Around the year 100, the Roman Legio IX Hispana supposedly went missing somewhere in Britain. Nobody really knows what happened to them.
But that hasn't stopped writers and moviemakers from speculating about what did happen. "The Eagle" is a solid adaptation of Rosemary Sutcliff's novel "The Eagle of the Ninth" -- a gritty, mud-slicked quest movie set in a time when Rome still ruled the world. Channing Tatum is a little wooden, but he's more than made up for by Jamie Bell's subtle performance.
Centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila (Tatum) is the son of the Ninth Legion's commander, and is determined to regain his family honor. But after he's horribly wounded in battle, he finds himself honorably discharged and facing a life of boredom... until he hears rumors that the Ninth Legion's golden eagle has been seen north of Hadrian's Wall. If he can get the eagle, his family's honor will be restored.
The problem is, no Roman has gone past the wall and lived to tell about it. So Aquila sets out to northern Britain, with his Briton slave Esca (Bell) as his only guide -- and quickly runs into deserters, rogue warriors, and the deadly blue-painted Seal People who helped destroy the Ninth Legion. Can they rely on each other long enough to find the golden eagle... and can they make it back to Roman land alive?
Of the three movies made about the Lost Legion in the last few years, "The Eagle" is probably the grittiest and most realistic -- there are no glorious battles, Hollywoodized Celts or Arthuriana. Instead, director Kevin Macdonald fills the movie with mud, rain, cold pale light, grimy little outposts, frenetic small battles and the spare expanses of Scotland.
And for the most part, the movie succeeds. It's a small, lean movie with a lot of underlying tension, and some hauntingly atmospheric scenes like the Seal People's firelit ceremonies, complete with a horned-god figure and lots of dancing/chanting. Also a nice touch: all the Britons speak Gaelic. It isn't entirely accurate, but is a nice change after countless movies where everybody speaks English. Even better, there are no subtitles, so we're as lost as Aquila whenever they speak.
The one downside: the climactic battle is visually beautiful -- it's savage, bloody and wild. But the conveniently-timed arrival of Aquila's allies is just too "Hollywood."
And Macdonald avoids identifying either the Romans or Britons as "bad guys" -- they both commit atrocities, but they both also have good honorable people as well. Esca and Aquila represent both their peoples in this story, so obviously the movie rests on the shoulders of Tatum and Bell. Tatum is rather wooden at first, but he gets more flexible and emotional as the movie goes on; and Bell gives a pitch-perfect performance as a proud young Briton with an iron-clad code of honor.
Sure, there are a few other actors of note in here -- Donald Sutherland and Mark Strong have brief, well-acted roles, and Tahar Rahim does an excellent job as the blue-skinned Mohawked prince of the Seal People, but the star roles are really what this story depends on.
"The Eagle" is a movie that feels very richly authentic, and has just enough mud, blood, rain and heather to make it seem as if you've traveled back in time.