The Eagle

Image: Focus Features
Esca (Jamie Bell) and Marcus (Channing Tatum) saddle up for adventure. Image: Focus Features

Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1954 novel The Eagle of the Ninth was one of three books which, together with early and excellent Latin classes, set me on the path towards classics as a child. The others—Black Ships Before Troy, also by Sutcliff, and D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths—shall always have a fond place in my heart, but it is The Eagle of the Ninth that held me spellbound. The landscape of second-century Britannia was wondrously familiar and strange, and I spent hours tracing my finger over the map at the beginning of the book and matching the ancient names to modern places I knew and had been. Londinium. Aquae Sulis. Isca Dumnoniorum. I loved Sutcliff’s evocation of the variety of people on the margins of Rome’s imperium, and the tensions between them. Romans from Italia, Romans from the provinces; Britons, Celts, and Picts in varying degrees of enslavement and Romanization; soldiers, priests, and politicians.

The Eagle, a 2011 adaptation directed by Kevin Macdonald, maintains some of this variety, and, for the most part, the plot and historical context. Young centurion Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) comes to Britannia hoping to discover the fate of his father, who twenty years earlier marched into the unconquered north and disappeared with the rest of the Ninth Legion. Seriously wounded during the first battle of his first command, he is forced to retire to the home of his uncle (Donald Sutherland) at Calleva Atrebatum to recover. While there, he hears a rumor that the Ninth Legion’s eagle has been spotted north of Hadrian’s Wall and decides to recover it, and, he hopes, his family’s honor. And so Marcus sets out, accompanied only by his Celtic slave Esca (Jamie Bell).

However faithful the plot appears on paper, the tone of the film, and its political subtexts, could not be further from the book. With its dust, cattle, and pallisades, the frontier post at Isca Dumnoniorum looks more like Texas than Yorkshire, an impression strengthened by the Romans’ American accents versus the Britons’ Anglo-Scottish hodge-podge. (Tatum, in particular, has a distinctly southern twang.) Where Sutcliff’s Marcus calmly gives orders to “Shoot me that maniac,” the film Marcus sets his jaw, breaks formation, and charges headlong into the fray. This is a world of individual heroism, last stands, and glory, not tactics and efficiency—more Western than sword-and-sandal. Even Marcus’ doctor seems confused as to what genre he belongs in, extracting pieces of metal from a wound caused by an overturned chariot, not a bullet.

Tahar Rahim as the Seal Prince. Image: Focus Features.
Tahar Rahim as the Seal Prince. Image: Focus Features.

The turn towards an American approach to storytelling and violence becomes disturbing when Marcus finally encounters the Seal People, who (without giving away too much plot) have plenty to hide about the Eagle and its loss. The women and children of this tribe look like peasants in a Scottish fishing village circa Braveheart, but the men sport mohawks, bone necklaces, and dark all-over warpaint. The evocation of Native American cultures is deliberate: Michael Carlin, the production designer, designed the Seal People’s village “as a cross between Celtic stone houses and Inuit tents,” while costume designer Michael O’Connor says that “Marcus and Esca go into an unknown world, just as the first explorers of America did.” (“Making The Eagle,” Focus Features). Is this our only image of a “primitive” society? Is our cinematic vocabulary for victim-as-villain limited to “Native American,” and vice versa? Clearly the filmmakers have Things to Say about American imperialism, but to my mind this is far from the best way to say them.

The intersection between the film’s portrayal of the Seal People and its portrayal of slavery is, if anything, more concerning. The Romans—Uncle Aquila in particular—distrust slaves, but it is the Seal People who most consistently show cruelty towards them. This, problematically, emphasizes the civilization-savagery binaries between the Romans and the Picts and tacitly justifies Rome’s military brutality. In the book, Marcus frees Esca before the journey north, so that they go as friends and equals rather than as master and slave. The film is perhaps more realistic in leaving Esca’s manumission until later, but it utterly changes the nature of the two characters’ relationship, makes Marcus a less sympathetic character, and complicates Esca’s motivations in ways that are not adequately explored or explained.

As wild and wooly (and, often, beardy) as things get in Caledonia, production values south of the wall are fairly high, with convincing images of Roman provincial life. Particularly impressive is the gladiatorial match in which Marcus saves Esca’s life, a muddy occasion at which many audience members seem bored at best. Provincial life, however, is far more narrowly provincial than in Sutcliff’s novel: nowhere do we hear of Marcus’ childhood on a farm in Etruria, or of his father’s previous tours of duty in Judaea and Egypt. This is a purely insular world.

It is also a purely male world. One of the more inexplicable changes the filmmakers have made in their adaptation is to delete Cottia, who is not only Marcus’ love interest but also, as a proud Briton living with her Romanized family, bridges the gap between Roman and Briton. The film’s only female voices are in untranslated (and anachronistic) Gaelic, and, interestingly, the most consistent message about women in the film is that Romans treat them barbarically. (“They are savages,” the Seal Prince proclaims after he catches Marcus eyeing up his sister.)

For all its problems, the film is enjoyable to watch. Tatum’s performance as Marcus rides on his fabulous fight scenes, and, though his emotions remain firmly at the stubborn and suffering end of the spectrum, there is a certain thick-headed charm to him. Bell, as Esca, does an impressive job making the most of the meager amount of inner turmoil the script-writers give him. French actor Tahar Rahim is memorable as the Seal Prince, and Sutherland’s Uncle Aquila provides the sort of knowing wink that communicates contemporary parallels far more subtly and effectively than a Pict with a tomahawk.

