Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Eagle (of the Ninth) Movie Review

Can we say epic and amazing and beautiful, boys and girls?

Before I get into the technical, cautionary things about this film, can I please share with you how good it was? Thank you.

Obligatory summary of movie:
In 2nd-Century Britain, two men – master and slave – venture beyond the edge of the known world on a dangerous and obsessive quest that will push them beyond the boundaries of loyalty and betrayal, friendship and hatred, deceit and heroism… In 140 AD, the Roman Empire extends all the way to Britain – though its grasp is incomplete, as the rebellious tribes of Caledonia (today’s Scotland) hold sway in the far North. Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) arrives in Britain, determined to restore the tarnished reputation of his father, Flavius Aquila. It was 20 years earlier that Rome’s 5,000-strong Ninth Legion, under the command of Flavius and carrying their golden emblem, the Eagle of the Ninth, marched north into Caledonia. They never returned; Legion and Eagle simply vanished into the mists. 
Driven to become a brilliant soldier and now given command of a small fort in the southwest, Marcus bravely leads his troops during a siege. Commended by Rome for his bravery, yet discharged from the army because of his severe wounds, Marcus convalesces, demoralized, in the villa of his Uncle Aquila (Donald Sutherland), a retired army man. When Marcus impulsively gets a young Briton’s life spared at a gladiatorial contest, Aquila buys the Briton, Esca (Jamie Bell), to be Marcus’ slave. Marcus is dismissive of Esca, who harbors a seething hatred of all things Roman. Yet Esca vows to serve the man who has saved his life.
Hearing a rumor that the Eagle has been seen in a tribal temple in the far north, Marcus is galvanized into action, and sets off with Esca across Hadrian’s Wall. But the highlands of Caledonia are a vast and savage wilderness, and Marcus must rely on his slave to navigate the region. When they encounter ex-Roman soldier Guern (Mark Strong), Marcus realizes that the mystery of his father’s disappearance may well be linked to the secret of his own slave’s identity and loyalty – a secret all the more pressing when the two come face-to-face with the warriors of the fearsome Seal Prince (Tahar Rahim).

From the second the opening credits started rolling, I was just about ready to start screaming like a Bieber fangirl, I was so excited. Not. Kidding. FYI: I never want to scream like a Bieber fangirl. But I loved the book that much, and I was ready to love the movie that much. I was thrilled to death. 

From the opening of backstory text floating through the mist to the satisfying, well-earned bang of a conclusion, I never sat still. I went from bouncing in my seat (yeah...) to grinning so wide I was afraid my face would fall off, to then either 1) leaning forward almost out of my seat, hands cupping my face with a look of deep concentration, 2) grabbing my hair at the roots and holding my head in moments of severe intensity, 3) eyes open super wide, mouth open, breath taken in awe of the beauty of Caledonia, 4) one of the above listed expressions/actions while exhaling really hard and whispering, Wow or Oh, MAN! Or else, I was doing something else super whacky that might just confirm the fact that I'm bonkers.

Point being, I was on the edge of my seat, totally engaged the whole time.

Okay, okay, I'm severely biased. Can you blame me??

Fans of the book, I have something to say to you:

Do not, under any circumstances, judge the movie or make opinions or get upset about the tweaks from the original story until the credits have started to roll, the things you saw in the last two hours roll around in your head for a bit, and you figure out what lasting impression the movie has left with you. 

THEN, and only then, are you allowed to decide whether you're still upset about the tweaks or not.

Let me compare the book and the movie for a second. Yes, a few spoilers may end up getting out, but I won't spoil the important bits, savvy?

The book was realistic. In the sense that the scenarios were all down-to-earth, possible and believable. Everything in the book was as real as fact. It was very true to what would have most likely happened in real life. 

The book was gripping and beautiful, drenched in deep characters and harsh, wild Britain.

The movie was, in some parts, less plausible. It was different. Different is not a synonym for bad. Let me establish that before I go further. True, like any adaption, they changed the storyline.... just a little. At the end. And of course, the Seal People is an invented tribe for the film, and doesn't actually exist.

