Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The Eagle – an archaeological movie review

I don't usually do movie reviews on this blog, but as this particular film deals with the subject of the Roman Ninth Legion, I feel its more 'my turf' than most cinematic releases.  As with any movie review, minor spoilers lie ahead.

Just in case you weren't aware, the reason the Ninth Legion strikes a particular chord with me is because of their connection with Lincoln. The Ninth were part of the AD43 invasion of Britain, and reached Lincoln in the late AD40s, building a fortress for part of the Legion on top of the hill, where our castle and cathedral now stand. They would move northwards again, this time to York, in AD71 but would leave behind material evidence of their stay in Lincoln, evidence which is now held at The Collection museum.

So, to return to the film, the first thing to mention with this sort of production is historical accuracy.  I'm sorry to disappoint people (including the guy behind me in the cinema it seems) but despite what the opening spiel of the film says, the Ninth were not lost after a battle in Scotland, and Hadrian’s Wall not built because of the shame of defeat.  In fact, when the film was set (the AD140s), Hadrian's Wall probably wasn't even the northernmost border of Rome - the short-lived but even more northerly Antonine Wall was built about then.  However, seeing as the film is based on the famous Rosemary Sutcliffe book 'The Eagle of the Ninth', it would be harsh to judge an entertainment product on such details, and I don't intend to get all 'up-tight history geek' about it because somebody's belt buckle was 20 years too early for the setting.

In brief, the plot follows Roman centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila (whose surname aptly means 'eagle' in Latin, trivia fans) and his quest, following his discharge from the Legions through injury, to find the Eagle of the Ninth.  The Eagle is a standard - the symbol of the Legion - and his father was killed defending it when the Legion was massacred.  Accompanying Aquila is slave-turned-best-buddy Esca, a native Briton of the northern Brigantes tribe.

I thought the film opened well, with its dirty depictions of life in the army, and some good early battle scenes. The battles in particular were satisfyingly gritty - focussing more on the organisation of the Roman army than Hollywood style exaggerated sword waving. Although the idea that an isolated Roman fort in southern Britain was coming under attack by disgruntled natives seems more suited to the mid 1st Century than to the early 2nd Century, the portrayal of the Romans as an invading 'other', surrounded by hostile locals, was very well executed.   The use of American actors for the Romans and British actors for the Britons was also a good choice - enhancing the difference between them.  References to more recent military events could also be subtly inferred, but were thankfully not overplayed.  In fact, the only picky comment I’d make from the opening scenes is with regards to scythes on chariot wheels – filmmakers just can’t resist themselves having someone’s leg sliced off it seems.

As these early scenes played out, the film gave a sense of not being sure who the good guys were. The native Britons, taking up arms because of lands taken and wives raped, could easily lay claim to be the 'good guys' - the Romans given no moral authority for their invasion and aforementioned offences. As the film wore on, however, this tense and interesting dynamic was sadly lost. As the Roman leading character becomes beset by savage Britons (the imaginary, face-painted and utterly barbarian 'seal people'), the audience is left in no doubt who they are expected to root for, despite the Ninth Legion apparently marching on an expedition of conquest into their lands. An expedition which ended, I should add, with no small hint of reference to what happened to the Legions of Varus in the Teutoburg forest in AD9.

The seal people themselves were a weakness of the film for me.  The generic 'barbarian' stereotype did nothing to conjure up the reality of Iron Age life and culture (even in northern Scotland) and left me completely unable to empathise with them – they seemed more like hunter-gatherers than a settled 2nd Century community. In fact, visually, they made my mind wander to thinking of the Na'vi from Avatar more than once.

Ultimately, of course, all ends happily - the Eagle is returned, everyone we are supposed to care about lives and the honour of the entire Roman Empire, not to mention the Aquila family is restored.  Hooray!

The only other points I'd like to make are about accuracy, and are particularly pedantic, I confess. Firstly, when a map of Britain appeared, it was good to see that Lindum was not overlooked. However, why was there a line of hills where the river Trent should be, and why was Lincoln almost on the River Humber? Minor and picky points maybe, but all you had to do was check a map, people!

Secondly, there was one thing about Aquila’s father that irked me a little.  He was described as the Centurion of the 1st cohort, making him the Legion's Primus Pilus - the most senior of the Centurions.  But Centurions were effectively NCOs in the Roman army - very important men but not the Legion's commanders.  References to his father being infamous as the man responsible (and shamed) for losing the Eagle therefore seem rather odd. Are modern military failings usually blamed on Sergeants?

Overall though, I have to say that The Eagle passed an hour and a half on quite satisfactorily - certainly better than the other recent Roman debarkle 'The Centurion'.  Its gritty portrayal of life in Roman Britain was generally well executed and absorbing, while the essentially odd-couple buddy-movie formula has no major flaws.  Considering some of the Roman themed nonsense Hollywood has spewed out over the years, I have to say that overall, The Eagle gives a good impression of a Roman frontier province.

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