In 140 AD, twenty years after the unexplained disappearance of the entire Ninth Legion in the mountains of Scotland, young centurion Marcus Aquila (Tatum) arrives from Rome to solve the mystery and restore the reputation of his father, the commander of the Ninth. Accompanied only by his British slave Esca (Bell), Marcus sets out across Hadrian's Wall into the uncharted highlands of Caledonia - to confront its savage tribes, make peace with his father's memory, and retrieve the lost legion's golden emblem, the Eagle of the Ninth.
The year is 140 A.D. The place is Britannia, a territory south of modern-day Scotland that was controlled by the Roman Empire. The land north of Hadrian’s Wall, which stretched across the island, was uncharted land called Caledonia and existed like a haunted Underworld to the Romans.
And that is where Marcus Aquila’s father vanished with his legion of five thousand men and beloved golden eagle twenty years before this story takes place.
Like all good centurions, Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) is prepared to discover the truth behind their mysterious disappearance and leads his battalion against the native Pictish tribes dwelling in Caledonia. Is he searching for the missing men? Not really, they are all probably dead, just like his father. The primary purpose of Aquila’s mission seems to be locating and recovering the famed golden eagle.
“How can a piece of metal mean so much to you?” Aquila’s slave Esca asks his master.
“The eagle is not a piece of metal. The eagle is Rome,” he answers.
The movie is based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1954 novel “The Eagle of the Ninth,” which follows the historical journey of the Legio IX Hispana (the Ninth Spanish Legion) into Caledonia.
The legend of the eagle has been tackled by Hollywood before. The first episode of HBO’s exceptional program “Rome” was in fact titled “The Stolen Eagle.” Under that plotline, Centurion Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Legionary Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson) forge their unlikely long-standing friendship when they are both ordered to recover Julius Caeser’s personal Eagle.
Aquila’s concern for tracing the Eagle’s whereabouts overshadows all other concerns, including risk of personal injury. Once he is thoroughly disabled in battle and honorably discharged into the care of his uncle (the always entertaining Donald Sutherland), Aquila is given a slave named Esca (Jamie Bell), who turns out to belong to the savage Pict tribes roaming the northern countryside.
This movie is not at all lacking in intelligent and accurate historical biography. It is true that the Legio IX Hispana disappeared around 117 A.D. And there is plenty of action that a qualified director like Kevin Macdonald can handle. The camera cuts in the fight scenes are quick and intense, but not so disorienting that you lose sight of the hand-to-hand combat. As far as the battle sequences go, it’s not as good as “Braveheart”, but much better than “Clash of the Titans” or what passes for much of today’s sword-fighting scenes.
Thanks also to Macdonald’s direction, the film feels historically authentic. The costume and props departments spared little expense in re-creating the barbaric visual element of gruesome ancestral England. One of the most challenging aspects of the film was its representation of the opposing Pictish tribes, since so little is historically known about them. Historian Michael Lynch describes their history as “a mystery story with few clues and no satisfactory ending.”
“The reason they have seized the emblem of the Roman eagle from the legion is because to them it is a sacred symbol,” Macdonald explains.
There is a ton of blood and decapitated heads to please the males. And there is Channing Tatum to impress the females. There is friendship, betrayal, war, and beautiful wide-lens exterior shots of Hungary and Scotland. There is even a fairly poignant political message regarding the futility of imperialist powers conflicting with needs of the local citizenry.
So, why am I not jumping up and down about this movie the same way I did when the first season of “Rome” ended? Where is the excitement? Where is the genuine concern for these characters?
Even though the motivations are firmly in place, there is just something missing from the souls of these characters. Marcus Aquila can stare down his enemies and speak about what the eagle means to him for as long as he wants. I don’t share his motivation.
Actors Tatum and Sam Worthington (and why not throw Josh Hartnett in there too?) could learn a valuable lesson from McKidd and Stevenson from “Rome.” It is just not good to be in the best shape of your life and to take your roles seriously when attempting historical personifications. The visual portrayal of Marcus Aquila is so authentic, we may as well be looking at a breathing and moving sculpture of the centurion’s helmeted head. But the bust depicting that soldier’s head has to blink if it is going to evoke any reaction from the audience. We see the patches of blood on his face but do not feel like he has been injured.
Jamie Bell does little to lift the sullen mood as they travel northwards of Hadrian’s Wall. Watching these two characters tolerate eachother’s company is a lot like watching Michael Mann’s big-screen adaptation of “Miami Vice”. It just gets old to see actors try to out-cool one another.
Fortunately, there is Donald Sutherland to breathe some humanity into the story and remind us that these are people with feelings. Otherwise, some of us may have forgotten.