Rome’s lost legion

Dr Miles Russell, senior lecturer in Prehistoric and Roman Archaeology at Bournemouth University, reviews cinema blockbuster, The Eagle, which was released on 23 March

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As a child I read (and reread) Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1954 novel The Eagle of the Ninth endlessly, to the point of being able to quote whole chunks of text verbatim. Not healthy, perhaps, but it meant that I approached the film The Eagle with both excitement and apprehension. That a film of Sutcliff’s book had finally been made was thrilling; but there is always the fear of cinematic disaster.

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The story centres upon Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum), a young Roman officer who, after being invalided out of the army, journeys beyond the frontiers of empire with his British slave Esca (Jamie Bell) in order to discover what happened to his father who disappeared with the Ninth Legion in the barbarian North. Marcus is determined to recover the eagle battle standard of the Ninth, but his personal odyssey becomes increasing desperate as the two men enter the hostile territory of the fearsome Seal People.

The film is beautifully constructed and lovingly shot. Hadrian’s Wall has never looked so real (dirty and windswept, its garrison is cold and miserable), whilst the land beyond the reach of Rome has never seemed so alien and otherworldly (with its thick forests and landscapes of jagged stone).

OK, so one could take issue with historical authenticity. Would there, for example, have been small forts of Roman legionaries across south western England in AD 140? Were the Iron Age tribes of north east Scotland living a hunter gatherer existence? Did British war chariots have scythed wheels? Was Hadrian’s Wall even in use at this time (archaeological evidence indicates that it had been abandoned around AD 138 as part of a push north)? But then no film ever manages to get the historic detail exactly right, and, to be honest, why should they?

The key is whether The Eagle conveys a real sense of the Roman past and here, I think, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. The sense that Britannia is a frontier province, Rome’s equivalent of the Wild West, is powerfully depicted. Roman cities are shanty towns of wattle and daub, their amphitheatres timber-seated, rain-washed arenas where convicts and slaves fight squalid battles to the death. Any Romans here are clearly ‘slumming it’; making the best of life so far from civilisation.

Life as a Roman soldier, brutal, repetitive and mundane, has rarely been so realistically portrayed. Troops are well trained and equipped, but bored and cynical; their fort defences are creaky and the latrines are blocked. When battle commences, the soldiers fight in rigid formation, shields locked, swords inflicting industrial carnage. This is the no-nonsense mechanised killing machine that was Rome, not the stylised hand to hand silliness of many a Hollywood epic.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film is the portrayal of the Romans themselves, for all possess American accents. This is a masterstroke: here Rome is an occupying force, out of its depth trying to win the hearts and minds of a people it misunderstands and underestimates. Troops patrolling mountainous terrain, are unable to distinguish friend from foe. They are constantly on the alert, awaiting acts of violence instigated by religious fanatics who behead their prisoners. In this sense the accents fit perfectly, for this is a frighteningly familiar world and, whether or not the film was intended as a critique of modern intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, it places a core of realism at the very heart of The Eagle.

If the film has any shortcomings, it is the incongruous change of pace in the final scenes from claustrophobic thriller to Hollywood buddy movie. This is unfortunate, for this is otherwise a taut and gripping tale with a strong underlying message about the dangers of being a world superpower and not learning the lessons of history.

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You can read more about the lost Ninth Legion in May’s issue of the magazine – out soon