s good name is restored,” he intones. “The senate will want to reform the ninth. Perhaps they can reward you with its command.”
At which point Marcus and Esca turn on their heels and swagger out of the room, as the onlookers make way for them. “So what now?” asks Esca. “You decide,” replies Marcus. Thus at the last moment this stirring epic suddenly morphs into a buddy-movie. It is really rather feak and weeble.
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Nevertheless, the film haunted me for days. Sure, Channing Tatum (Marcus) isn’t much of an actor. And Jamie Bell (Esca) spends too much time looking faintly aggrieved; as perhaps a slave might. But for a short time we are transported to the almost unknowable world of second-century Roman Britain; for a short time, we enjoy wild and untouched scenery of heart-rending beauty; for a short time, we glory in the virtues of strength, fortitude and honour. After which we return to our own world, with its all-consuming hysteria, cowardice and weakness.
In other words: watch this film. Plus, it cost $25 million to make, and you can rent it from Amazon Prime for £3.49 … not such a bad deal for two hours of blessed release from the madness of our age.