However, you book fans: I'm saying this as a book fan to a book fan: it was really good. They definitely changed stuff, but the things that were important in the book came through. The plot changed at the end. It didn't stay to the book, but it was just as good. Not as plausible as the book, but, and I say this with respect, it's a movie. And for what they did, it was still a mind-blowing good film.

Plus, some of the dialogue was in Gaelic. That was pretty darn cool, let me tell you.

The movie was gripping and beautiful, drenched in deep characters, harsh, wild Britain... and lots of rain and blood.

Honestly, I think Rosemary Sutcliff herself would have applauded the film. I might get all filmmakery and discuss the movie in detail sometime, but that'll be for another post.


It's a rated PG-13 film. I would not suggest that any person under the age of 13 watch this movie.

There was bare-minimum language, very little for a film completely in the soldier's world. Early on someone calls the outpost in Britain a sh-thole, and the rest of the language was mainly p-ss, which, considering the meaning of the word, was actually used appropriately and not as a swear word.

The violence, in general, was off-screen, though what is implied it extremely brutal. The battles themselves were cut in a way that wasn't gory or the in-your-face type of violence. In fact, it was more of the Lord of the Rings-style violence, in the sense that it's very violent, but very not-bloody. They don't show alot on-screen, often cutting away right before somebody's limbs get hacked off or they're stabbed and killed. (Though, in the second battle, they do show a head fall to the ground in the midst of the fighting. It's brief, but not pretty.)

Aside from the adrenaline-pumping fights, a Seal warrior slits his young son's throat, for one thing. Before that, one of Marcus' men is decapitated, and Esca and Marcus come across several bare, headless bodies hanging from trees. Esca comments that the Britons did that. Esca also tells Marcus that when the Romans attacked and took over his land, his father slit his wife's throat before the Roman soldiers could take advantage of her. Completely on-screen, Marcus throws a knife and kills a Briton at the end of a skirmish, and I guess there were a few skulls lying around in a couple scenes. There are other gruesome, violent acts mentioned but not shown.

Also, Marcus is beat up a fair bit by the Seal People, Esca is bruised and bloodied in the gladiatorial ring, and Marcus does have surgery twice: only once time is it depicted, though, and we only see the surgeon's knife hovering above the purple-red-yuck wound in his leg. Esca holds him down as he writhes and groans in pain, but they only show the beginning of the operation before cutting to afterward, when he's back in bed, unconscious. The Seal Prince is killed by Marcus, who, seeing as their fighting in the middle of a wide creek, shoves his head under the water until he stops thrashing. We see his face, eyes open, and definitely dead, beneath the water for a short bit.

I know this sounds like a very violent movie. It is. But oddly enough, it's not overwhelmingly violent. It fit the story, and the violence was not there for the sake of mere blood and gore. It was fitting for the film; the entire violent content was not all thrust at you in three paragraphs like I just did.

Many of the Seal People, the fictional tribe deep in Britain, are half-naked, sometimes with not much but loincloths on. When we first meet Esca, he's a slave in the gladiator ring, and is shirtless with only a pair of breeches on. We also see several soldiers in only their undergarments, but that's because it's the middle of the night when they're woken up to prepare for battle.

There is absolutely no romance. Book fans, I'm sorry. No Cottia. *sniffs* But it's alright, and in fact the absence of any romance is a refreshing thing. (Aside from the fact that one could call the film a bromance, but that's beside the point.)

Oh yeah... and Marcus and Esca, on the run from the Seal People, can't light a fire and have to eat some raw, squishy, pink rat meat for dinner. Nasty.

Spiritually speaking, Marcus prays several times to his Roman gods, and the Druid priest in the beginning of the movie curses the Romans in Gaelic. Also, at the ritual feast/dance thing for the newly-made warriors of the Seal Peoples tribe, it does have a slightly voodoo-esque feel, but it doesn't get super weird, though it's definitely not something young kids should see. The head priest wears a wears mask and has a full-on tribal-priest getup, and there is one moment during a ritual dance that he sticks his tongue and looks.... well, weird. But it was hardly as bad as I thought it might be, and plus, the sequence was fairly brief.

Guern remarks that the Britons cut off the feet of the dead Romans after a battle, so they couldn't walk into the afterlife.


