Year Released: 2011
Directed by: Kevin MacDonald
Starring: Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Mark Strong, Tahar Rahim, Donald Sutherland
(PG-13, 114 min.)
"One man with courage makes a majority." Andrew Jackson
This is a modest little film in the grand tradition of those glorious sword and sandal B epics from double feature matinees. Yet it more than makes up for any deficiencies in grandeur with its refreshing exploration of those almost forgotten virtues such as honor, courage, and loyalty.
Not only does it hark back to those older virtues now scorned in the “edgy” narratives now so in fashion, but it is also filmed in the old fashioned way, too. The battle scenes are realistic, upfront and personal. We don’t have a CGI cast of thousands but small bands of men slogging it out, the clash of sword against steel, the quick thrust that makes it through to vulnerable flesh, and the solid Roman battle formations where a cadre of men becomes an armored beast crawling through an onslaught of sharpened blades.
Although the Romans made Britain part of their Empire for over 400 years, starting with Julius Caesar’s first invasion of it in 55 BC, we see that the land somehow seems foreign to them, even as the film opens in 140 AD. Armored Romans row their small boat through what is really no more than a stream, yet they row with the uniformity of a slave gallows ship from Ben Hur days. Even the cows grazing on the adjoining hillsides seem unimpressed their armored overkill.
It is no glorious Roman patch of empire that Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum), a young Roman centurion, takes as his first command. A crude outlay of men and timber whose previous leader has not even waited long enough to welcome his replacement, it reeks of human waste. Marcus Aquila’s first task is to dispatch his men to dig better latrines.
The reputation he brings with him is equally unsavory, since Flavius Aquila, Marcus’ father, brought shame on his family and the whole of the Roman empire some 20 years earlier when he and his famed 5,000 strong Ninth Legion as well as their golden emblem, the Eagle of the Ninth, disappeared in Caledonia in Northern Britain. So frightening are the pict warriors of the North that the Roman emperor seals the whole area off with what is named Hadrian’s Wall after him. Thus, Marcus has chosen Britain for his first assignment, perhaps compelled by a vague boyish wish to restore the family honor.
His family history is well known to the men he now commands, who whisper behind his back and only begrudgingly follow his signal to prepare for a predawn attack he predicts after being awakened by noises only he seems to hear. The attack proves real; his newly ordered battle reinforcements sustain them and so does Marcus, when he takes a small band of men to rescue soldiers held by the horde laying siege to their fort. All too close to real life, this heroism creates permanent injuries that force him to be relieved of his command and spend the rest of his days at the villa of an uncle (Donald Sutherland), who tries to cheer him up with the local Roman pastimes.
But the fair-minded Marcus is disgusted rather than cheered by the uneven fight between an unarmed slave and overpowering gladiator, and he is more than impressed with the slave’s determination when he defiantly refuses to fight. He leads the crowd to spare the slave, who is ultimately gifted to Marcus by his uncle.
Part of the intrigue of The Eagle is the strained relationship that develops between the wounded centurion and his slave. Esca (Jamie Bell) has every reason to hate the Romans who have killed his entire family, yet he is also bound in loyalty to the Roman who has saved his life. When new surgeons remove the bits of metal in Marcus Aquila’s knee, he is no longer a cripple and vows to go north over Hadrian’s Wall to find the truth about the fate of his father, the Ninth Legion, and their Golden Eagle. Esca, who knows the language and the territory, will accompany him, though his Roman friends warn Marcus that the Briton may prove himself treacherous in the no man’s land North of Hadrian’s Wall.
With no knowledge of the land or its language, Marcus Aquila must wait in silence while Esca negotiates with the native Britons, and he suffers from that uncertainty any of us feels when others speak a foreign language. Every nod becomes suspicious, each smile a sign of betrayal. In private, Esca becomes more outspoken, too, interrupting Marcus Aquila’s laudatory description of the Roman way. He tells him about how the Romans killed his younger brother and father in cold blood, and how, earlier, knowing the fate that would befall his mother if she were taken, his father asked her to kneel in front of him wherein he slit her throat to prevent that infamy. “That, too,” he says, “is the Roman way.”
The real test of loyalty comes when the two are surrounded by the fearsome painted men of the Seal people, their bodies made pale by ash, their heads shaved except for a tuft of hair at their crown. (Just add a steel guitar and they would make a great rock band.) Esca reverses reality by explaining away his Roman companion as his slave, while Marcus and we wonder if this is a ruse or the new normal. Just like the B movie series sometimes featured at the Saturday matinees, I’ll leave things here right at the cliffhanger moment.
Now tune into Netflix streaming to see how it plays out.
I will pass on the raw rabbit Marcus and Esca eat when they have to keep their location secret and cannot have a fire. It wasn’t so much seeing them bite into the raw flesh, but the little furless legs and claws that kind of spoiled my appetite.
Let’s go north of Hadrian’s Wall to what is now Scotland and steal one of their staples – good old Scotch Broth. Of course, this is not a mere broth, but a hearty soup/stew, with the distinctive combined tastes of barely and lamb. Just the thing to have in front of a blazing fire on a cold night, served with a round of fresh bread, pulled off and dunked right in.
- 2lb lamb (or mutton) trimmed of fat
- 1 large chopped onion
- 1 large chopped leek
- 3oz split peas
- 3oz pearl barley
- 3 carrots pealed and diced
- 1 medium swede, (turnip) peeled and diced
- Soak the peas and barley for an hour or so
- Rinse under cold water and drain
- In a large pot sweat the onion in a little butter or lard to soften
- Add the meat and cover with water
- Bring to the boil, and skim off the surface deposit
- Add the pre-soaked barley and peas
- Simmer for 30 minutes
- Add the remaining vegetables
- Continue simmering gently until just cooked.
- Remove the lamb bone, leave to cool
- Take meat off bone, chop it and return to the soup.
- Add parsley just before serving.
- Serve piping hot and with homemade bread or rolls
Recipe Source: Scotlands.com