The Eagle, starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell, is the heartwarming tale of two bros, one gimpy and one foreign, who find adventure beyond Hadrian’s Wall while enacting some dubious master-slave roleplay. BUT WHO IS THE REAL MASTER? Love, man. It’s love.
Our tale begins with some text with smoke and/or clouds swirling around it. Hey, Hollywood, if I wanted to read, I’d have bought the book. Apparently IN 120AD THE NINTH LEGION OF THE ROMAN ARMY MARCHED INTO THE UNCONQUERED TERRITORY OF NORTHERN BRITAIN.
THEY WERE NEVER SEEN AGAIN.
ALL 5000 MEN VANISHED, TOGETHER WITH THEIR TREASURED STANDARD. I know this part is historical fact, and it still boggles that 5000 dudes and all their armor and horses can just disappear at once. 5000! There are 5000 people searching when one little kid goes missing at the mall. We have become weak and coddled as a species.
Oh god there’s more text. Why isn’t “Text goes either before or after the main title, not both” a rule?
SHAMED BY THIS [GLARE ON THE SCREEN IN THE MIDDLE OF THE TEXT, MAYBE “GREAT?”] LOSS, THE EMPEROR HADRIAN ORDERED THE [MORE GLARE, PROBABLY “ERECTION” BECAUSE LET’S FACE IT, THIS WOULD BE THE FIRST OF MANY PROBABLE ERECTIONS IN THE FILM] OF A GREAT WALL TO CUT OFF GREAT BRITAIN FOREVER.
HADRIAN’S WALL MARKED THE END OF THE KNOWN WORLD. But everyone knew there was stuff behind it! Those Romans, so wacky.
20 YEARS LATER: ROMAN OCCUPIED SOUTHERN BRITAIN. Our hero,
Beeficus Mansword Marcus Flavius Aquila (Latin for Mark Flava Eagle), rides in a canoe with several other men. This is in no way a euphemism for anything, because there are no women in this movie, even ones that hold several men at one time.
Marcus peers into the thick foliage at the edge of the pretty, misty river. Some noisy-ass cows provide PTSD flashbacks to trying to ford the rivers in Oregon Trail. CAULK THE WAGON AND FLOAT IT, STUPIDS. There’s a kid and a pony in the forest. The kid peers back at Marcus. The peering contest continues until the canoe gets too far away. Fun fact: the actor in the foliage is the same one who plays Marcus as a child. Fraught with economical casting or fraught with meaning? You decide!
Marcus gets to a busy-looking garrison camp, then heils Dennis O’Hare, a.k.a. the King of Mississippi from True Blood. They introduce themselves by their full Roman names, but they have American accents, so there’s an odd discordance. Dennis O’Hare‘s “Lutorius Drusillus Salunator” is especially bizarre, with his broad nasal newscaster voice. The American accents on the Roman soldiers are a purposeful–and, it must be said, fairly obvious–choice, but Channing Tatum seems to forget he’s not in an actual swords and sandals epic and keeps trying to Sir Laurence Olivier us. It…almost works?
Lutorius gives Marcus the grand tour, tells him about how the garrison is too tiny for a payroll clerk and their malfunctioning latrines. How do you screw up a hole in the ground? Jesus.
This is Marcus’s first command. He lies when Lutorius asks, and says he didn’t choose it for family reasons. Marcus is introduced to the soldiers, then goes to his place to pray to Mithras while some other soldiers in command make fun of his nerdy ass, and tell us that he totally is here because of his father. His father was the man who lost the eagle/5000 dudes twenty years ago. Whoops!
Marcus oversees the building of a defensive spike and pitch moat around the fort. I’m sure that won’t be useful any time soon. He’s told that a grain delivery is a day late. The command guys say one day late ain’t no thang, but Marcus is like “The men, they need to eat, too.” The command guys stare awkwardly at their own food and then send out a patrol to look for the delivery. That night, Marcus wakes up suddenly after a stalker’s-eye view of the fort creeps toward it. He and Lutorius stand on the wall and stare out over the fields. Marcus hears some stuff that may be cows (it’s not cows, because cows are noisy assholes), and says that all of the men should be woken up, just in case it’s not cows (it’s not).