And, if the toga-clad politicians, cowboys, and Indians weren’t enough for you, there are some bagpipes waiting at the end.

Hercules

Image: Paramount
Image: Paramount

Hercules is no stranger to the silver screen, and between the wave of Marvel superhero reboots over the past decade and the post-Gladiator resurgence of the sword-and-sandal flick, the stars were aligned for the son of Zeus to make a comeback. Make that more than aligned: Brett Ratner’s filmwhich opened this week, is the second Hercules-themed movie of the year.

Based (controversially) on Steve Moore’s comic book series Hercules: The Thracian War, Ratner’s film occupies a middle ground between the blood-soaked grime of 300 and the murky ethics of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. There’s violence aplenty, but Ratner’s film is about dismantling a myth rather than stylizing it, and its troubled hero manages to avoid the moral queasiness I’d expected of a modern treatment of his madness myth. (More on madness later.)

You know the story. Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) completes his famous labors, singlehandedly slaying the hydra, defeating the Nemean lion, etc., as the jealous goddess Hera single-mindedly pursues her husband’s illegitimate son. But, as the movie informs us after two minutes of CGI-heavy adventure, most of this is…exaggerated. The real Hercules is a skilled mercenary, strong, but not a demigod. After finishing up a job clearing out pirates in Macedonia, Hercules accepts a commission from Lord Cotys of Thrace (John Hurt) and his daughter Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson). The task: eliminate a charismatic and deadly sorcerer, Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann—the character seems to share a homeland and a love of horses with Homer’s Rhesus, but little else). The reward: Hercules’ considerable weight in gold. It’s too good to pass up, and Hercules and his loyal gang set out for Thrace.

This gang was, for me, one of the most startling departures from tradition. Aeneas plays well with others, as can Odysseus and even Achilles when it suits them. Hercules works alone. Even in the one major myth where that is not the case, the voyage of the Argonauts, Hercules quickly leaves his shipmates behind and starts traveling ahead of them, having adventures of his own.

Nevertheless, the gang is, in this version at least, a second family to Hercules and key to his success. Ian McShane has a wry humour as the seer Amphiaraus, and Askel Hennie is truly terrifying as a severely traumatized, berserker-like Tydeus. Autolycus (Rufus Sewell) is there to make snide remarks, Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) provides archery support,  and Hercules’ young nephew Iolaus (played with delightful swagger by Reece Ritchie) manages PR.

Iolaus is, to me, the most interesting addition to the ensemble: his skill as a storyteller not only guides the growth of Hercules’ legend, but inspires troops far more effectively than Hercules’ occasional Nikias-like pep talks. Eager as he is to be allowed to join the fight instead of cheering from behind, Iolaus realistically holds more power than any of his companions. In an age of mass media, controlling the story, controlling the spin, is a vital part of controlling any situation, and imagining Iolaus as an iron age spin doctor allows the filmmakers to explore modern problems of image control and public relations in a way that marries well with older tropes of Rumor and the hero as storyteller. Judging from Hercules’ evident popularity, Iolaus has handled his greatest challenge admirably: he has explained away the fact that Hercules seems to have murdered his wife and children.

The story of Hercules’ madness, most familiar from Euripides’ Heracles and Seneca’s Hercules Furens, is usually an opportunity to reflect on guilt and personal responsibility. At what point do we declare a person mad? Are we still responsible for our words and actions while ill or insane? Do we blame fate? The gods? What are the responsibilities of those of us witnessing such crimes? Before seeing the film, I had been looking forward to seeing how this modern interpretation handled the problem. I expected the gods to be removed from the equation—standard practice for the modern sword-and-sandal—and speculated about influence from modern theories of mental health. It was, I think, the film’s greatest missed opportunity: as successful as Hercules’ PTSD-style flashbacks are as a device for exposition, the final version of the event in this film completely removes responsibility from Hercules’ shoulders.

Perhaps unsurprisingly in this genre, the long-dead Megara (Irina Shayk) is one of few women with any screentime in the film. Atalanta, though handy with a bow, has little dialogue and is dismissed by her comrades as not quite female. Ergenia has a bit more depth to her, but much of it is disappointingly clichéd: she selflessly works to heal the wounded, is motivated primarily by her love for her son, and, in the end, needs rescuing. I was most shocked, though, to find that about 90% of the women in the cast were billed in the credits as either “vixen” or “tavern vixen.” Perhaps the target audience is expected to be as preoccupied with “buxom Amazons and exciting bondage” as young Iolaus?

The battles were, predictably, a “best-of” tour of breakthroughs in warfare from the bronze age to well past the Roman conquest. Alexander’s chariots were there, along with hoplite formation, Roman tortugas, and some exciting cavalry action. In spite of the grab-bag, battles were harmonious (if that is a word one may use about battles), well-paced, and exciting. The one thing that really bothered me was the rate at which the Thracian army changed shields: they went from square Roman-style shields to more oval models before finally switching to round hoplite shields for the final showdown. You would think the costume department hadn’t read Lysias.

In the end, although I was disappointed in the treatment of the madness theme, Ratner’s Hercules is an entertaining and enjoyable summer adventure. No performance is perfect, and historians may wish to avert their eyes during battle scenes, but between Johnson’s warm-hearted and earnest portrayal and the revisioning of Iolaus as storyteller extraordinaire, the film is well worth an afternoon at the cinema.