Tuesday, February 15, 2011

THE EAGLE: Oh, those bloodthirsty pagan Celts!

Happy Lupercalia, everyone! In honor of this ancient Roman festival, today's review seems particularly appropriate. Stories about the Romans in Britain and Hadrian's Wall are part of a strange and growing cinematic micro-trend. It's, odd, isn't it, in an age where we are so terribly modern, with our portable technology and whirlwind mental stimulation, that we should be seeing so many stories drawn from ancient history. We saw a taste of Roman Britain in Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur several years ago: in which both Guinevere (Keira Knightley) and Merlin (Stephen Dillane) are portrayed as being part of a tribe of forest-dwelling Druids. That particular incarnation of the story was based on "exciting new" archaeological findings suggesting that Arthur may have been of Roman, and thereby Christian, origin. Arthur (played by Clive Owen) is portrayed as a Crusades knight whose faith and allegiance are conflicted between his British origins and his Roman military service. A very provocative thesis, really, though not a very likely one.

Kevin Macdonald's story of Roman Britain The Eagle, which opened last weekend, is based on Rosemary Sutcliff's novel The Eagle of the Ninth, about the legendary Roman legion that invaded Britain in the 12th century. If this storyline sounds familiar, you may have managed to see Neil Marshall's Centurion (it was one of the lowest grossing films of 2010), starring Michael Fassenden and Imogen Poots. (If you didn't see Centurion I highly recommend it; a brief review appears here.) This version also pits Roman warriors against Pictish tribes, but the story line differs slightly, and there is no romantic intrigue with a female character (like Poots' sexy exiled witch, Ariane, in Centurion).

In fact, The Eagle barely has any women at all. The main characters are a young Roman commander named Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum, who resembles a young Josh Hartnett (same pinch-faced fratboy look) and his Brigantian slave Esca (Billy Elliott's Jamie Bell). Aquila rescues Esca from death during a gladiator death match by encouraging the crowd to cheer his bravery, and the slave, despite his tribal hatred for the Romans, pledges loyalty. When Aquila, against the advice of his elders (including his doting uncle, a war veteran played by Donald Sutherland) decides he must travel north, beyond the safe barrier of Hadrian's Wall, to retrieve a lost war relic (the golden eagle that topped his father's sword), he brings Esca as a guide. But the tables are turned when Esca's Celtic language skills and tribal connections allow him to gain the upper hand.

Despite the occasionally silly dialogue that makes this feel a bit like a collegiate buddy romp, I liked the look and feel of this film. All of the visual and cultural trappings (costumes, music, Celtic languages, pagan rituals) are nicely authentic, although the northern Pictish tribes are a bit over the top, like refugees from Burning Man. Painted with chalk, and with hairstyles that combine baldness and long dreadlocks, these muscular tribesmen and women prove themselves to be ruthless and bloodthirsty, even with their own children.

The same was true of the Picts in Centurion: and a female Pictish tracker (who never speaks) accompanies the lone Roman also on a pilgrimage to restore lost honor. The decision to make the Celts ruthless and the Romans noble is not just arbitrary; after all, the main documents we have from history that describe the Celtic peoples (including the Druids) were mostly written by Romans. A well-known pre-Raphaelite painting ("A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids," by William Holman Hunt) that depicts the Druids as savages hunting down Roman citizens was obviously what Christine O'Donnell (remember her?) was referring to when she claimed, on Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect back in the 1990s, that the origin of trick or treat at Halloween was based in the fact that "the Druids would go door to door, looking for a human sacrifice." Clearly a more sympathetic portrayal is needed on film. Come on, you pagan screenwriters!

The Eagle doesn't condemn all pagan Celtic tribes: just the Picts. The Brigantians (like Esca) come off fairly well, and the various Northern peoples of Scotland are portrayed as rustic, peaceful shepherds. And the film doesn't shy away from admitting that the Romans have brutally invaded this green and pleasant land and deserve what they get. Thankfully, there is not an abundance of violence or gratuitous fighting here; just enough to be convincing (unlike other medieval era films of 2010, like Robin Hood), and the final battle scene is grand, reminiscent of Lancelot's heroic return in John Boorman's Excalibur. Interestingly, Boorman is also tackling this same story in his forthcoming Memoirs of Hadrian, which will star Antonio Banderas and Charlie Hunnam (star of the excellent FX series Sons of Anarchy). A wonderful article on Hadrian and Boorman's forthcoming film appeared in The Guardian in 2008, showing how in-depth and involved this project is.

The Eagle is beautifully photographed by Anthony Dod Mantle (who worked with Danny Boyle on 28 Days Later and Slumdog Millionaire), shot on location in Great Britain and Hungary. Tatum is somewhat wooden, but the diminutive Bell holds his own, and the many extras that people this ambitious film look straight out of central casting, which is nice to see, given recent failures in this area on the part of TV shows like the BBC's Robin Hood (where the dialogue, costumes and hairstyles are unintentionally and embarrassingly anachronistic).

I hope this new trend of ancient history in film will continue, even with younger and less literary audiences guiding the profit missiles of Hollywood. Maybe we can see stories of other nations, their folklore brought to rich life on the silver screen. Certainly two films on the ninth Roman legion in one year feels legendary.


  1. Nice post. It’s easy to romanticize about the Druids but Caesar wrote about them and was convinced they partook in human sacrifice. The only way they could please the gods was to kill people, criminals if possible but if not, someone had to get it.

    “The whole Gallic nation is virtually a prey to superstition, and this makes the serious invalids or those engaged in battle or dangerous exploits sacrifice men instead of animals. They even vow to immolate themselves, using the Druids as their ministers for this purpose. They feel that the spirit of the gods cannot be appeased unless a man's life is given for a life.

    Public sacrifices of the same sort are common. Another practice is to make images of enormous size, with the limbs woven from osiers [willows]. Living human beings are fitted into these, and, when they are set on fire, the men are engulfed in the flames and perish. The general feeling is that the immortal gods are better pleased with the sacrifice of those caught in theft, robbery or some other crime. But if a supply of such criminals is lacking, then they resort to the sacrifice of completely innocent victims. . . "

    How much of this is true and how much was propaganda is difficult to say, but the chances are there was some truth to the accusations.


  2. I think any speculation on the actual human sacrifice activities of the Celts (including the Druids) is just that: speculation. There's very little archeological evidence, and even less evidence in the form of written records, to suggest anything. It's entirely possible the writings of the Romans were exaggerated or even fabricated. Stuart Piggott's book seems to contain some of the most intriguing historical examination, along with Ronald Hutton's most recent book.