The soldiers all stand at attention, some probably stifling yawns and planning to assassinate Marcus in his potato face. SUDDENLY DRUIDS! Fun fact: I always mix up Druids and dryads, so the Greek mythology segment my eighth-grade history class was disastrous, to say the least. This screaming Druid jumps up and goes absolutely nuts all over Marcus while his bros of the forest storm the fort, yelling. Battle scene! It’s a good battle scene, with a minimum of the jump-cut/shakycam trend that’s used to either make the scene look more urgent–but if your battle scene has a problem with being too lackadaisical, that’s an issue that goes far beyond camera tricks–or hide the actors’ lack of fighting ability or both. Channing Tatum seems like the type to have taken his sword school seriously, and it shows. The scene itself is probably a bit too slick to be realistic, but it’s still quite nice as far as accuracy goes. For even more accurate Roman battle scenes, check out HBO‘s Rome. It also has accurate Roman boning scenes if you’re into that kind of thing.
The centurion who was supposed to get the torch is annihilated, so Marcus fights his way over to grab it and hurl it into the spike moat. The pitch at the bottom lights up into an inferno of spiky, burning pain. The druids are like, fuck.
The battle ends with a shot of a burning hand, then some more shots of a horse grazing over a field of dead Druids. Soldiers who had been making fun of Marcus’s nerdy ass before suddenly stand up when he passes and congratulate him on not ignoring the sounds only he could hear. Marcus says a small prayer for the soldier corpses lined up on the ground. Lutorius tells him there’s been no sign of the patrol.
SUDDENLY THE PATROL. Marcus is gobsmacked when a bunch of Druids drag his patrol up and start shouting in Druidish. Marcus watches as one of the soldiers is beheaded with the soldier’s own sword. He decides that they have to go out and fight the huge amount of angry Druids because fuck acceptable losses, right? Marcus prays while one of the soldiers pukes all over the place. They go into turtle formation and march out to the Druids, who try to stab into the cracks in their shields but don’t quite manage it. The Romans manage to fight their way into a circle around the bodies of their fallen comrades, and free the ones who are still alive.
A horn blast catches everyone’s attention, and the Druids start to back away. I haven’t read The Art of War for a couple of years, but I like to think there’s a whole chapter called “If Your Enemy Retreats After An Ominous Horn Blast, Get Thee Fucking Gone Off The Battlefield. Ain’t Nothing Good Gonna Come Out Of That Shit.” Marcus doesn’t agree, and does some more peering. The boss Druid rocks up on a wicked-looking chariot with nasty blades jutting out of the wheels. Those will scrape your knees up a little. There are several of these murder chariots. Marcus is like, fuck. He orders all of the men to fall back, but some are slowpokes. One of them gets their leg chopped off, so Marcus decides to stop, pick up a spear, and hurl it directly into the nearest Druid, ignoring the fact that it would be so easy to miss and also there are like six more chariots where that one came from. It works, though, the Druid’s death throes enough to knock the lead chariot’s horses off their course. The chariot goes flying through the air and directly onto Marcus, and he blacks out and hallucinates his father.
He wakes up in a squishy bed, with Donald Sutherland telling him he’s in Calleva, 200 leagues from where he totally saved everyone’s ass. YEAH! Donald Sutherland is his uncle, Aquila, and Marcus is at Aquila’s villa. He’s got a pretty bad injury on his thigh, which Aquila’s slave (who I thought was played by Posca from Rome, but no) is tending to. The medicine apparently smells like a fart.
Establishing shot of the gorgeous villa. Lutorius comes in while Marcus tries to awkwardly either stand and salute or cover up his injury. Lutorius tells him that the men miss him and Rome loves him, but not enough to let his beloved ass return to the battlefield. They’ve given the Fourth Cohort a wreath on their standard for bravery, and Marcus gets an armilla for conspicuous gallantry and also an honorable discharge for his gross leg wound.