Kevin Macdonald, the director, comes from a background of doing documentaries. That experience paid off hugely in The Eagle, as it feels very, very real. It's just as nitty-gritty as the book. All the scenes beyond Hadrian's Wall are breathtakingly beautiful... sometimes in a rainy, wet, grey way. But it still was so beautiful I wanted to cry. Plus, the music was amazing. In some parts, it was deep-seated cultural British music, sometimes even accompanied by Gaelic singing; in other places it made your heart swell with the epicness as Marcus and Esca gallop around heroically on horses, and still other places got your heart thumping as it upped the tenseness of a battle.

Not to mention the pretty great editing, cinematography, sets and costuming, and of course, superb casting. (My only thought, though, was that Mark Strong's character, Guern, could have been better. I liked Strong in the role, but the way he delivered his lines was almost stilted or unnatural. Almost. And maybe, just maybe, Uncle Aquila was too smiley compared to his personality in the book. Fortunately, he still had the same sense of humor, though. That's all.)
Oh yeah, and the sound design. Oh man, the sound design was to die for.... *sighs wistfully*

On several other positive notes, the film is about honor, respect, friendship, devotion, and other things that many movies fail to uphold. It's about two guys doing something no one thought possible, achieving something of worth, through hardship and sacrifice. Marcus, while he didn't know him for very long, loved his father and was proud of him. Esca's devotion to Marcus because he saved his life holds throughout the film, and the two see each other as friends and steadfast companions by the end. It's also about redemption: for soldiers who fled like cowards from a battle 20 years before who have a chance to re-live that battle and regain their honor. It's an epic, brutal, gut-wrenching, inspirational, adventure of a film that's definitely worth it's two hours.

Given, The Eagle is for the more mature audience, but I highly recommend it. It's the best movie out there right now. Personal opinion. But as in the case of most adaptions, it will likely be appreciated most by those who have read the book. (Allow me to expand on that: people who have read the book, liked the book, and likes movies as a whole as well. Three key components to being okay with adaptions.)

The story is essentially the same as the novel: a grueling, epic tale of two men braving the wilds of Britain to recover a piece of metal.... for the sake of honor and redemption. And while the conclusion is definitely different than the book, it's just as good. In fact, the final scene brings us to back to what the film was meant to be: an epic, dare I say swashbuckling, adventure.

In an interview on set, Kevin Macdonald said that "It's a great, great story. And there aren't many great stories in the world which take hold of your throat and lead you the entire way, and I think this is one of those great stories."

I think he missed something, though.

This is one of those great stories that not only take hold of your throat- but it takes your heart right out of your chest... and never quite gives it all back to you.

A personal thank you to Kevin Macdonald, Duncan Kenworthy, Jeremy Brock, Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Tahar Rahim, Atli Örvarsson, and everyone else who made this movie. I, for one, will hold this film dear to my heart, always. Thank you so, so much. 


Anonymous said...

I found this review very good and straight forward, thanks Director!

-"Bunny slippers"

Georgianna Penn said...

I love big, huge, long movie reviews. Especially when they are on movies I've been DYING to see! ;)

Jake said...

Hmmm...this sounds...intriguing. >_>

Anonymous said...

This movie sounds pretty good. Very detailed review!!

-Barriss :-D

Anonymous said...

Can I just say...this was an AWESOME MOVIE!!! :D

Sue Bursztynski said...

I'm a fan of the book, myself, and I'll go to see it when it opens in Australia - whenever that is. (So, why hasn't it opened here yet?) Last year, I bought a copy for my school's library and one of the students read and loved it. In fact, he read the trilogy, ending with "The Lantern Bearers". Another of my students is walking around with his nose buried in it now. We've all been waiting for this movie!

That said, when I saw the trailer and Marcus yells at Esca, "You're still my slave!' I yelled, "No-o-o!"

Anonymous said...

Having read "The Eagle of the Ninth" several times over the last forty odd years, and genuinely having been looking forward to seeing it transferred to the big screen, I have to say the end result was utterly appalling.

Anyone who extols this mediocre film has clearly not read, or if they had, not understood the original novel. There was absolutely no need to change any of the story as written by Rosemary Sutcliffe. The novel has been read and loved by millions of people down the years. I suspect the same will not be true of the film.

