I went to see The Eagle on Saturday, which is a film adaptation of The Eagle of the Ninth, by Rosemary Sutcliff. I read the latter when I was at school – in first year at Dunoon Grammar I think – and although I couldn’t remember much detail I did remember enjoying it.
It’s had mixed reviews, and I had a mixed response to it too. Ultimately it’s an OK movie, with good and not-quite-so-good aspects to it. If you feel like going to see it, do. If you weren’t already considering it, then don’t go out of your way.
Having said that, that’s only my response – and I can’t remember when I was last at a movie that garnered applause at the final credits, even if it was from only a part of the audience. So it must have something!
The story’s set in Roman-era Britain, a little less than a generation after the Ninth Legion marched into Scotland and disappeared. (This is historically just about possible, but unlikely – the Ninth Legion does disappear from the records as far as explicit records go, but there are mentions afterwards of people who may have been in the Ninth, and another theory is that it was transferred to the East and lost there. Check the Wikipedia link for more.) Invalided out of the Roman army, the son of the Ninth’s centurion goes looking for what happened to his father’s legion, accompanied by a slave.
The first part of the film seems quite leisurely, and takes place with Hungary standing in for England. It looks just a bit too warm to me, but then the Romans did have vineyards in England at the time, so maybe it’s not too far out. A heroic incident at a fort gets Marcus invalided out, and the rest of the time is spent recuperating at his uncle’s place in the North of England.
The action sequences at the fort are very watchable, and particularly interesting is seeing a testudo in action. I did enjoy this, but unfortunately it strained plausibility rather when they used it as a tank to get in amongst a horde of Britons – rather too mobile and, while I could believe it would be highly effective, I also think it would have crumbled a bit more when completely surrounded in the way it appeared in the film. There were also chariots with scythes on the wheels, which are historically unlikely. However, to be fair, these details do come straight from the book. I also enjoyed the tense night scene waiting for attack. While it wasn’t clear what supernatural prescience had prompted our hero to wake for no good reason, once he had, the scene was handled very realistically, with a lot of silent listening, and believable doubt as to whether anything was actually occurring, until (with dramatic inevitability, of course) it did.
This battle was also our first exposure to one of this film’s nice touches; its use of accents and language. The Romans are American, the Britons, er, British, and the Picts later in the film speak Gaelic – which is an anachronism, but since we don’t have much extant of the Pictish language, it’s a reasonable and generously sensitive anachronism. There’s a mystery here though. All the talk in the publicity and online is of the accents, and the Picts speaking Gaelic. This first battle is in more southerly Britain, and the Britons here are also speaking in their own language, which in this case is not Gaelic. Unfortunately, I don’t know what language they used here instead, and I can’t find any mention of it. I’d like to know.
Whether you like the language stuff or not will depend on whether you view it as heavy-handed social commentary or a neat way of differentiating between different peoples in the film. I’m quite happy to view it as the latter.
Apart from the battle, the initial pace of the film seemed quite slow, but it did succeed in drawing me in. Then, having picked up a slave as a hanger on, we were off north of Hadrian’s Wall. The wall itself seemed about right to me, although I suspect military discipline at the gate would have been better.
There are two things to comment on north of the wall; the scenery and the people. Filming moved to Scotland – the real Scotland – for this part of the film, and it’s probably the most realistic portrayal of west highland landscape I’ve seen in a movie (they don’t spend long south of the Highlands). They choose their picturesque shots of course, but they also show it wet. There’s heavy rain, and even when it’s not raining, the ground is wet and slippery underfoot. It’s not like this all the time in the west, of course, but there’s a reason why the woods there are classified as temperate rainforest, and it’s nice to see that realistically shown on film.
The people – well, there’s not a huge amount of historical information to go on, but they were probably dialled down a notch or two in terms of attachment to wearing proper clothes, and up several notches in terms of exciting make-up. It’s unlikely that many Picts wandered about wearing pale blue foundation most of the time, and these folk wandering about half dressed are the same folk who would have been building the brochs during the preceding couple of hundred years. The clothes they were wearing were probably OK, if a bit rough. At least they looked like they might be warm. Over all, though, these Picts were a bit too “Native American stereotype”.
Although the slow first half of the movie had drawn me in, oddly the second half, when things got more interesting, lost me again a bit. It’s hard to say why this was; one thing that occurred to me is that we spend quite a lot of time looking at our heroes from a distance, which puts a bit of metaphorical distance between us and the characters too. The resolution of the difficult situation they find themselves in feels rather under justified, and so while I wasn’t entirely immune to the end-of-movie emotion, it was felt in a rather detached way.
In addition to my general recommendation above – go if you felt like seeing it already, but don’t go out of your way – I would add that if your interest’s in some aspect of the setting, go with a like-minded friend. You may enjoy the movie, but I can practically guarantee you’ll get more out of discussing its successes and failures later.