Lutorius leaves. From behind the door, Marcus screams. Stephanos the slave runs to see what’s wrong, but Aquila stops him, as “there’s no medicine for that.” Marcus sweats with an angst fever and clutches the eagle his father carved for him, somehow hallucinating his father fighting battles that Marcus was not present for. Wouldn’t it be totally rad if Marcus was like, psychic, and that’s why he knew the Druids were coming? There should be more psychic centurions.
Marcus and Aquila attend a gladiator match. A dwarf with a wooden sword and a blindfolded man have a fight to the…um, edification of the crowd? I guess? Marcus asks about his father; Aquila says his father was a “perfect Roman, and everything that implies.“ I’m pretty sure Aquila is trying to tell Marcus that his father was super gay, but Marcus is grumpy and in the mood to bitch. Aquila’s like, shut up, you little punk.
The dwarf/blindfolded man battle ends with cheers from the crowd. Then this giant slab of man-beef in a metal Janus mask and a leather arm-guard to the shoulder is brought out. The Briton theme music starts playing softly as Jamie Bell is shoved into the ring in slow motion. Aquila says he’s a slave, and that a gladiator and a slave is never a fair contest, never. Marcus doesn’t care about that, because the music is still romantic and Jamie Bell is totally foxy, and Marcus has some staring to do. MARCUS IS A PERFFECT ROMAN TOO, YOU GUYS!
Jamie Bell, whose name is Esca, throws down his sword and shield. Aquila, playing Uncle Exposition, informs us that he’s brave because he’s going to give himself his death. The giant slab of man-beef slaps Esca around a bit, annoyed that he’s not fighting back, and the crowd boos. A concerned-looking wolf paces around in his cage. Marcus has to look down while Esca gets hit, because he could watch his own soldier getting beheaded but this is too emotionally draining, I guess?
The crowd votes that Esca should be killed, but Marcus stands up and yells life. Esca looks up at him like you dick, because isn’t it just like a Roman decide your fate in the exact opposite direction of what you want? Esca didn’t want to be enslaved, he didn’t want to fight in a gladiator match, and he didn’t want to survive to be enslaved some more. GUESS WHAT HAPPENS.
For some reason, the crowd goes along with Marcus, and Esca is spared. Aquila asks why Marcus did that. Marcus doesn’t answer, but I think it rhymes with dove lat burst site.
The next day, Marcus has some problems with his sandal, and calls for Stephanos. Aquila tells him that Stephanos is too old to serve two masters, so Aquila bought him his own body slave. It’s Esca! Marcus doesn’t want him. Esca’s like, “tough titties, you saved my life and I hate you but now we are soulbonded. Here’s my dagger.”
A surgeon shows up to check on Marcus’s leg, and pronounces it a colossal fuckup. He’ll have to reopen it to take out the remaining pieces of metal. Marcus tells Esca to go, but the surgeon says Esca will have to hold Marcus down. Hoo boy. Marcus hallucinates his dad some more while Esca looks somewhat alarmed at Marcus’s pain. Later, Marcus asks if he shamed himself. Esca says no. I am not a historian, but I think shame=poop in this context.
Boar-hunting on horseback! The boar is cute, then dead. Esca and Marcus work well together. When they get back to the villa, they have dinner with one of Aquila’s old friends and some dickish tribune. They talk about rumors along the wall of the eagle being sighted in the far north of Britain, possibly being worshipped by Picts. Marcus is all, “What if, hypothetically, one dude were to go in there and find it? Would it give my–I mean, his–life meaning?” The tribune is basically a dick about Marcus’s father and Marcus runs away to pout and ruminate on his plan.
Aquila tells Marcus that no Roman can survive north of Hadrian’s Wall. Marcus says he’ll bring Esca. Esca’s like oh my god, you enormous ass. Aquila says that Esca would slit Marcus’s throat the second he got the chance, but Marcus is unconvinced.
They ride through a map of southern Britain until they reach the Wall. They catch some shit passing through from the wall guards, but eventually they make it to the other side. The land is both bleak and intense. All of the scenery shots in this film are beautiful. Marcus and Esca come across some dead Romans hanging by their feet from a tree, and move on to make a camp.