The actor playing Marcus Aquila would have been hard pressed to inspire anyone to do anything, let alone set off into the wild to recover a lost Roman legion's eagle. He was totally wooden and unbelievable. As for Donald Sutherland, he was utterly wasted. Jamie Bell gave a very creditable performance as Esca.

Read the novel and forget this utterly wretched film. As for the final encounter with the Seal People (which doesn't happen in the novel the way it is shown on the film), what was that supposed to be? Custer's Last Stand transferred to the glens of Caledonia in the second century AD? Rosemary Sutcliffe must be spinning in her grave.

Sue Bursztynski said...

The film hasn't opened here as far as I know. Maybe it's gone straight to DVD? I've only seen the trailer. I've heard that Cottia is left out - not good. I thought the actor playing Marcus looked like a Marcus, and I loved the idea of seeing "Billy Elliott" in an adult role. But I cringed when Marcus yells at Esca, "You're still my slave!" when anyone who's read the novel knows he freed him before they left because he couldn't bring himself to take along someone who didn't have a choice in the matter. So that's not my Marcus.

What chance is there of the original TV series being put on DVD? That was wonderful!

The Director said...

@Sue B.
It must not have ever opened there where you are- bummer! However, it comes out on DVD this month, so yeah ;)
Cottia isn't there and neither is Cub, which is sad.
They do stretch out Marcus' freeing of Esca because in a film, that's a very good plot tool and I understood their need to keep some tension between the two of them. He doesn't free Esca until later. Marcus still seemed the same character to me, though, as the Marcus in the book.

I didn't even know there WAS a TV series.... I'll have to look into that.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Yes, there was a British series, about six episodes I think, in the early 80s, with Anthony Higgins. Wonderful Marcus he was too. And that song, "Oh, when I joined the Eagles..." was put to music and played as the theme tune at the beginning of each episode - still remember the tune! :-) But it's not on DVD. There are fans all over the Web lamenting that they can't get it.

The Director said...

Oh wow! I wish I knew about it sooner! I would have loved to see it..... are the episodes online anywhere??

Did they just take the book and turn it into six episodes, or did they mega-add to the story??

Sue Bursztynski said...

They just turned the book into a series. You never know, bits of it might be lurking on Youtube, it's amazing what's up there. I haven't checked. It was for children, but then so was the book. :-)

The Director said...

Wowie bazowie! I'll have to go poke around, now!

Too bad it was never released on DVD.... :(

If that 80's series was super accurate, watching the movie that just came out might be upsetting.... they definitely changed things around. (OO)

Corey P. said...

For the most part, I really enjoyed this film - though my all-time favorite "Roman" film is still Gladiator (2000). :D

I thought Kevin MacDonald's directing was a bit wooden at times (which may be due to his experience with documentaries), but the pros of the movie far outweighed the cons, imho. And Jamie Bell is one of my favorite actors. :)

Meggie said...

Hello Director!

Thankyou for the comment on my blog! Yes, I have watched the movie, if you care to read here is my two bobs-worth.

Personally, everything I found in Marcus honourable and *amaxing* wasnt there in the movie. That kinda let me down, Esca was amazing. I thought they would have kept to the book a little more decently. :( But I was exactly like you. In the last battle, I was on the edge of my seat whispering. "Come on Esca! Marcus were are you- YES! Nooo, quick do something!"
Lets just say my Mum enjoyed watching the movie with me!

I dont think I will be buying the movie, but it was nice to see it al the same.


Pathfinder said...

Finally watched The Eagle.
Loved Esca.
Loved the irony.
Hated how it makes the Scots look like total barbarians. (Not all of us Scots are like that, thanks. :P)
loved the soundtrack. Ovarsson is one of my new favorite composers (and kudos to those uilleann pipe players that could handle a melody like that. My fingers ache just thinking about it...)
Must rewatch without a bunch on commenters...

Are the books good (or better than the movie?)

The Director said...

Glad you liked it! In my opinion, (biased because I read the book first), I find the book to be infinitely better than the movie, and I like the movie alot! The book is MUCH more plausible while still being amazing. So yeah..... ;)

.... do you play uileann pipes?? :D