Almost 2,000 years ago, the Roman Ninth Legion vanished. Well, to be more accurate, the history of the Ninth Legion suddenly stops. Flash forward a couple of milennia, best guesses of the are that the Legion was defeated in the north of Britain, and the Romans (who were perhaps even more fond of historical revisionism than we are today) did a little damnatio memoriae and *poof*, the troop vanished.
Enter 1950s era children’s author Rosemary Sutcliff, putting together a museum exhibit with aforementioned theory, along with the urge to write an adventure story to appeal to boys and voila, The Eagle of the Ninth is born.
How we get from a 1954 young adult novel to a 2011 movie, after the central theory has long fallen into disrepute, I don’t know. But “historians” have been kind enough to resurrect the theory for a Discovery/Nat Geo/History/Whatever Channel tie-in.
The story goes that young Marcus Aquila is put in charge of an outpost in Britain (the armpit of the Roman empire) where he must prove his mettle to a cynical group of old hands. Turns out his father was in charge of the Legio IX when it was lost and also managed to the lose the legion’s Eagle, bringing great dishonor to the family and the empire.
Aquila is there to set things right, lead the group in defending the empire where his father failed. He’s torn between loving memories of his father and concerns about how his father might have acted in those final moments.
After an early incident both establishes his character and acuity, and ruins his plans, he finds himself in possession of a Briton slave, Esca, and a story of the Eagle being seen in the far north of the country.
He decides to enlist the help of the slave in finding and retrieving the Eagle.
OK, so this is a buddy movie, between the Roman legionary and the Pict (?) slave, as they travel to the north end of the island and (with luck) back on their wacky quest.
This movie has the unfortunate position of last in director Kevin Macdonald’s (Touching The Void, Last King of Scotland) film canon (on IMDB) and it’s struggling to make back its meager $25M budget, but I’m not sure why it’s so reviled.
It moves pretty well, with the exception of two spots (the part leading up to his first encounter with Esca, and the part where he and Esca are in the Pict village), with some very good action sequences (including a very good hostage rescue scene), and the leads (GI Joe’s Channing Tatum and Billy Elliot’s Jamie Bell) are likable enough, if not outstanding. Donald Sutherland oozes character as Aquila’s uncle.
Weaknesses? Well, the slow parts tend to make the movie seem a little rudderless, some of the action sequences aren’t very good (in the modern tradition of having the camera be so close as to obscure the action), and it has a juvenile (in the sense of a “juvenile novel”) feel to it which is either due to being faithful to the book or completely disregarding the character of the book, depending on whom you ask.
It also suffers in comparison with the two big Roman juggernauts of the past decade, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and the HBO/BBC series Rome. The ending reminds me a lot of Knight’s Tale, in terms of plausibility, fidelity to time, and just general goofiness. But I didn’t mind.
But you could take your 10-year-old son to see it. There are virtually no women to be found anywhere in the movie, except seen briefly about an hour or so into the movie.
And—this may be the pivotal thing—the whole movie is extremely earnest. The plot hinges entirely questions of honor and duty, and whether a man has to put his word above his duty to his people.
It might be that there’s not enough there for a contemporary audience to grasp; the movie is very light on providing support for certain characters’ actions. A minor issue 50, 60 or 70 years ago in (say) a cowboy movie, but maybe a sticky point for a modern audience.
The Boy, a self-confessed Romanophile, enjoyed the movie very much.