The Eagle

Title: The Eagle

Director/Stars: Channing Tatum (Actor), Jamie Bell (Actor)

Genre: Period Adventure

Year: 2011

Watched: July 7, 2011

Summary: Decent.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

It’s interesting that in the last year or so there have been two movies about the Roman legion “lost” in North Britain during the Hadrianic period. The other is Centurion which I review here. It just goes to prove that Hollywood loves to copy. Two volcano movies? Two Wyatt Earp films? Two Lambada films?

And, to boot, it’s unlikely the legion was actually “lost” (as in militarily). More likely it was just disbanded and the sketchy historical record makes it seem to have disappeared.

In any case, The Eagle is less stylized, and perhaps less anachronistic in terms of it’s action and look than Centurion. However, it doesn’t work as well. Centurion is a very fine chase movie, with almost no character development. The Eagle tries for the latter, with mixed success. The first half works best. Our hero, Centurion Marcus, is posted (on request) to a fort in Britain, proves himself and is injured, then gets shipped out to his uncle’s villa to recover. I liked this opening section, and the film is very well researched from a visual standpoint. The scenery and costumes are great. They didn’t, however, get as much right involving the way in which the Roman army is organized. They insisted on using modern terms like “duty roster” and “honorable discharge.” Roman soliders (of this period) weren’t enlisted out of civilian life. They were either senatorial/imperial appointees (mostly officers) or serving a fixed (20+ year) service.

But I did like this early section. The battle sequences were well done. I liked the crazy druid and his chariot (still in use then by tribal groups in Britain). I liked the legionaries fighting in formation (mostly).

But after recovering, Marcus makes the ridiculous decision to go north of Hadrian’s wall (into enemy Scotland) by himself, accompanied only by a celtic slave who owes him his life. His mission, taken upon himself, is to recover the Eagle (battle standard) lost by his father a decade or so before. He has no idea where it is. Scotland is a big place, full of celts and picts. They don’t like Romans.

But he blunders right into it after riding across some gorgeous wet looking scenery. Again, landscape and costumes look amazing. The movie also doesn’t have a lot of CG, which is good. The natives feel very… well native. I was reminded visually of The New World — a movie of stunning visual lushness about the Jamestown colony. After all that we have an encounter with this seal tribe, a fictionalized Northern British coastal tribe. Their look and ceremonies are wonderfully depicted. Marcus has a bit of slave/master reversal with his friend, but eventually the two grab the eagle and make a run for it, followed by a showdown.

The finale devolved into a kind of anachronistic “all cultures are equal” kind of thinking that just did not exist in the second century. Not only didn’t it exist then, it didn’t even exist during World War I, or any time in between. This modern, intensely modern, way of thinking was formulated during the 20th century. Sure a few people may have thought this way — slightly this way — in the 18th and 19th centuries. But precious few.

Romans. No.

The Roman’s were actually very accommodating and tolerant of foreign cultures and races, radically so compared to medieval Europe, incorporating them in great numbers into their polity. But this stemmed not from any sense of cultural relativism, but from an intense pragmatism, and a world-crushing confidence in the ability of Roman society to absorb and transform.

But back to the film. Overall, I enjoyed it, but mostly from a visual and historical standpoint. The costumes, locations, and sets really are fantastic. It has a pretty ancient feel — ignoring some of the dialog. It’s not nearly as satisfying an adventure movie as Centurion. But it tried to be more. I also appreciate the extremely well done more traditional style of filmmaking. This is no 300, full of garish comic book stylization and whacky CG.

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Movie Review: Centurion

Title: Centurion

Director/Stars: Michael Fassbender (Actor), Dominic West (Actor), Neil Marshall (Director)

Genre: Period Action

Read: Nov 3, 2010

Summary: Surprisingly kick-ass.

I’d completely missed this movie in the theaters, but that’s no wonder because it only played on 19 screens across the country. I hadn’t even heard of it, but I noticed a review while browsing my favorite movie reviewer’s site. Reviews were mixed, but it’s set in 117AD, and as a Roman History buff I had no choice but to order.

Wow. It kinda kicked ass.

This isn’t a film for everyone, certainly not for most women. Like the original Predator, it’s a guy’s film. Set in Northern Britain, this is the story of a bunch of Roman soliders on the run from a group of Pictish warriors (old old school Scotts) who want nothing better than to hack off their heads and carry them back to their village. Now, you actually can’t totally blame the picts, they have their reasons. For the most part, this movie is actually fairly authentic. I mean this in a loose sort of way. It’s not based on any real historical events. The action is pretty crazy, but still, compared to some (cough cough, King Arthur), it makes perfect sense.

The movie is basically one long chase scene, and it just works. The landscapes are gorgeous, and the fight scenes have an intensity that’s often missing in today’s over edited films. Things are a bit grisly, but the camera cuts away quickly. You could freeze frame to see some nice brain splatters and battlefield amputations if you were so inclined. There’s a bit of a problem with the fact that many of the actors look very similar in their military uniforms with helmets or short cropped hair — but that’s why the army has uniforms etc. The actors do a good job given the largely physical demands of the roles. The dialog didn’t make me cringe except for a couple lines right in the intro. The whole thing has a nicely stylized feel without being all 300/Spartacus (the second of these, however, is a serious guilty pleasure). It’s much more realistic than either.

So if you like mano-a-mano sword and survival fighting, give it a watch.

If you don’t care about historic nitpicks, you can stop reading, but because I’m a huge Roman buff I’ll mention the anachronisms that bugged me, although none of them really detracted from the film. There are two female Pictish warriors. They kick ass, and I didn’t mind, but I’d wager my life on the fact that 1900 years ago Scottish society — like Roman — was, shall we say, a tad too sexist to allow women to formally fight. I’m all for the recent trend of sexy girl action stars, my own novel has a slightly anachronistic tough female protagonist, but we should realize it just wasn’t the case historically. The Picts also ambush and slaughter  a roman legion using the old “rolling balls of fire” trick, slaughtering all but about 10 men. I’m not sure that balls of fire had been invented, or that they ever were terribly effective in the field. In this period, leadership, numbers, discipline, armament, and positioning usually determined the outcome (almost always in the Roman favor). There are only a few cases of bald-faced defeats of the Imperial army, and none that bad in Britain, but I guess it isn’t that different than their defeat at Teutoberg Forest about a 100 years before the date of this film. Certain bits about the costumes were a little dubious, particularly the boots. What we think of as modern boots really weren’t in service in the Roman army at this period, even in cold areas. The armor looked accurate though, they were lucky because movies always love to use the segmented look of the second Century, even if depicting a Republican army. The Pictish outfits looked a bit medieval to me, rather than Iron Age, and the women had shoes (sorry girls, such luxuries were mostly for soldiers and hunters in that kind of borderline neolithic society). Oh, and a few too many Picts seemed to speak Latin — I have to wonder how common that was. But all and all it felt fairly second century.