I don't mind historical fiction. I'm not a big fan of when it becomes so popular that it is accepted as fact, but I don't mind when changes are made to a story because that's what it is, a story. The story is fictional and might be based or inspired on truth (take A Beautiful Mind which has an unbelievable story, but glosses over the fact that the main character was really racist as to obviously create an outcome that leaves the audience feeling a certain way). This is the second film where one of my favorite directors, Kevin Macdonald, has tackled fiction based on a historical novel. Macdonald's name is somewhat underrated, but film fans know his work. He won the Academy Award for Best Documentary with One Day in September about the murder of Israeli athletes at an Olympics ceremony in Germany (a film that inspired Tony Kushner and Eric Roth when they wrote the screenplay for Munich) and later made a documentary called Touching the Void (a 127 Hours-esque story about mountain climbers who nearly died). He turned to narrative filmmaking with The Last King of Scotland which is the first film Macdonald made based on a historical fiction novel (the film won Forest Whitaker his first Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Idi Amin). The film was written by Jeremy Brock and Peter Morgan (one of my favorite screenwriters). Macdonald then worked with Morgan (and a screenwriting team that consisted of Tony Gilroy, Matthew Michael Carnahan, and Billy Ray) on an adaptation of the BBC miniseries State of Play (a criminally underrated film). The subject of this review is Macdonald's third narrative film, The Eagle (written by Brock) and based on the historical fiction novel entitled The Eagle of the Ninth.
Both the film and the novel focus on the myth of the Ninth Legion of Ancient Rome that had a golden eagle standard (statue). This legion disappeared in Britain in dangerous enemy territory and was never heard from again. Neil Marshall (The Descent, Doomsday) made a mediocre film last year called Centurion that dealt with what physically happened to the Ninth Legion, but The Eagle takes a different approach. Marcus Flavius (Channing Tatum) is a Roman commander whose father was the commander of the ninth legion. Marcus has faced much difficulty in his military career because of father's fiasco so he finally decides to go into North Britain and look for the golden eagle after hearing rumors of a sighting of the eagle at a dinner hosted by his uncle/father's brother (Donald Sutherland). Marcus asks for the help of Esca (Jamie Bell) a slave whose people were potentially responsible for the attack on the Ninth Legion that led to their believed death. Along the way, Marcus and Esca encounter several personalities such as an ex-legion member (Mark Strong) and a tribal prince (Tahar Rahim) who hold answers that the pair seek in their quest.
The most remarkable aspect of the film is its cinematography. The shots of the landscape are so rich and textured that they speak to Macdonald's documentary background. I did take issues with the film's editing as it destroyed any sense of choreography during the fighting (and these movies tend to rely on that). Christopher Nolan had some issues shooting action scenes in Batman Begins, but that was more his shooting style that ultimately complimented the film as opposed to Macdonald's choice. I'm not saying I couldn't tell what was going on, just that the sword-fighting has this random hack-and-slash style to it that made me miss the days when choreographed swordfights were a part of these swords-and-sandals movies. I remember the swordfights in Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet or a better genre-related example would be the arena fight in Ridley Scott's Gladiator between Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix. They had a sense of style to them that seems to have disappeared as time has gone on (take last year's Clash of the Titans as a leading example).
As for the overall story itself, it may not be that unique or fresh, but Macdonald/Brock definitely keep your interest going so that you don't mind when the film goes over-the-top with coincidental moments and meetings. The film falls into the category of harmless entertainment thanks to several factors. The first, I mentioned above, is the atmosphere that Macdonald and Brock create with the story and cinematography. The second is that this wasn't a CGI-driven 3-D film. The third is the lack of an R-rating. It just goes to show that we don't need blood and gore to have an effective experience. This is slightly better than Centurion yet it is Macdonald's weakest work. It just lacks that energy that Macdonald brought to State of Play that made me stop looking at it as an All the President's Men type of movie. Sadly, I find myself looking at The Eagle as a Gladiator (a recent example) type of movie as it just doesn't rise above the standard set for these types of stories.