Marcus and Esca talk about Marcus’s dreams of finding his father alive, then discuss the significance of the Eagle of the Ninth. Esca’s confused about why it means so much to Marcus, and Marcus goes on about how everywhere the eagle is, it’s something Rome has done and conquered. Esca’s like, “My dad and brothers died fighting you after you stole our lands, and my dad had to kill my mom so you assholes wouldn’t rape her to death. Rome did that, too. Your eagle can suck my British dick.” Marcus is suitably chastened.
Marcus decides that they should go north the next day, because there are like a million places the eagle could be and that’s probably a good start. Esca tells Marcus to let him do the talking if they run into anyone, because they’ll kill the both of them if they find out Marcus is a Roman. Travel montage in which a few people are spoken to.
They eat in the forest. Esca sees a bunch of rogue warriors surrounding them, but Marcus can’t see shit, captain. The warriors attack. The cameras are jittery and jumpy this time, annoyingly, but we do get to see that Esca starts the fight by using fucking close-quarters battle tactics with a ranged weapon because he’s a badass. A very young warrior jumps at Esca, and Esca puts him down, but can’t bring himself to kill the kid. Marcus totally can, and throws a knife in the kid’s back as he’s running away. Esca is horrified, but Marcus gruffs about how he can’t hesitate blah blah. He didn’t hesitate, Marcus, he showed mercy on account of the kid wasn’t old enough to shave yet.
Esca talks to some more people as they travel. Marcus loses his shit on one guy and pulls a knife on him, forcing Esca to ask more pointed questions. I’m amazed Esca hasn’t stabbed him yet.
SUDDENLY MARK STRONG! He jumps out of the woods onto Esca and knocks over his horse. Marcus and Esca get the drop on him, and Marcus orders Esca to kill him, but Esca points out the chin scar that only occurs when you are totally a Roman legionary! The make him tell them who he is; he is called Gern, but his name is Lucius, and he used to be a legionary, but he ran away and got himself adopted by a tribe. Mark Strong’s American accent is Brooklyn-inflected when he tells them about how the Ninth Legion was attacked by several different tribes at once, the most vicious among them being the painted warriors of the Seal People. Lucius says that the Romans had it coming, but it was still pretty brutal, what with the dismemberment and human sacrifices. The Seal People probably have the eagle, Lucius says. And Esca totally knows where they are. DUN DUN DUUUUUN.
Marcus and Esca argue about it and tackle each other off of their horses before having a tussle on the ground. Esca stops, because there is a pair of legs in some fabulous legwarmers standing right there. Painted warriors and/or Seal People have ambushed them. Esca says that Marcus is his Roman slave. The Seal warrior leader is dubious, but after checking for Marcus’s chin scar, he believes. He tells Esca that Marcus is too mouthy, and he would be willing to help Esca teach Marcus some manners. I’m sure you would, Seal Dude. I’m sure you would.
Marcus is tied up and forced to walk behind the horse. They head back to the Seal camp, where Esca is welcomed and Marcus is banished to the slave tent after Esca is like, btw, you‘re my slave now. An old slave lady tends to his wounds.
A few days of confusion (Marcus) and general discomfort/smugness (Esca) later, the main Seal warrior totally slaps Marcus down for smiling at some ladies. He’s just being polite, Seal warrior! Marcus is a perfect Roman! The Seal warrior wants to punish Marcus, and Esca says he’ll kill Marcus if that’s what it takes. It’s not, luckily. Marcus is pissed and tells Esca that he’s going to kill him when he gets the chance. The audience and Esca are polite enough not to laugh.
There’s a Seal party with drums and a bonfire and drinking and probably ancient LSD or something, because these guys trip out hard. There’s a ton of groping and slow-motion dancing and grunting and blindfolds, and also the party is all dudes. Are these guys perfect Romans too?
Marcus watches in horrormazement. Then the eagle appears! He stupidly runs out into the middle of a bunch of tweaking party warriors and gets his ass knocked out and possibly violated in his unconsciousness. Esca wakes him up when everybody’s fallen asleep, and tells him that they can get the eagle now. Marcus says “I thought I’d lost you.” He is…very forgiving, and the perfectest Roman of them all.
