Kevin Macdonald’s The Eagle is based on the 1954 novel The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff. It’s the second century AD, and when the 9th Legion of the Roman Empire and their eagle standard disappear in northern Britain, Ceasar has the Hadrian wall built to mark the end of the civilized world. Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) is the son of the 9th’s commanding officer, and his family bears the burden of the loss of the eagle standard. When Marcus hears rumor that the eagle is being displayed as a trophy by northern tribes, he and his slave Esca (Jamie Bell) set off into the north to recover the eagle and restore Marcus’ honour.
It has slaves, native tribes and invaders, but The Eagle is no Avatar. Marcus doesn’t learn a neat little lesson about how conquering and raping is wrong. He doesn’t feel any different about slavery or Empire by the end of his heroic quest. He doesn’t even really care how many natives he kills to accomplish his goals. This is acceptable filmmaking because The Eagle features white people fighting white people, both of which do their share of pillaging and murder so you don’t feel bad about choosing a side. Even so, there really aren’t any typically modern heroes in this story. There are savage conquerors and conquered savages. But in this ancient world, a man’s word and his code of honour is stronger than his hate.
Looking past the uncomfortable setting, The Eagle successfully delivers a satisfying story of honor, friendship, and redemption. It’s really refreshing to watch a story in the form of the epic with no magic involved. A guy searching for an artifact to restore family honour just goes down smoother than a guy who has to find the seventh magic crystal of the forgotten empire of stars before the lunar convalescence falls upon wintersongs blah blah fantasy blah blah bla. Without using magic as a crutch, Marcus’ journey is much more emotionally satisfying.
Ultimately, The Eagle its a story about honour and pride. It’s an ancient and perplexing sort of honour that we don’t have much use for in the modern world, but it’s inspirational in its own primitive way.
Also, the fight scenes kick serious ass.