The Romans were douches. That’s a fact that the Kevin Macdonald who directed Last King of Scotland might have drilled into our heads had Neil Marshall never made Centurion. Perhaps Macdonald opted for restraint in contrast to Marshall’s transformation of the fate of the second-century Ninth Legion as an allegory of imperial arrogance. Adapted from Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1954 historical novel The Eagle of the Ninth, The Eagle is a proudly old-fashioned adventure about brotherhood that happens to speak to our current moment of moral uncertainty without ever drawing specious analogies between the political reality of its characters’ lives and ours.
Channing Tatum stars as twentysomething Marcus Aquila, a general sent to command a British outpost just south of Hadrian’s Wall. The ensuing battles between the Romans and warrior Picts are shot with a phantasmagoric intensity that foregrounds the confusion, noise, and brutality of battle, and the overall effect is closer to the existential poetry of Terrence Malick’s The New World than it is to the MTV-style gloss of Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood. One skirmish leaves Marcus with an honorable discharge but not without his thirst for adventure, and after being taunted by sepia-toned flashbacks of his father heading north of the wall two decades earlier, the pinup insists on retrieving the golden eagle—symbol of both his father and country’s honor—that disappeared in the land of the warrior tribes along with the Ninth Legion.
And because every Batman needs a Robin, Marcus journeys beyond the wall with a slave boy, Esca (Jamie Bell), who can speak the language of the warrior tribes. Marcus earlier saves Esca from death-by-gladiator, empathizing with the boy’s bravery, and part of The Eagle‘s excitement derives from Marcus and Esca psychically sizing each other up throughout their adventure. The filmmakers don’t have to linger on the atrocities that rationalize the oppressed Esca’s contempt for Marcus, a representation of the arrogance of empire, because the torment is in Bell’s face: how his character struggles to separate the Roman who saves him from death and the Romans who took his people’s land and murdered his family. Who did what to who matters less in the end than what we promise to each other that we will become.
Without pretense, Macdonald regards landscape and tribal living mythically, and his collaging of visual planes throughout is practically expressionistic, even connecting to how Esca must play the master to Marcus’s slave in order for the men to ensure their survival. And just as roles are dissolved, so too are the boundaries between Pict and Roman, victim and victimizer, even language. The overall theme is the need and struggle for brotherhood, and it finds its most dazzling and poetic expression in a scene in which a warrior tribesman’s face makeup washes away with the tides—a murder that plays as the birth of a nation.