They go to retrieve the eagle from a cave, but the elder of the Seal tribe finds them and they’re forced to fight him and the guys he brings with him. Marcus sees his father’s ring on the Seal elder’s pinky while they fight. He stabs the Seal elder, and asks where he got the ring. The Seal Elder tells him (not in English) that his father was a coward, even though that totally would have been more effective if he’d told Marcus in a way he could understand. Marcus asks Esca what he said, but Esca doesn’t tell him.
They get ready to take the horses and go, but a kid shows up. Marcus grabs his sword, because that’s his go-to answer for dealing with children. Esca convinces Marcus not to murder another child, and then convinces the child not to raise the alarm. They get away, but the Seal warrior wakes up soon after, and slaps the kid down when the kid tells him he didn’t stop them from leaving. The search party is organized in record time, and they begin the chase.
Esca tells Marcus it’s four or five days back to the wall, and Marcus says that they’ll never catch them on foot. Esca says “Have you seen them run?” And they are indeed very swift, ending up a half a day behind when Esca and Marcus stop to fix Marcus’s bad leg. They stop again to eat a raw rat (fires are too risky). Marcus is not about it, but Esca convinces him to have a bite. It is totally nasty.
Esca’s poor horse falls down, and they leave her there on the hill, riding together on Marcus’s horse until they have to abandon it and continue on foot. Marcus’s leg is getting worse. They hide in the river to conceal their scent from the dogs, and the Seal warriors lose them for now. Marcus is basically dead at this point, and almost drowns like ten times (DID I NOT TELL YOU TO CAULK THE WAGON AND FLOAT IT) before he tells Esca to leave him when Esca tells him to rest. Marcus asks him to take the eagle, and come back if he finds horses. Their pretty theme music kicks in as Esca says he’s not going to abandon Marcus, and says that the only way he’ll leave is if Marcus frees him. Marcus is like, okay, you are super freed. Then Esca is a giant troll and is all “Still not abandoning you. BRB though, I know how to save us.” Marcus hugs the eagle and is glad to know how true love feels before he dies slowly of blood loss.
Esca runs, and Marcus makes a staff to put the eagle on. The dogs bark as the warriors get close. He pulls out his sword. Out of the mist comes the remaining members of the Ninth Legion, back in their armor, Esca at the front. Lucius tells Marcus that his father wasn’t a coward. He stood his ground. I don’t know if this is true or if Esca briefed them beforehand.
The Seal warriors surround them. The music swells. HELL YES, WE ARE LAST-STANDING THIS SHIT. The lead Seal warrior straight-up slits his own son’s throat to show Esca what they do to traitors, or in this case, kids who didn’t stop two battle-trained grownups from leaving. Harsh. Esca is just completely fucking over watching little kids die in front of him. The Seal people rush, and everybody fights hard and in slow-motion and super bravely, even people who are Marcus and by all rights shouldn’t really be able to move. I could seriously watch a whole movie of Jamie Bell doing fight scenes, because trained dancers always translate really well to martial arts and this camera work isn’t doing him any justice.
Marcus kills the main Seal warrior by drowning him. The paint comes off of his face, and he looks very young. The surviving Romans have a funeral for both the Romans and the dead Picts, honoring both. Marcus and Esca leave their armilla and dagger on the pyre.
They return to Rome with the eagle. Marcus declares it in his father’s honor–his family’s good name is restored. Aquila’s friend suggests that the Ninth Legion may be reformed with Marcus in command, and asks how he managed to get the eagle back. The dick tribune from earlier says “And with only a slave to help you.” Marcus is like “He’s not a slave. He knows more about honor and freedom and the love of one man for another man than you ever will.” and turns to go. Esca smirks and follows Marcus out.
“So what now?” Esca asks.
“You decide.” Marcus answers. And then they make out. Just kidding! The drums go crazy as Marcus and Esca smile at each other and walk off into their beautiful future together (and also the credits).
This movie was pretty good! A little bit draggy in some parts, but with solid acting and performers who seemed to enjoy what they were doing. Also, the scenery alone was almost worth the price of admission, and no I am not talking only about the man-scenery, jeez.